The debate over the role of monuments celebrating white supremacy peaked last year after the assassination of George Floyd. That conversation included statues of Christopher Columbus in the United States, almost all of which were not erected until the course of the 20th century, as Italian Americans struggled with how to fit into what has long been called the American melting pot. Most Americans were, and still are, indoctrinated to believe that these monuments are harmless and pay tribute to an adventurous trader who is simply trying to reach India, only to encounter a ‘new world’. That fiction is slowly being replaced by a more accurate portrayal of a genocidal maniac who was not the first European to set foot in America (Leif Erikson beat him by half a millennium) or particularly good at everything but theft, rape and murder.
Statues of the colonizer are often placed in prominent locations, such as in the center of Manhattan’s busy Columbus Circle, named after him. The history of those monuments whitewashes its role in the genocide of the indigenous people of America. This story was first popularized by Washington Irving’s fictional novel A History of the Life and Travels of Christopher Columbus (1828), but also by its association with a campaign by Italian Americans to be recognized as “white” in the United States. Attempts to remove the statues across the country were often met by angry Italian Americans who feel their place in the nation’s mythology is being obliterated and Columbus is being “cancelled.” During a public hearing on Staten Island that addressed Hyperallergic in 2017, residents of the borough, which is largely Hispanic-American, came out with full force to denounce efforts to remove the Columbus Circle statue. One person even claimed, “Removing Columbus would be as obscene as removing the Statue of Liberty.”
With this in mind, I visited John Avelluto’s curious exhibit at Bay Ridge’s Stand4 Gallery, which explores lesser-known aspects of Italian-American history. In the anteroom, Avelluto uses the distinctly Italian-American rainbow cookie and in one instance overlaps them with the Italian-American slang term “Foogayzee” (a phonetic misspelling of “fugazi,” meaning “fake”) and “Manzoenee” (a phonetic rendering of the name of the iconoclastic Italian artist Piero Manzoni), in another. The former is an oversized rainbow cookie made from foam and acrylic paint, while the latter is made from marzipan and hung on the wall with the clunky delight that would fit perfectly into pop artist Claes Oldenburg’s 1962 store installation. Avelluto plans to the exhibition to invite friends and art lovers to eat the marzipan statue with him.
“FooGayZee” (2021) appears to sit atop a Corinthian capital while alluding to the ancient Mediterranean world in which the Italian peninsula takes center stage, as well as the faux decor of Italian-American homes, restaurants and banquet halls, not to mention their shared aesthetic with early American Republican aesthetics (the Capitol and other federal buildings evoke the grandeur and power of ancient Rome). But here the oversized cookie floats just above the capital, emphasizing the illusion. On the wall to the right, four rainbow cookie-like paintings reflect Blinky Palermo’s “To the People of New York City” (1976) and their sharp aesthetic, transforming the more austere German flag colors (Palermo’s birth name was Peter Schwarze, and he was from Germany) in a more lively Italian version. (Schwarze took the name from the famous Italian-American mobster, although no explanation I’ve ever read has given me a convincing explanation as to why.) The sharp edges of Palermo’s dry work give way to the handmade, even hinting at the skilled plaster and stucco that many Italian craftsmen brought from their homeland. Avelluto’s work is titled “To the People of Bensonhurst (after FooGayZee Blinky Palermo)” (2021), and it uses the language of adaptation to re-imagine this, mixing and matching freely.
In the back room, the artist recreates the death mask of the Italian-American inventor and candle maker Antonio Meucci in marzipan and foam. The Meucci House Museum is one of Staten Island’s most popular cultural attractions, and it is also where Giuseppe Garibaldi, Italy’s ‘father of the country’, lived for a few years while he planned and planned for the unification. Every aspect of this exhibit thwarts the idea that Columbus is central to the Italian-American community, and it’s a welcome extension of an identity often stereotyped and satirized as mobsters and genocidal maniacs. The one case that the Italian-American mafia is called upon, as in the case of Schwarze’s name, is a parody that seems to mock the German artist’s attempt at dressing up.
But it is in the corridor, which bridges the front and back galleries, where the most complicated works appear. In “Untitled I-III” (2020-21) Avelluto has taken the trompe-l’oeil tradition in new directions, using acrylic paints to create the rainbow cookies that are so convincing that it takes a while before you can clearly grasp the artifice. see. Set on counterfeit marble-finished shelves, they speak an American language of commerce—like an advertising display—with the intimacy of immigrant hospitality and the excitement of stepping into a favorite bakery. Only at the edges of the board does the visual cleverness come to the fore.
Overall, this show explores the lived reality of Italian-American experiences, with its heroes and culinary and visual markers, along with the language of contemporary art and even museums. This show looks beyond the hysteria of Columbus supporters and the alleged pride he instills in Italian Americans to focus on more substantial and artistically interesting topics. He refuses to capture the Italian identity in America, preferring to avoid clichés for something unexpected. The deconstruction of Whiteness in the US requires more projects like Avellato’s, exploring the fundamentals that have prompted communities to embrace anti-Blackness.
It’s important to mention that Avelluto never lapses into provincialism, as his inclusion of Piero Manzoni (who has no significant connection to the US) demonstrates, and his outlook is clearly influenced by his Southern Italian heritage. Manzoni is an interesting addition to this constellation of work, as he represents a break with traditional features of Italian identity around the world and is best known for canning “artist shit” that is now fetching absurd prices among super-wealthy art collectors. Avelluto doesn’t take this shit seriously though, and if one day a giant rainbow cookie replaces the statue of artist Gaetano Russo in the middle of Columbus Circle, I’ll be very happy.
FooGaySea by John Avelluto will remain at Stand4 Gallery (414 78th Street, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn) until December 18. It was composed by Jeannine Bardo.
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