In South Australian-based artist Aldo Iacabelli’s exhibition of new works, A Conversation with Jheronimus, the artist engages in an imaginative response to the work of the early Renaissance Dutch painter Jheronimus Bosch, and in particular one of the artist’s final works, The Haywain triptych (1512-1515).
Bosch cast aside artistic conventions of the time to develop a highly personal pictorial style that was characterised by formal and iconographic invention. He was recognised in his lifetime for his idiosyncratic and macabre vision and has continued to influence artists from the Surrealists to contemporary artists such as the British Chapman Brothers.
Iacobelli, now in his 60s, has over four decades of artmaking experience. He trained as an artist in the 70s and 80s and his approach to artmaking has been shaped by the methodology and principals of conceptual art. His practice is guided by a set of concerns including, but not limited to, contemporary politics, art history, popular culture and as a Catholic, working-class migrant from Naples, Italy to Australia at the age of sixteen, an ongoing investigation into place, culture and artistic traditions. In South Australia Iacobelli has exhibited for close to thirty years as both a solo artist and in group exhibitions in a myriad of visual art institutions but linked closely the Experimental Art Foundation (1974-2016) and the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia (1942-2016), both important organisations to the contemporary art scene in Adelaide.
Iacobelli, a regular visitor and occasional resident of Spain, and where he has exhibited on and off since the mid noughties, has had a long-standing fascination with Bosch, nurtured through repeat visits to the Museo del Prado, where many of Bosch’s paintings are housed. The museum’s major exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of Bosch’s death in 2016 brought Iacobelli into fresh contact with The Haywain.
Bosch’s moral preoccupation with human folly and sin: avarice, greed, aggression and lust are detailed in countless inventive ways through symbols and metaphors that combine fantastic and diabolic creatures with observation of daily life – in The Haywain it includes a dentist inspecting a mouth, and a mother washing the bare bottom of a baby. In short, the comings and goings of a medieval Town Square; on which Bosch himself, not un-coincidently, lived.
What does it mean for an artist to engage in a conversation with another across time? English painter Francis Bacon’s study of European painters Velazquez, Titian and Rembrandt and response is characterised by a dismantling of the spatial plane; Cindy Sherman’s photographic history portraits, in which she reimagines herself as the subject, are a means of exploring the nature of representation. What then is the nature of Iacobelli’s exchange with the artist Jheronimus Bosch? What does he bring? What does he take?
From the gallery entrance at the Anne and Gordan Samstag Museum, and even without engaging with individual works, one is struck by the sense of confidence and purposeful curiosity that animates the exhibition.
Dominating the space in centre of the gallery is an imposingly scaled wooden cart measuring over three meters high and six meters long and neatly stacked with hay-bails.
On the floor and in proximity to the cart, more than a dozen small trolleys – each individually assembled and in different sizes offer a range of objects for us to scrutinise: a fish head, a cage, a water colour of musicians here, a painting of a flower over there, feet, a frog, a conical hat, a collection of vegetables. These have been realised by Iacobelli in a range of idioms; from found objects to sculpture and works on paper, traversing the symbolic and the representational. Even without strong familiarity with Bosch’s work it’s possible to detect his symbols and metaphors in conversation with Iacobelli’s own perspectives. A watercolour of a musician bent over his double bass, for instance, evokes the experience of the town square.
From a distance Iacobelli’s neatly and smoothly constructed haywain has the fantastic surrealistic quality of an apparition, or an unspoiled toy. It’s the first of several surreal touches, or symbols, that mirror Bosch’s own pictorial strategies. Step closer and The Cart’s sheer volume of hay – tufty, golden straw – fills your field of vision. Something about the insistent materiality of the work and its rich sensory associations with agriculture, rural and peasant life achieves a strangely intoxicating effect.
The artist utilises the immersive effects of scale elsewhere in the exhibition. In Triptych, a series of three large-scale works made by pulping South Australia’s daily newspaper The Advertiser, muted sheets hang in the air off old butcher’s hooks. Certainly, this work can be viewed as a statement about the impermanence of political discourse: all those words, opinions, stories, photos turned into compost. With the hay bales a stone’s throw away, the work also underscores peasant wisdom: an unobscured familiarity with mortality, a turn of the wheel, the cycle of life.
In other works, such as a series of delicately rendered watercolours of human figures, Iacobelli engages in a critique of our government’s response to asylum seekers. Covered from head to ankle by a bucket, a lampshade, a swag or a conical hat, and titled with depersonalising numbers, these figures bring the comedic tragedy of Bosch’s vision to contemporary Australian politics. These paintings – and the presence of feet in the exhibition – carry a refrain from the pedlar from The Haywain’s closed triptych panel Pilgrimage of Life. As Pilar Silva Marato writes in his catalogue essay accompanying the del Prato exhibition “On the pilgrimage of his journey without destination, the direction of which is unknown to him, he has succeeded in avoiding the angers of the road and knows he must press on despite not knowing what may await him when he crosses the bridge”. 1
Iacobelli is a skilled draftsman, adroit at installation, sculpture, painting and works on paper. His fluency in regards to medium has a lightness to it, yet his art practice, and this exhibition in particular, is rooted in weighty, dense working materials: viscous glossy bitumen, bricks, wood, steel, linen and bronze. Of the range of moods that the exhibition traverses, it’s very strong on a state of anticipatory disquiet.
A roll of linen hung high off the ground to the right of the gallery entrance introduces a theatrical element. If it was to be unfurled, what would it reveal? Directly across the room Iacobelli’s painting The Cloud similarly presents a poetic constellation of objects – a boat, a large cloud, rain drops, and almost imperceptible ladders – suspended against an inky black field of colour. They relate to one another with the symbolic logic of a dream.
To the left of The Cloud, sits a bronze sculpture of Iacobelli’s head resting on a mobile plinth. Like the cart and the collection of trolleys at its feet, it too invites viewers to consider that its position may be temporary, as though the elements in the room might be called upon to migrate at a moment’s notice.
What are we to make of the expression on the face of Aldo Iacobelli’s wax sculpture? It carries no vanity. Rather with eyes and lips parted in surprise, shock or perhaps drawing breath, the life-size head conveys a degree of agitation. Far from Bosch’s Flemish town square of the 1500s Iacobelli observes the labours and failings of humankind from the vantage point of Adelaide. In this work, the artist engages most explicitly with Bosch the moralist, concerned with the actions of his fellow humans.
In Aldo Iacobelli: A Conversation with Jheronimus the emotion is held and contained by the finely realised constellation of objects in the gallery space. Iacobelli’s own rich symbolic allusions simultaneously pay tribute to Bosch’s artistic and moral courage – his resolutely singular subjectivity that is inescapably modern in sensibility – while at the same time offering a paean to a pre-modern peasant way of life. This is the central tension and mysterious force that is contained by the large haywain and its companions on North Terrace until the end of the month.
1. Pilar Silva Marato in Bosch: the fifth centenary exhibition, ed Pilar Silva Maroto , Museo Nacional del Prado, 2016, p. 283-284.
Aldo Iacobelli: A Conversation with Jheronimus until Friday 31 August.