arts and design

Ugo Rondinone review – art with a holiday air

Blue horses made of glass and watercolour sunsets over the ocean. Abstract lumps, like the profiles of wind-smoothed rocks, towering precariously on white walls. Art with a holiday air, then. Fifteen horses, no bigger than foals, stand about in the gallery. The most important thing about them might be their equine patience and stillness. Neither together nor apart, the horses stand through the long gallery day, a head lifted or dropped, angled this way or that, none quite the same. I register their small differences, as though they were indications of character.

Regardless, they’re made of glass and they’re blue, indigo and turquoise, sea-green and ultramarine, the light going through them, shining their flanks and refracting through their ears, a penis, an emergent tail. Thick-legged and unassuming, each is named after a different sea: Bering and Baltic, Andaman and Ionian, East China and Arabian.

I think of art historical horses, ancient sculpted and mythological horses, academic bronze and marble mounts for generals, kings and emperors, of kitsch sculptures and horrible paintings of stallions galloping in the surf by moonlight. I also think of Jannis Kounellis’s 12 live horses, corralled in a gallery in Rome in 1969.

Ugo Rondinone’s a sky . a sea . distant mountains . horses . spring .
Ugo Rondinone’s a sky . a sea . distant mountains . horses . spring . Photograph: © Ugo Rondinone, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

But most of all I’m reminded of other works by Ugo Rondinone, his flocks of small birds that peck at gallery floors, squabbling and staring up at the passing people. For a while, he sculpted a bird a day. I recall his shoals of fanciful fish suspended mid-air from gallery ceilings, floating among us in the deeps, and his troupe of lifesize and gaudily dressed clowns lounging about, doing nothing in the museum where I saw them once in Rotterdam. He’s filled galleries with 47 little bronze horses, each not much bigger than those birds, in a 2013 work called Primal. All these sculptures evince a kind of companionability as well as solitude and apartness, and being with them leads one into a drifting state of mind, and letting time pass slowly. Which I think is a good way of looking at them too.

The flaws in the surface of the glass, the pockets of air and voids within them, their variable opacity – going from the velvety dark to glistening translucency – almost give these horses a sense of life. Each is cast using two distinct blues, bisecting the cast horizontally; each horse contains its own horizon, a centre of gravity and equilibrium. Take this horizon as you will – a limit of consciousness and self-awareness, a manifestation of boundedness and, it occurs to me, the horizon of death.

Horizons also play their part in Rondinone’s watercolour on canvas seas. They contain nothing much more than a horizontal division and a rising or falling sun or moon depicted schematically. Except where the layers of thin brushstrokes feather apart as they approach the canvas edge, the paint is flat and uninflected. Often, the horizontal and the floating disc are marked not just by flat colour changes but also by a minuscule separation, a single exposed cross-weave in the nub of the cloth, where the blond canvas grins through.

Ugo Rondinone’s dreiundzwanzigsterjanuarzweitausendundeinundzwanzig, 2021, accompanied by Perspex plaque oil on canvas, Perspex plaque overall: 528.3 x 386.1 x 5.1 cm / 208 x 152 x 2 in.
Ugo Rondinone’s dreiundzwanzigsterjanuarzweitausendundeinundzwanzig, 2021, accompanied by Perspex plaque oil on canvas, Perspex plaque overall: 528.3 x 386.1 x 5.1 cm / 208 x 152 x 2 in. Photograph: © Ugo Rondinone, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

In one instance at least, tiny pencil flecks sit on the raised part of the canvas grain. Rondinone’s attention to the smallest detail implies a kind of devoted application, and acts as a reward for the observant viewer. I don’t know how much these paintings relate to the observation of real weather, atmosphere and light conditions, although their German titles – one reads “zweiundzwanzigsterjanuarzweitausendun deinundzwanzig” – indicate that they might.

The Swiss artist painted them overlooking Long Island Sound in the house he shared with his husband, the poet and artist John Giorno, who died two years ago. These small, unassuming paintings line the upper gallery of Sadie Coles’ Davies Street gallery. Downstairs, several multipart, eccentrically shaped canvases climb the double-height walls. Relating to the artist’s Magic Mountain sculptures, in which huge rocks are piled atop of one another in totemic arrangements, each rock painted a different, shrieking DayGlo colour, these arrangements of eccentrically shaped single colour canvases are stacked with a kind of gloriously slapstick teetering balance.

It is all an act: although touching one another, with the bottommost canvas grazing the floor, the individual parts of each work are hung rather than physically sitting on top of one another. Each canvas has been rapidly filled in with colour, playing fast and loose with the canvas’s shaped edge, accentuating their acrobatic visual comedy. Sometimes there are handprints in the paint, and the imprint of the artist’s bare feet, upsetting the sense of the vertical and horizontal. There’s a sense too of energy and poise, optical balance and precarious equilibrium, the opposite to the static, quiet precision of the small seascapes, or the equipoise of the horses.

Called “a sky. a sea . distant mountains . horses . spring .” Rondinone’s disarming exhibition is all a kind of balancing act. The thing about acrobatics is to make the whole thing look effortless, and to make the labour immaterial.


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