At once wholly discerning and utterly distasteful, Maurizio Cattelan has become one of the most infuriating visual artists of our time. Propelled by his biting wit and intense abhorrence of authority, the Italian artist's notorious collection of work – over thirty years worth of exasperating performances and alarmingly hyper-realistic sculptures – endeavors to underscore, and ultimately mock, popular culture's manipulation of history, politics, religion, and notions of propriety.
Acutely affected by a childhood of economic, emotional, and intellectual privation, Cattelan exposes the obvious paradoxes laced not only into the mechanical workings of modern society, but into society's definition of what is good – obligation and escape, creativity and theft, life and death – creating work that operates as both folly and cultural critique.
For Cattelan, the '80s and '90s were defined by a series of established limits that needed to be tested. In 1989, he hung a sign on a gallery door reading "Be back soon" in lieu of a traditional solo exhibition. In a similarly indignant episode, the artist fashioned a rope made of knotted bed sheets for a 1992 group show and hung it out a nearby window, suggesting an adolescent's flee from authority, while at the same time sharply questioning the claim to that authority. 1996 found Cattelan flirting with blatant illegal activity, as he stole the work from another artist's show and contrived to call the pilfered contents a Readymade.
For his current spectacle, All, the Guggenheim has suspended every major sculpture Cattelan ever made in the center of the museum's massive rotunda. Hanging in the air like some colossal mobile, the amassed collection – which includes Adolf Hitler kneeling as though in prayer, the Vietnam War Memorial etched with soccer scores, an old woman stuffed inside a refrigerator, and the gigantic skeleton of some unknown mythological creature – functions not only as a retrospective, but as one complete work.
Like the Surrealists, Cattelan derives inspiration from the world around him, tweaking small details just enough to cause anxiety, and ultimately alarm. His humans look more human than we do and surrender more emotion and contempt than we ever will. This is most apparent in the series of taxidermied animals on display. Birds and beasts hide themselves under sheets, carpeting, and floorboards. Horses are stuck in walls and hang limply from their haunches, and misshapen dogs simultaneously fight and snuggle one another.
These animals represent both the power we wield over those more vulnerable than ourselves, and the absurdity of that self-righteous authority. With each step up the Guggenheim's ramp, we are able to see Cattelan's vision of humanity a little more clearly, a little more absolutely. All is concurrently contemporary culture's disease and its salvation, if only we can weed out Cattelan's truths from his gimmicks.
Images: Maurizio Cattelan, All installation shots. Courtesy Guggenheim Museum.