When I arrived at Gaetano Pesce’s first New York solo exhibition in 25 years, the designer had just stormed out. I was told that a reporter shooting a video had asked the maestro to say his name on camera, and Pesce, feeling he should require no such introduction, ended the interview abruptly.
After making celebrated work for decades, perhaps you earn the right to leave your own opening, and the exhibition of more than 40 objects at Fred Torres Collaborations in Chelsea cherry picks from several periods in Pesce’s prolific career. The show takes its title from L'Abbraccio, a 2009 cabinet in the form of two figures embracing. Like the worst of Pesce’s work, it veers into cutesy eroticism, but other recent objects show him at his best, coaxing a weird sensuality out of cast resin and other industrial materials.
A series of resin vases from 2012 have the seen of glossy manufactured products, but they also appear smeared together by hand. They find their spiritual totem in a Italia in croce, 2010, a large black cross with a mass of dripping globs of plastic hanging from it like a partially disintegrated body. An evocative but inscrutable figure, it has its antecedent in the strongest room in the exhibition. There, Torres has assembled a model and drawings from Pesce's Subterranean Rooms, Part 1, 1971, a sci-fi invention last shown in the exhibition Italy: The New Domestic Landscape at the Museum of Modern Art in 1972. The model, finished in a semi-reflective brown lacquer, imagines an underground bunker-like dwelling with a communal habitation for twelve people and a smaller unit for two. The vague backstory suggests that the domicile dates from the year 2000 and was built by a group of people in Southern Europe who sealed off their subterranean city from the world above. Using sharp vertical pencil lines smudged and erased to suggest cave-like lighting, the moody drawings on the surrounding walls depict slumping or contorted figures inhabiting the spaces laid out in the model. A video panel plays a sepia-tinted film, Passaggio domesticao (Scene di vita famigliare), 1971, in which actors languidly assume postures similar to their counterparts in the drawings.
The early work shows Pesce using figures in architecture to create a sympathy between the human and the artificial that carries through to his most recent output. The kinship he establishes between the body and fabricated objects is everywhere in the show, even if at the opening, Pesce himself was nowhere to be found.