Prominent member of the Greek diaspora, Jannis Kounellis (Athens, 1936) is considered a painter before sculptor, he says that as a man in the post-war era there is "a reconstruction project” before him, “where he must reconstruct the language needed to speak". This mission statement serves, in turn, to question his historical attachment to Arte Povera, which originates in his participation of Arte Povera-Im spazio (1967), organised by Germano Celant and which is considered the founding exhibition to this trend which has Italian origins. If Kounellis uses objects (mattresses, gas cylinders and torches, tables, cabinets, coal, coffee, burlap bags), they end up forming an objectual language with which he shapes dramatic spaces and in which, through the partners of theatricality and materialism (of the objects) and structure and sensitivity, compositions which the objects are attracted to because of their qualities unfold. Thus in Kounellis, contrary for Povera artists, “the compositional condition takes precedence over objectual independence," notes exhibition curator Gloria Moure. In this way his work is used as an example of the triumph of presentation (the piece is understood as a location for the allegory) over representation.
After a period in which letters and symbols are the protagonists of his paintings, during in the mid-sixties, he replaces canvas for steel plates, having assumed the end of the picture as a support and converts space without dimensions into the physical limit of his pieces. Kounellis considers that this break - whose genealogy is said to have begun with Marcel Duchamp and continued with Jackson Pollock - is a change in the order of the physical dimensions: the relationship between art and reality through the object, in the case of the former, and a final break with easel painting, in the case of American. His installation in Italy leads him to reclaim and recover traditional pictorial values, such as anthropometry, perspective and a strong sense of order and balance. Furthermore, the inclusion of nature in his pieces (wood, coal, cactus, birds) does not imply an appeal to the ideal, but reveals the manipulation of man.
Kounellis’ project, seen as a whole from fifty works collected together, is based on the critical use of materials and objects, with which he manifests extreme tension, thus appealing to perception and spectator participation. These tensions arise from the contrast of the qualities and nature of the materials (rails and felt blankets, cotton caught on iron plates), as well as the paradoxical combination of them (scales with coffee powder, a closet full of stone slabs), which in many cases, refer to the rhetoric of conceptual art. There lies the dramatic sense that he attributes to his work (and which begins in spatial occupation): the obvious and air-tight human existence is displayed at the same time.
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