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Paul Thorel, Shezad Dawood, Claire Fontaine, Sigmar Polke
Curated by Sara Dolfi Agostini

08.03.2024 – 30.05.2024

Paul Thorel Foundation – Studio / Archive, Via Vittorio Imbriani 48, Naples

The exhibit Blind Spot is part of an exhibition cycle designed to offer a shared reinterpretation of the archive of Paul Thorel (1956-2020), a pioneering French-Italian artist of the electronic image, pending the publication of the catalog raisonné dedicated to him. The works of the three international artists, Shezad Dawood (1974), Claire Fontaine (James Thornhill and Fulvia Carnevale, a duo founded in 2004) and Sigmar Polke (1941-2010) are part of Thorel’s collection of contemporary artworks, now managed by the Foundation.

In the seventeenth century, Edme Mariotte, a French physicist and founding member of the Academy of Sciences in Paris, hypothesized the existence of a blind spot in the human eye: a point in the retina through which nothing is seen, and whose existence we ignore due to the ability of the ocular system to compensate for the lack of information by filling in the gap. The idea of an image off-screen for the information society but central and decisive for the artist is the focus of this exhibition exploring cultural hegemony and the power of the collective.

In Paul Thorel’s vintage works, there are archetypes, atavistic elements of the collective unconscious that span histories and civilizations-such as the warrior, the mask, nature, and industry revisited in a contemporary and universal key. These images conceived in the 1980s and 1990s, when Thorel gradually abandoned his work as a programmer and creative artist for theater and advertising to focus on art practice, demonstrate an interest in society in an ahistorical sense. The artist explores its mythologies, never crossing the threshold of the noise of current events and ideological propaganda.

It is this quest that is echoed in Cairo Crowds (2011), successive, large-format photographic works inspired by the indistinct and entropic crowds Thorel measures himself from his computer screen during the Arab Spring (2010-12), when YouTube channels became receptors for videos and reports shot by civil society with mere smartphones, in open protest of the control over the media exercised by the Egyptian government.

The exhibition continues with Little Sambo Goes to War (2007), a painting by Shezad Dawood, an artist of Pakistani origins born and raised in the United Kingdom. It is his biographical story moving between cultures and countries, empire and colony, that pushed him to focus on critiquing binary formulations such as the clash of civilizations between East and West, and to subsequently broaden his research to the structural and systemic conditions that construct the relationship between nature and civilization in the monumental work Leviathan (2017-).

In his work, the artist employs a multidisciplinary approach, often employing dark humour, to undermine the ideological narratives and conveniences surrounding the numerous overlaps, contradictions and shifts in meaning between apparently competing cultural and political systems. The artwork, from his early Gothic Western series, is an oil on canvas that seems to respond – with a reversal of perspective – to the archetypal figure of The Warrior (1993) by Paul Thorel. Dawood’s subject is the same, but the contours are barely outlined with strokes of color on a black background that seems to absorb them, and the title is sharp and challenging, drawing attention to persistent racialised tropes aimed at people of colour and indigenous communities alike.

At the top, in front of the entrance, are two works by Claire Fontaine, a pseudonym for James Thornhill and Fulvia Carnevale, two artists who have been working together since 2004. In calling themselves a “ready-made” artist and in choosing a fictitious female name, Claire Fontaine seems to suggest various levels of reading to her work, from the socio-political to the conceptual, from current events to art history. Indeed, on the one hand, she appropriates the trade name of the eponymous brand of school supplies and stationery, but on the other she explicitly pays homage to Marcel Duchamp, his tongue-in-cheek puns and his invention of a female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy, who first appeared in 1920 to mock presumption and cultural values of the bourgeoisie of the time.

The two neon yellow and blue are respectively the English and Arabic versions of Foreigners Everywhere (2005-), the work that inspired and gave the title to the 60th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. With two words, Claire Fontaine summarizes the paradoxical condition of the human being, the powerless victim of a geo-political system marked by exclusion, and the repercussions of this system on cultural production and the definition of an identity, which remain the exclusive expression of a hegemonic power.

Finally, Sigmar Polke’s ensemble work Untitled (Salto arte) (1975) presents a total immersion in the political climate of contestation of the time and a choral, in some ways chaotic, formalization of artistic thought, in stark contrast to the metalinguistic rigor of Paul Thorel. Polke was in fact the militant and subversive artist who challenged bourgeois social norms in a radical way, attentive to hippie and proto-punk cultures, movements of political dissent, and the social utopias pursued by his generation.

The work is part of a performative and communal practice to which the artist was particularly dedicated in the 1970s, during a period of fusion between art and life. The occasion is the opening of the exhibition “Je/Nous” at the Musée d’Ixelles (May 23, 1975), an international event with the likes of Joseph Beuys. Polke, his friends and collaborators undertake an art event in support of POUR (écrire la liberté), a Belgian far-left magazine that had been temporarily censored. In the six panels that make up the work, the creative force of the collective converges, including graphic signs, lithographs, polaroids, posters and objects.