Reviews: VISUAL ARTS: You just know it won't last

Gaetano Pesce Fiera International Milan ooo99
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The Independent Culture
Design means the mass production of useful, uniform articles infused with the rational values of Modernism, values that have had the West in their grip for the best part of a century. So what are we to make of the work of Gaetano Pesce, the Venetian designer and architect granted a retrospective at Milan's Triennale this month?

Pesce's work is a volcanic repudiation of everything modern design stands for. No two pieces are the same because, he believes, "repetition is always negative for every object and every individual".

Modernism has long had a problem with colour, often retreating to a minimalistic palette of white, black, grey and silver. Pesce's chairs, lamps, tables, vases and wall hangings are in the garish, raucous colours of a toyshop or a jumble sale. Modernism takes refuge in materials as sleek, smooth, "perfect" as possible: plate glass, stainless steel, aluminium. Pesce is a sorcerer in a laboratory, dishing up undreamed-of combinations of propylene, polyurethane, silicon, multicoloured fragments of glass, natural fibres, rubber, felt, recycled rags.

Classical Modernism aspires to a condition of perfect silence and anonymity. Pesce imbues his creations with powerful personalities. His chairs have noses, eyes, mouths, breasts; they are as individual as the people who use them. They are messy, improvised, prone to sudden change, imperfect - yet also, in their own way, extraordinarily refined.

Born in the Veneto in 1938 but resident in New York for the past 20 years, Pesce has been exhibited and collected around the world but scandalously ignored in his native land. But now the Triennale is making amends with a major retrospective entitled Il Rumore del Tempo - the sound of time.

It has the look of a show rushed together by a final-year art college student short of time and money but making up for it with hectic energy and inspiration. Crudely lettered captions bespatter the walls - "Free those who work from the calamity of boredom"; "The cult of perfection results in a monolithic and totalitarian form of thought". Splashed in eccentric blobs of ink across the floor one finds: "A sad light is in the eyes of the person who does not know his own time." The captions are typed up on plain sheets of A4; the exhibits are supported on supermarket trolleys.

There is a whiff of 1967 in the air; the iconoclasm and vitality of Pesce's work, as well as the simple-minded slogans, recall the stoned indignation and optimism of the late Sixties. Occasionally he comes across as a figure marooned in the summer of love: his proposal for New York's World Trade Centre site - not formally submitted to the competition - was to rebuild the two towers, slightly skewed, with a huge crimson heart wedged in between them. Very sweet, but it didn't quite cut it in the harsh light of 2001.

But sweetness is not his normal register. Despite the gaudy colours, much of his work has a striking toughness and astringency: chairs that look as if they have been rescued from a burning building (Sedia, 1972; Wan-chai chair, 1986) or thrown together from Salvation Army cast-offs (Rag Armchair, 1972); a vase that seems to have been dropped in a molten state from a great height (Lemon Special Vase, 2004). Nothing is perfect because perfection is sterile and totalitarian. Everything is improvised, chucked together, liable to contingency and decay.

Pesce's pungent comment on architectural Modernism was a 1975 piece, Homage to Mies van der Rohe, which juxtaposed glass models of the arch- Modernist's sleek towers with carcasses of butcher's meat hanging from metal frames, which were allowed to quietly putrefy until the smell became intolerable. "This exhibition," he writes in the catalogue to this show - a catalogue in the shape of his head, made from pig's bristle and coconut fibre, rubber and silicon - "is dedicated to the passage of time, which will render it obsolete."

Il Rumore del Tempo, at Fiera Milano International, Milan, to 18 April (00 39 02 724341;