Featuring cryptic handwritten text components and multitudes of miniature figures linked to one another by arrows and lines, Italian artist Gianfranco Baruchello’s paintings seem to map the fragmented, chaotic process of thinking. Baruchello’s first survey in the UK, curated by art historian Luca Cerizza, spanned his career from the early 1960s (when the self-taught artist began to make art after a few experiments in poetry and literature) to the present day, including more than fifty paintings and a selection of films and diorama-like sculptural tableaux in wooden boxes.
In a 2012 interview in Flash Art, Baruchello stated that the way the brain functions is a central concern in his work. This theme is perhaps most directly conveyed in a 1966 painting, Il Kodardo Para-Quore (whose nonsensical-seeming title is translated in the exhibition material as “The Offal Koward”). The upper half of the composition depicts a human brain, while the lower portion features an intricate diagram—made of enigmatic phrases (some of them puns in Italian) and tiny renderings of objects (including a knife and what seem to be elements of a mechanical gear)—that appears to illustrate the organ’s inner workings.
Baruchello’s aesthetic seems worlds away from that of Arte Povera, the prevailing Italian art movement at the time he was developing his work. While Arte Povera artists challenged the gallery system’s commercial dynamics by making sculptures and installations out of “poor” materials, Baruchello’s interests were more idiosyncratic and personal. In Autoritratto travestito da ipotalamo (Self-Portrait Disguised as the Hypothalamus, 1963), he represents himself as the portion of the brain responsible for controlling emotions and sexual response. These bodily conditions are also explored in La piena dei sentimenti sembra indicare la prossima fine dei sentimenti in piena (The Flood of Emotion Seems to Indicate the Approaching End of Emotion in Flood, 1972). At the center of the painting—which is rendered on aluminum, a material that allows the artist to achieve incredible detail—is an image of a wheeled apparatus hung with male sex organs that seem on the verge of activation by an inflated organlike mechanism whose imminent contraction would trigger the titular “flood of emotion.”
Images of mechanical elements, often accompanied by hammers and screws, recur in Baruchello’s paintings. The artist, one could argue, attempts to render unpredictable, unquantifiable phenomena (such as thoughts and emotions) through a hyper-mechanistic visual vocabulary. The mechanical components he represents suggest an affinity with Duchamp, whom he met in Milan in 1962. (In fact, a concurrent exhibition at Massimo de Carlo in Hong Kong paired works by the two artists.) The sculptural tableau Nous, nous désirions qu’Ulysse ne rentre pas (We Would Not Like Ulysses to Return Home, 1976) includes reproductions of the machinelike shapes from the French artist’s The Large Glass next to the inscription MARCEL DUCHAMP DOCTOR HONORIS CAUSA.
One of the exhibition’s highlights was the selection of Baruchello’s films. The 16mm Verifica Incerta (Disperse Exclamatory Phase) (Uncertain Verification [Disperse Exclamatory Phase], 1964–65), which he made with experimental filmmaker Alberto Grifi, is an assemblage of extracts from Hollywood movies from the 1950s. Here, collage techniques create unexpected and surreal combinations of images, as in a frenetic montage juxtaposing fights from Western movies with clandestine hotel-room rendezvous. Like Baruchello’s paintings, his filmic experiments deconstruct notions of narrative, employing fragments and visual clashes to trigger surprising chains of mental associations.