As suggested in the cheeky title of this exhibition, ‘The marquis and a bearded dominatrix with a cake in the oven’, Angelo Filomeno’s work evokes a hybrid world of crossings, travesties and up-endings: domesticity and domination, aristocratic aplomb and stark morbidity. Of course, as we know from the most renowned marquis of all, Sade, such registers were never mutually exclusive. Filomeno’s hand-blown glass sculptures – displayed in an installation-like arrangement on a large black table, the centre-piece of the exhibition – evince this alchemy in a nutshell. In this work, By the Side of the Last Ocean Ready for Sunset (2008–9), the detail and fragility of crafted glass are countered by the pitch-black opacity, solidity and brooding thematics of the same objects.
Like the petrified remains of some satanic ceremony, the table’s wares appear to be arranged in no particular order, yet frozen in a kind of ceremonious precision. Several skulls sprouting prodigious teeth and horns are mixed among mysterious instruments or tools; the tip of a tapered vase-like object curls to pierce the empty eye-socket of a horned skull. Coiled among these like a dormant, barbed serpent, sits a woven leather whip. If the exhibition’s eponymous dominatrix was evoked in this object’s presence, the viewer was hard-pressed to find any attendant ocean, sunset or other natural phenomenon. Even the art-historical referent of the vanitas seems dispensed with, notwithstanding the proliferation of skulls.
Were glass sculptor Dale Chihuly to collaborate with H.R. Geiger it would probably look similar. But Filomeno is strongest when he follows the material exactitude of the former rather than the macabre titillations of the latter. More striking than the bathos of his deformed crania are Filomeno’s unidentifiable objects – tools or talismans, perhaps? – whose particular creepiness lies in the inscrutability of their morphologies.
A similar paradox of effects and materials was visible in the show’s other works, namely the large, woven silk pieces in the same gallery. Embroidered (again, presumably by hand) in a silk shantung material, there is a tension between the bright colour, delicate facture and decorative shapes of these works and details and titles that strike less wholesome notes: the two Dream of Flies pieces (both 2010) reveal diminutive insects at the centre of their glowing, concentric patterns. Literally woven into the delicate handiwork of Laughing Philosopher (2010) and the smaller I am Feeling Cold (2008) is a heavy-handed evocation of a leering, gruesome skull and a skull mounted by a lobster. This contrast between registers, moods and media is more evenly reconciled in the ‘Days of Pain’ series (2009). The relatively coarse grain of these dark works on hand-dyed burlap depict anatomies relatively restrained in their deformations; the play between likeness and monstrosity is more subtle here.
The same cannot be said of Dream’s Essence (2010), which features a chunk of smoky quartz driven into the crown of a bronze skull, striated with faux streaks suggesting dribbled candle wax. Perhaps the dripping kitsch here is ironic; perhaps the joke is on us. But the proverbial tongue does not seem lodged in the skull’s pinched cheek, as it were. Such an object would be more at home on the incense-steeped shelves of a new age ‘Gothic Shoppe’ than perched on the wall of a Chelsea gallery. Of course such categories have been exploded for a hundred years. But since Filomeno seems attuned to the nuances of mixed messages and mixed media, he would do better to leave such objects to the head shops on Bleecker Street rather than mimic them only half-heartedly.
First published in Issue 135