The presence of the famous, the gorgeous or the gifted can be a fairly stultifying experience unless you happen to belong to one of these categories yourself, or the Gods of social anarchy wish to grace you with new material for your repertoire of anecdotes. It's understandable that most mortals are content to negotiate stars from a safe distance, preferring to encounter them in magazines, encased on wide-screen TV or compromised in the tabloids. Francesco Vezzoli, however, doesn't seem in the least daunted by the allure of those he admires. Vezzoli likes indulging his fascination with figures cast in the limelight and his penchant for glamour, nostalgia and intelligent tragi-comic clashes of high and low brow, from Jean Cocteau to Dynasty. A detailed description of Vezzoli's work involves an exhausting amount of name-dropping. References to starlets, former models and an assortment of, in one way or another, off-beat, often queer cultural greats appear in his work, evoking either fond recollections or generating, in a snooty but generous fashion, a rewarding reading and viewing list.
Despite this, there was nothing overburdened about his recent exhibition in Leipzig 'Die Handarbeiten von Francesco Vezzoli' (The Needlework of Francesco Vezzoli). Curator Jan Winkelmann organized a satisfying double billing by pairing Vezzoli with Andy Warhol, which made sense because it allowed Vezzoli to select works that related both thematically and formally to the Warhols. On show were a mix of new and older works unified by Vezzoli's leitmotif, embroidery. In his hands needlepoint has a touch of the voodoo about it - it's a way of getting stuck into a persona with a fine needle. In Vezzoli's Leipzig antechamber was Maria Callas Played 'La Traviata' 63 times (1999), an impressive collection of black-and-white stills laser-printed on embroidery mesh and showing the head of the diva in full flight: a tribute to the striking emotive power that one face can generate and a respectful audit of the Callas look. Here and there Vezzoli stitched blue metal thread onto the uncrowned queen of eyeliner's degraded high-contrast image. One shows Callas applying the brush to a lid and holding a mirror but not looking into it - presumably because she was so practiced she didn't need to.
Vezzoli has produced a number of videos that are already well travelled. In this exhibition he presented again his lush borderline series 'An Embroidered Trilogy', which includes OK, the Praz is right!; Il sogno di Venere (The Dream of Venus); and The End (Teleteatro) (both 1997-9). All three feature known guest directors, charismatic ageing divas, fabulous costumes, special locations, music and cameo appearances by the artist, who sits around like a neo-dandy sewing mini-portraits in a disengaged way. The first clip was shot at Museo Mario Praz, Rome, the former home of the intellectual who inspired the character of the professor in Luchino Visconti's Conversation Piece (1974). Its star Iva Zanicchi - a former Italian pop singer and host of the game show OK, The Price is Right! - sings a sad song, as she did for the soundtrack of the Visconti film. Such connected threads are integral to the works. The second clip is an outrageous cabaret in which Franca Valeri performs to Kraftwerk's Das Model (The model, 1978). In The End (Teleteatro) Valentina Cortese gives a tour of her over-the-top apartment while reciting the lyrics of The Beatles' song Help (1965) as if it were a matter of life and death. Meanwhile Vezzoli is immersed in a portrait of Douglas Sirk. The 'Trilogy' can be seen as a perfect camp retort to the sanctimoniousness of Matthew Barney, who uses similar ingredients. It is also a carefully constructed network of major and minor sources and cross-gender identification.
Newer work in the exhibition pursued a straight-faced investigation of gender-bending and self-representation through the vehicle of the black-and-white headshot. For these works, Francesco by Francesco: Before and After (2002), Vezzoli appears as a sensitive, unshaven artist type and then as a virtuoso in black tie; in another similar work he does an effortless Scavullo-style Brooke Shields drag. Vezzoli, like Warhol, gets deep, by investigating the allusiveness of surface and the abstractness of personality.
First published in Issue 71