The French have a phrase for it: Succès de scandale. Something that wouldn't have been worthwhile otherwise becomes so by generating controversy. Hearing about Francesco Vezzoli's current show at Manhattan's 21st Street Gagosian Gallery, entitled Sacrilegio, causes one to wonder if the young Italian artist is courting just this kind of success. Sacrilegio consists of a mock chapel (fast becoming an art world cliché), lined with a series of gruesome, larger-than-life size Madonna and Child images patterned after Bellini and Botticelli, their frames dripping like surrealist clocks. The faces of these insincerely weeping Madonnas are cut from contemporary supermodels.
Is Vezzoli baiting the religious, hoping they will be offended enough to protest, thereby immediately raising his art world stock? If so, religious people aren't biting, and the show has only a few days left. Perhaps, following the David Wojnarowicz controversy, the art world has acute scandal fatigue. The New York Times -- no hotbed of religious conservatism -- panned Sacrilegio. We might call Vezzoli's predicament not succèss de scandale, but failure by boredom, insuccès d'ennui. One is tempted to dismiss Vezzoli as The Times did, moving on to the more successful pseudo chapel on display right now in Chelsea, Hermann Nitsch's explosively colorful installation at Mike Weiss Gallery, complete with vestments and altars.
Visiting Vezzoli's Sacrilegio, however, caused me to question this assessment. There is something deliberately sad about Vezzoli's darkened arrangement, as innocent Christ childs stare trustingly not to Mary, but to Vogue. "In conflating supermodels with historical religious icons," explains the Gagosian press release, "Vezzoli points to the societal worship of figures from the fashion and celebrity industries." So you see, it's all subterfuge and critique. Vezzoli's Sacrilegio seeks not to blaspheme Christian faith (it lacks the epistemic fiber necessary to even rise to that level). Instead, the show blasphemes consumer culture, pushing "the sanctification of secular and materialistic obsessions to their ultimate hyperbole."
Sacrilegio suggests our glossy magazine covers serve as Madonnas once did. If Vezzoli's show is disturbing, it's because we should be disturbed by our misplaced trust. Cosmopolitan can't save us. By incorporating his mother and himself into some of the images, we even sense Vezzoli's own grief that he cannot extricate himself from our culture's visual predicament.
So is Vezzoli a genius? The questions can be answered by investigating the effectiveness of his approach. Vezzoli rose to notoriety by creating a fake film trailer from a screenplay by Gore Vidal entitled Caligula, complete with appearances from Vidal himself and actual Hollywood stars. The excessively salacious trailer aped our contemporary culture, commenting on the rotten state of American politics and entertainment. But just what is the difference between Vezzoli's supposedly critical trailer and the real exploitation of actual pornography? Only a thin veil of irony. Vezzoli also produced a fake perfume, entitled "Greed," causing us to wonder whether he is referring to the smell of corporate America or of the art world. Vezzoli criticizes society by amplifying its obscenities. Which is to say, Francesco Vezzoli fights fire with gasoline.
Passion in Venice, a show at the Museum of Biblical Art that overlaps with Vezzoli's Sacrilegio, affords a different corrective to cultural folly. The show traces the development and dissemination of a hallowed medieval icon: The Man of Sorrows, an originally Byzantine image of the suffering Christ that slowly saturated the West. It was especially embraced in Venice, where the type was aesthetically refined by generations of painters, from Paolo Veneziano to Paolo Veronese. The image served across all social classes as a conduit of grief, a Eucharistic symbol, and a motivation to philanthropy.
Is it fair to compare a show at the mighty Gagosian with one at the lesser known MOBIA? In Sacrilegio, Vezzoli dilutes and remixes his homeland's native Madonna imagery; Passion in Venice, however, pours Italian accomplishments straight up. Sacrilegio mourns the loss of centuries of accumulated visual wisdom; Passion in Venice unfurls such wisdom that it might be recovered. The very slim $50 catalog published in conjunction with Sacrilegio tells of Francesco Vezzoli's collaborations with Lady Gaga; MOBIA's substantial $45 catalog grapples with the visual inheritance of centuries, assessing the vast scholarship surrounding the Man of Sorrows imagery and pushing that scholarship ahead.
Most poignantly, both shows portray suffering. Sacrilegio gives us elaborate, caricatured supermodel tears (reminiscent, perhaps even derivative, of Chris Ofili's No Woman No Cry). Passion in Venice gives us the tears of those mourning angels who uphold the dead body of Christ. The catalog describes them beautifully as "individualized and graceful spiritelli tenderly prepar[ing] the Christian savior for his Resurrection beyond the grave." Such tears need no embellishment.
Curiously, the Passion in Venice catalog suggests that the Man of Sorrows was "a figure that sustained faith and piety across three centuries of art in Venice and the Veneto." But why the past tense? The same catalog tells us that the Man of Sorrows inspired British novelist Barry Unsworth, folksinger Richard Burnett's "Man of Constant Sorrow" (made famous by Bob Dylan), the Italian neorealist filmmaker Roberto Rossellini, not to mention artists such as Manet and Cézanne.
Indeed, the choice between Sacrilegio and Passion in Venice is not between thrilling contemporaneity and the dusty Italian past. Passion in Venice concludes with the work of contemporary video artists Bill Viola, who is directly inspired by the medieval tradition, especially the Man of Sorrows. Viola's installation finds fulfillment in being surrounded by its medieval precedent. Therein, incidentally, is the best imaginable future for Vezzoli's mangled Madonnas. Perhaps the success of Passion in Venice will cause MOBIA to host another show inspired by Byzantium, where images of Mary first began to mourn. Then, perhaps, Vezzoli's virgins -- upheld by their nobler predecessors -- might find fulfillment. In the meantime, however, Sacrilegio reminds us of the "gag" in Gagosian, in both senses of the word. But there is too much actual suffering in our world for ironic tears.
Matthew Milliner is a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Princeton University. He blogs at millinerd.com.
Follow Matthew Milliner on Twitter: www.twitter.com/millinerd