Conspirators: Leonardo Devito at The Artist Room

Review / March 2023
Conspirators: Leonardo Devito at The Artist Room
By Jacob Barnes

I wasn’t sure about Leonardo Devito’s work when I first saw it. I don’t so much mean this as a knock to Devito as to our collective expectation that digital renderings will function as sufficient stand-ins for physical work. The subtlety of Devito’s tones, along with the (relative) flatness of his compositions not only get lost in the garishness of computer screens, but are such that you’re not sure that you’re seeing correctly when they’re taken in from install shots alone. In an age of the looming absence of the viewer, Devito’s work demands a conspirator.

Of course, the notion of a conspirator appears central to the young Italian artist’s work. The Artist Room’s press release stresses the value of narrative, both within individual paintings and collectively, but this requires a tacit understanding of the interpersonal nature of storytelling. We tell stories to people, and the acknowledgement (and engagement) of the viewer is a foundational element of the exhibition.

This is perhaps best understood through Devito’s insistence on referentiality. These references are at times specific: Dream of a Prisoner directly references Antonio del Pollaiuolo’s Hercules and the Hydra (c. 1475) and Saint George and the Dragon (1502) by Vittore Carpaccio. At other times, these references are more atmospheric – Kafka and Calvino are cited in the press release, but perhaps the broader category of the modernist bildungsroman is a more pragmatic catchall. As the works’ primary figure advances through his various escapades, s/citing — a placement within and broader reference to a set of historical references — relies on the viewer’s ability to connect the dots.

Importantly, Devito’s aesthetic doubling-back ought to not get lost. It is one thing to deploy a series of historical references within a broader contemporary aesthetic context (think, in an obvious turn, to almost all of Jeff Wall’s oeuvre), but an entirely different one to use some of the very aesthetic tools used by these references in the referential work itself. Yet, Devito becomes slippery here – his compositions recall both medievalism and modernism, with his references ranging from the Renaissance to a magical realism that doesn’t feel too far from Alejo Carpentier or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (Pick your poison here: Kafka and Calvino, referenced before, gesture towards this.) Hence, Devito deftly gives us a little “same same but different” — the works do sit within broader aesthetic contexts at the same time as they simultaneously slither out of them, or negate them altogether.

In turn, the works are given a welcome levity. This constant and at times contradictory referentiality is excitingly irreverent, while Devito’s playful use of the allegory — the narrative is as much Bonnie and Clyde as anything more saintly — employs storytelling effectively. While Devito is clearly a serious practitioner of his craft, he doesn’t allow this seriousness to get the better of him: he has given us license to have fun, and seems to be doing the same for himself. This is a quality that is not to be understated: the ability to be serious in your unseriousness; to understand that severity is not synonymous with success.

As a critic, my job here is to draw out some specifics and discuss how successfully they have been executed, yes, but really it’s to determine whether or not someone should see this show. Let me put this in no uncertain terms: see it. You must — however wonderful the install photography may be, it cannot do the artist’s work justice. Better yet, be Devito’s interlocutor – the call has been issued, you just need to answer.

Image Credits:
Images 1-4: Courtesy of The Artist Room