Paul Fryer and his work Pieta at Museo Gucci, Florence

It’s not every day that I find myself in a darkened room with someone who counts Damien Hirst amongst his close friends and collaborators. Okay, I was not alone. It was a press conference at the Gucci Museum in Florence for the exhibit “Lo Spirito Vola” (The Spirit Flies) by Paul Fryer.

Sometimes associated with the group “Young British Artists,” Fryer (not so young – none of them are any more) remained somewhat at the fringe of the group, so his work is not overplayed, and still has a fresh touch to it that is currently much appreciated by collectors and art hedge fund managers. Coming somewhat late to the sculpture scene, he made his mark on the alternative art and music scene of Leeds, where he went to study (and drop out) in the 80s, pursuing instead a career as an “electropop singer” (according to his website – I have no idea what that is) and a transvestite DJ. He now lives and works in London. In 2001 he published a book of poetry that was illustrated by Damien Hirst, and he has had 8 solo exhibits, mostly in the UK. There is no wikipedia page dedicated to him. I have to wonder if he purposefully deleted it himself as an artistic act. A video from his past life, in which I believe that’s him mooning the cameraman, can be found on his youtube channel.

Dressed rather somberly, with a calculatedly scruffy beard and carrying a very masculine hat, the transvestite DJ Fryer is long gone. After an introductory tour of the exhibit by curator Francesca Amfitheatrof, the artist enters the dramatically lit room and we make space for him nervously around his works. We’re a handful of (all female) journalists. The artist speaks in English, of course, and Brenda (from The Florentine) and I feel distinctly at an advantage linguistically. An advantage that would allow us to ask quick and smart questions, given the unique opportunity of speaking with the artist. Brenda does a good job with this (and produces a good article in the newspaper that I recommend you read; I won’t repeat what she wrote).

I, on the other hand, find myself tongue tied. There is something very intimidating about asking questions to contemporary artists, at least for me, for I always fear asking something way too obvious that has already been super-covered in the literature and would thus blow my cover as knowing virtually nothing about contemporary art.

The ex-chapel in the Palazzo recently renovated by Gucci is now a contemporary art space with a temporary exhibit that will be renewed once or twice each year thanks to an agreement with the collector Francois Pinault. Two works from this collection, as well as a third from the artist’s private stash, make up this installation. They are Ophelia, Pietà (The Empire Never Ended), and Ecce Homo. These can be described very essentially as a wax figure of the dead Shakespearean character suspended in a tub of resin; a ghastly wax Christ on an electric chair (after crucifixion); and a box with a bird’s nest and an egg of metal in it. Which might not seem like much; thankfully there’s a whole lot of thought and workmanship that went into the three pieces. As the artist spoke, I came to appreciate the works rather more than when I first entered, when I might have thought these pieces were just meant to provoke. Being shown in Italy, religious works will always provoke more than in non-Catholic countries.

Paul Fryer, Pieta. Detail of upper section. Photo: please credit Alexandra Korey

The Pietà may be the most famous piece in the room. It’s actually a multiple, though each 2/3d scale Christ is painstakingly handcrafted. Not an updated story of Christ in which his sacrifice is through electrocution rather than crucifixion, as Fryer is keen to point out, since the wounds of the Passion and Crucifixion are clear. Incredibly real, each hair is applied singly, and the dried blood looks, frankly, real. The artist tells us that the wounds had to be inflicted on the finished wax figure, and that his assistants refused to do it. The version we have in front of us is actually rather more tame than the one made for his friend Damien Hirst, whom Fryer asserts “likes bloody things,” so he went all out on that one.

Detail of feet. Photo: please credit Alexandra Korey

This one was also exhibited in a cathedral (in Gap, France in 2009) where it garnered a goodly amount of controversy that was not intended by the artist nor the Bishop who strongly wanted the work on display over Holy Week. Fryer declared: “Scandalous is not Jesus in the electric chair, but the indifference to his crucifixion.” (source)

Ophelia (White), photo: Paul Fryer

Maybe I felt more at home with Ophelia and all the references that jumped to mind seeing her, for it is here that I gathered enough courage to ask Paul Fryer a question. And he very kindly told me I was off my rocker, no, um, just slightly incorrect in my interpretation. A ghostly white Ophelia floats in the same pose of surrender – hands up and to the side – as Millais’ pre-Raphaelite depiction of the Shakesperean figure, but Fryer’s interpretation is literally (but not figuratively) black and white. A woman with a modern figure, wearing a plain black silk dress, lacks the romantic adornment and drama of the 19th-century versions. The reference here is clear, and the artist confirms this.

Paul Fryer, Ophelia. Detail of installation in Florence, Museo Gucci. Photo: Alexandra Korey
Paul Fryer, Ophelia. Detail of installation in Florence, Museo Gucci. Photo: Alexandra Korey

The Renaissance art historian in me can’t help but see an earlier reference, and with it a line of thinking, so I dare ask, or rather comment: “The medium of wax, here in Florence, is easy to associate with the wax anatomies at La Specola, and Ophelia’s passive pose makes me think of that museum’s passive, pearl-adorned ‘Venus’ (complete with removable abdomen); this in turn is related to a whole tradition of anatomical imagery that portrays women, in death, as passively offering themselves up for inspection, and men, by contrast, as heroic.” I even managed to get this out rather eloquently, I thought. Fryer says he’s familiar with the wax anatomies, and influenced by them, but he doesn’t intend Ophelia at all in a negative, anti-feminist way. He sees her as a positive figure, not a victim but a symbol of spiritual acceptance.

Unquestionably the fil-rouge amongst the three works is a Christological one – Ophelia’s upturned palms, Christ’s bloody ones, and the title and material (thorny vines) of the Ecce Homo. They were not designed to be displayed together, but they make sense.

This is Fryer’s first exhibit in Italy and also his first trip to Florence, he tells Brenda and I over lunch in a posh room that overlooks Piazza della Signoria. Amazing to think that he has waited this long to come to such an important art city; he says the time was just right now.

I have to appreciate Gucci Museum’s desire to go beyond the “company/ branding museum” format by offering a contemporary space. I have my doubts, though, about how many people (ie. tourists here to see fashion) will really appreciate it. Florence lacks contemporary art of this caliber, and Gucci has the klout to bring it here. But the museum’s entrance fee of 5 euros is steep if you’ve already seen the Gucci collection (even if the items in it rotate within the themes assigned to the rooms). It’d be nice if they could offer some opportunities for free entrance for locals, or a separate 2 euro ticket to see the contemporary section.

Exhibition Info

Paul Fryer, Lo Spirito Vola
Gucci Museo, Piazza della Signoria, Florence
March 17 to September 3, 2012

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