7 questions for dealer Massimo de Carlo, who loves change and goes against the grain

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With four locations spread across Milan, London and Hong Kong, Galerie Massimo de Carlo has struggled to escape the tumult of the pandemic over the past two years. After some careful maneuvering, however, the gallery – which de Carlo founded in Milan in 1987 – has found a solid footing, recently adding a number of sought-after figurative artists to the list, including Jenna Gribbon, Shannon Cartier Lucy, Jean- Marie Appriou, and Ludovic Nkoth, whose exhibition “Transferred Memories (Work No Dey)” currently fills its London space. The gallery is also expanding to a permanent footprint in Beijing and moving to new gallery spaces in London and Hong Kong.

Recently, we sat down with gallery founder Massimo de Carlo to talk about the vogue for figurative art, his relationship with Maurizio Cattelan and the artist he calls the “cantor of the apocalypse”.

The gallery now presents an exhibition of works by Ludovic Nkoth, a Cameroonian artist who paints powerful portraits, often of members of his family. Can you tell me how you first discovered his work, why you think it’s important, and what people need to know about the show?

New discoveries are at the heart of the gallery’s activity. The strongest gesture that a gallery owner can make is to decide to represent an artist. It is a high form of mutual trust and respect. I’m proud to have represented artists for a very long time, sometimes 30 years, but you have to start somewhere, so I’m interested in starting a new adventure with Ludovic Nkoth, who is a very talented painter and a brilliant narrator of la la life in Cameroon and beyond. Her work is distinguished by a fluid expressiveness rooted in her personal life and an inquiry into identity through African history and its pre- and post-colonial diaspora. His poetics correspond to some of the general interests of my gallery’s program, such as the investigation of societies and cultures, always focusing on human beings and their relationships with the world. The exhibition we just opened in London is a great example of this attitude: Nkoth focused on his hometown and imagined what his life would be like if he had stayed, instead of moving to New York. It is a very powerful, intimate and yet universal perspective on economics and politics today.

Installation view, ‘Ludovic Nkoth: Transferred Memories (Work No Dey)’, 2022. Courtesy of Massimo de Carlo.

Besides Nkoth, the gallery has recently added several artists to the list, including Shannon Cartier Lucy, Jean-Marie Appriou and Jenna Gribbon. How do these artists fit into the gallery’s mission and have you planned exhibitions for them?

It is often through artists that we meet other artists. The community of artists is very close-knit and fervent, and therefore becomes a great source of inspiration for discovering new things. We are always on the lookout for new voices of contemporaneity, and the practices of these artists are powerful and relevant to the times we live in, and I believe we have a long future together. Their paintings and sculptures touched me with their intimacy: these artists are all open to revealing a large part of their personal experience on canvas (or in sculptural materials). In a world increasingly preoccupied with micro-celebrities, influencers, etc., I feel that the works of these artists are a response, almost an emergency call, to another approach to humanity. We will soon be opening our first solo exhibition in Milan (her second with the gallery) with Shannon Cartier Lucy in May, and with Jessie Homer French in December. Also in London, in October we are inaugurating a personal exhibition with Jean-Marie Appriou which will also mark the move of the gallery. Everything is happening this year.

Jenna Gribbon, Acid Rococo Tenderscape (2021).  Photo by Todd-White Art Photography Courtesy of the artist, MASSIMODECARLO and Fredericks & Freiser, NY.

Jenna Gribbon, Acid Rococo Tenderscape (2021). Photo: Todd-White Fine Art Photography. Courtesy of the artist, Massimo de Carlo, and Fredericks & Freiser, New York.

Appriou’s works are a little more lyrical and fantastical than the others. Can you tell me a bit more about these?

Jean-Marie Appriou is a cantor of the apocalypse. He is able to envision nature after nature, humans after humans, animals after animals. His continuous reference to mythology, archeology and pre-Raphaelite paintings intertwine with science fiction literature, film and comics, making his sculptures a new icon of the mixed culture we live and envision for the future. A self-taught artist, his research is admirable: he manipulates traditional materials, including bronze, ceramics and glass, adopting an experimental DIY method that allows him to cultivate an intimate relationship with materials. His personal alphabet is very intriguing, and I look forward to accompanying his development.

Installation view "Jean Marie Appriou: Portrait of a Century" 2021. Photograph by Roberto Marossi Courtesy.

Installation view, “Jean Marie Appriou: Portraiture One Century”, 2021. Photo: Roberto Marossi. Courtesy of Massimo de Carlo.

These artists are all figurative. Is it just a coincidence?

There’s definitely a new attention to figuration, probably brought by the approach that anyone could have with a recognizable image. But art often becomes popular in waves – more abstraction in one decade, more figuration in the next, found materials for a certain period of time, then technology… It’s a human impulse to come together around a few names and a few languages. For me and the gallery, it’s a natural evolution of our program, which has always reflected on the relationship between art and the world and encompasses great voices inside and outside of figuration. In fact, this summer I will present a reflection on abstract art in our gallery in Milan, which will work as a counterpoint to the current dominant taste. It’s classic for my story, which has embraced artists from diverse backgrounds and poetics; for example, Rudolf Stingel and Yan Pei-Ming, to name but two great masters.

The gallery recently received a lot of press for the Maurizio Cattelan exhibition that you put on during Milan Art Week. The installation included a controversial sculpture of an effigy of Cattelan hanging in the gallery’s bathroom. Can you tell me about the show and its reception?
I have worked with Maurizio for many years, supporting his work at every stage of his career. I am proud to be able to show such an important work by Cattelan at the gallery, especially in the unusual space of the main private bathroom, designed in green marble by Piero Portaluppi. YOU is an ambiguous figure, a vision onto which anyone could project their own meanings, as it reflects basic human instincts, such as fear and joy, compassion and anger, affection and defeat. The reception was beyond expectation and the flow of people wanting to have a direct experience with the work was encouraging, because art must be experienced in person, we must never forget that. Paradoxically, this installation received great visibility on social networks, even though it was immediately banned by Instagram, so you can only find details of it, not the full image on the platform. In 2004 Cattelan made a public installation with the Trussardi Foundation that was vandalized by a man and became iconic, though very few could see it. Almost 20 years later, Instagram is taking on that role, but in reverse: you can see the work live, but not online.

YOU (2022) by Maurizio Cattelan.  Credits Roberto Marossi.  Courtesy of the artist and MASSIMODECARLO.

Maurizio Cattelan, YOU (2022). Photo: Roberto Marossi. Courtesy of the artist and Massimo de Carlo.

What’s on the horizon for the gallery?
This is an important year for the gallery; as the world reopens, we are ready to make an impact. We are still suffering in Asia from the various blockages and travel and shipping complications, but nevertheless, we are confident that this will be an important season for us. We are currently working on two major moves: the Hong Kong gallery will leave the Pedder Building to reopen in the Tai Kwun complex in early May with an exhibition by Sanford Biggers, while the London gallery will move to a new location in Mayfair in October. We’re transforming our pop-up gallery in Beijing into a permanent space, and we’re also working on VSpace 2.0, a redefinition of our virtual gallery space. I have always considered that it was fundamental for the gallery to be able to challenge our artists and offer them new modes of expression. That’s why change is always a priority for me, especially when it comes to exhibition spaces that have seen many years of activity and can feel repetitive for them. I fight a tough battle against the white cubes by selecting spaces rich in history and with complex architectures: this vision is more empowering and inspiring for our artists, I think.

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