HUMAN ANIMAL – Four Constructions by Denis Masi

Charles Spencer

Denis Masi is an American artist who in his recent exhibitions has moved towards environmental arrangements of objects. All his work is marked by clinical meticulousness, which arrives at the detached atmospheric aura of an old photograph or a silent movie still. This quality is precisely opposite to chance photography or spontaneity; it is ponderous, considered, positive. Masi arrives at his image-decision after patient comtemplation and arrangement, the intensity resulting from minutely planned steps which powerfully affect the spectator. Certainly in the disturbing immediacy of his extraordinary four constructions exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, it is the cool, elegant distance of the author which removes from the admittedly horrific images any sense of sensation, and eventually of shock or horror.

Masi is of Italian extraction, his grandparents having emigrated to the United States; he was born in West Virginia in 1942, and after studying at Seton Hall University, New Jersey, spent two years at the Brera Academy, Milan. After a further year in Paris he came to London in 1967 to enter the Slade School of Fine Art, and has been resident in England ever since.

His first one-man show was in Italy, at Il Cenobbio Galleria, Milan in 1966, and he exhibited again at Diagramma in 1972; the current exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, is his fifth one-man show in Britain, and he has also exhibited widely abroad, notably in Germany.

Masi and I are colleagues at the Croydon College, where he runs a post-graduate course in print-making; normally reticent about his current work, one day he invited me to visit his studio, an old warehouse in the City; he refused to elaborate on the reasons for the visit, beyond explaining that I was the first critic to see the result of research over a period of four years. I was, in fact, totally unprepared….

My previous understanding of his work, was, as I have stated, that of an immaculate image maker, in fixed images, prints and photographs, of studied, almost sculptural atmosphere. Although neither by origin or training part of the post-war New York scene, he had clearly been influenced by the environmental movement, the work of Kienholz, Dine, Oldenburg, with its Dadaistic, paradoxical manipulation of real objects in a quasi-theatrical formula. Whilst this movement was to lead to performance and the projection of the artist himself as an object, at this stage the ultimate purpose was image, usually related to real places and events - not, in fact, in aesthetic or philosophic terms very different from, say, traditional landscape paintings. However as truly reflective of contemporary culture, these American images were often reflective of violence, aggression, anger, even self-analysis, within an anecdotal formula; points of contact with film-making, especially the modern location techniques are inescapable.

It is no coincidence, in my view, that Masi is a scholarly devotee to the cinema. From 1964 he began working with assemblage-paintings, in the manner of Dine and Rauschenberg, in which real objects were applied to the painted surfaces. These developed into tableaux-like assemblages, based on famous master paintings – Ingres, Georgione, and the like – in which a living model and props were photographed as restatements of the image, and, I suspect, to add further distance or alienation. Live performance, or the use of the artist’s body as medium, was a not surprising development, recorded on videotape, then rephotographed on a sequence of stills, printed in a manner of distorted reality.

This play between realism and made imagery has remained Masi’s preoccupation, part of a dissatisfaction with the imitation of art, with another man’s vision, which makes so much contemporary expression déjà vu and repetitive. Masi felt driven to seek alternatives. Perhaps his most important discovery is the need for distance, the refusal to settle for raw comment, for the faulty promise of instinct and spontaneity.

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