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At first blush, the crumpled 55-gallon oil drum spilling its contents onto the gallery floor gives the impression that Frost Art Museum's new show might be a knock on the high price of gas or an ironic ode to car culture.
"Gran Torino," however, is not a stab at America's love affair with the muscle car or a nod to the Clint Eastwood flick of the same name.
Instead it offers a revved up look at the work of artists hailing from Turin, Italy, that nation's version of Detroit and headquarters to automakers Lancia, Ferrari, Fiat, and Alfa Romeo.
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"Most people know us best as the home of the Shroud of Turin," says Paolo Facelli, who along with Francesco Poli curated the didactic sprawling group show. "But we are an international center of the contemporary arts and one of the birthplaces of arte povera."
Their high-horsepower exhibit boasts 30 works by 30 artists created using a broad arsenal of materials and styles, and features artists that emerged during the '60s, '70s, and '80s, along with a newer generation that has surfaced over the past 15 years.
The show — culled from private international galleries and collections, as well as from the collections of participant artists themselves — was more than a year in the making, and there are plans to take it across the U.S. and Europe after it leaves the Frost.
The show consists of paintings, sculpture, photography, video, and mixed-media installations. It includes big-name artists such as Michelangelo Pistoletto, Mario Merz, Nicola Bolla, Luigi Mainolfi, Filippo di Sambuy, Botto and Bruno, and Fabio Vaile.
Those artists were influential in the development of arte povera (poor art)-style and contributed to the evolution of the Italian avant-garde over the past four decades, according to Facelli.
"Turin is a critical center of the arte povera movement and also one of Italy's most important industrial hubs," the curator says. "Turin is a lab city. Italy's first highway was built there. Our first radio transmission was sent from there, and our first flight took off from there. It was an environment ripe for artistic experimentation at the time."
Arte povera was a term first used by Italian art critic and curator Germano Celant in 1967 to describe an emerging art movement characterized by the use of unconventional materials to shake the status quo. The movement's heyday lasted until 1972, but its influence endures today and echoes across the show's newer works.
"Figures such as Pistoletto, Merz, Alighiero Boetti, and Giuseppe Penone, for example, all used industrial or unusual materials during the late '60s and the '70s, rejecting traditional modes of expression such as oils on canvas or carved marble in their works," Facelli says. "It was a way of exploring new and experimental approaches to creating work during a challenging and radical time."
The movement's penchant for employing a diverse array of materials can be seen in a 1972 piece by Pistoletto that combines the quotidian with art. In The Rabbit, Pistoletto painted a skinned hare strung by its hind legs onto a mirror.
By employing the unexpected surface to render his immaculately executed image, the artist, who often explores themes of reflection in his oeuvre, hijacks unsuspecting viewers into his piece; it's a commentary on vanity.
"He was holding up a mirror for individuals to examine their roles in the greater culture," Facelli explains. Pistoletto was also experimenting with the concept of vanitas and referencing 17th-century northern European still lifes that contain symbols of mortality and the impermanence of material things, Facelli adds.
Early arte povera artists such as Penone were interested not only in scientific advances, but also man's relationship with nature.
The artist is represented by Il Suo Essere Fino al 49°Anno di età in un'Ora Fantastica, a soaring, papyrus-like scroll depicting a tree. Penone used a frottage technique, rubbing a pencil over the tree's trunk and branches to create the unusual piece. For the artist, the tree, a living organism resembling the human figure, was central to his work. The traces of the tree reflected communion with natural forces and watchful stewardship of our environmental resources.
Perhaps what's most intriguing about the exhibit is how arte povera has continued to influence a younger generation of artists from Turin.
Several of them have raced past the old guard, shifting into high gear when it comes to their choice of media, while at times making sharp hairpin turns with their work.
Among these is Fabio Viale. His Souvenir Giaconda, sculpted in 2008, is a hand-carved statue of the Mona Lisa that at first glance appears to be crafted from Styrofoam. But once the eyes roam over what looks like the round dimples and dents of the familiar packing material, the viewer realizes the slick opus is, in fact, chiseled out of white Carrera marble.
Nicola Bolla is another artist whose uncanny 2008 sculptures bore into your head. In Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, and Spades, Bolla has created four life-size skulls using only plain decks of playing cards to craft each work. Each of the quartet of leering skulls is rendered from the individual suites of cards.
A perfect example of cross-pollination and hybridization can be found in Paolo Grassino's Decants, which was created in 2007 from aluminum, resin, and cement. The artist's two eerie figures are pocked over with scores of tin funnels that recall the white truffles Turin is famous for.
One of the life-size mutants stands behind another seated figure. Both of their squid-ink heads and part of their torsos are drilled through with the unsightly sprouts. The apparitions do not communicate, even though the odd orifice-like funnels hint at open, metal mouths.
And what show celebrating Turin is complete without toasting the region's fine wine?
"Gran Torino's" pièce de résistance might well be Enrico Iuliano's 2005 eye-popping installation, Composition for Glass Objects on Vespa. In it, the artist used a nifty Italian scooter saddled with copious glass jugs that appear to be full of a hearty Barollo wine. His motorbike straddles a rectangular fountain full of the blood-red fluid trickling into the limpid tub then back into the jugs.
"One of the amazing things about this show is how you can trace the lingering influence of arte povera strategies on these younger artists," Facelli says. "This younger generation has continued expanding the boundaries of experimentation with mundane materials while still referencing the local culture in their works."