Executed in 2009, Maurizio Cattelan’s Untitled is a self-effacing example of the artist’s interrogation of his own likeness, a sustained theme within the trajectory of his oeuvre. Concealed beneath a tautly stretched work boot, Cattelan’s features are obscured by a hermetic seal of black rubber. Both comical and claustrophobic, the smothered sculpture is reminiscent of Renato Bertelli’s Continuous Profile of Mussolini, 1933, a lathed depiction of the Italian dictator’s profile cast in a palette of stark black. Playing with the fetishistic associations of rubber, the work echoes S&M masks, eroticising the durability of the everyday boot and simultaneously recalling the uncanny duality of 1930s Surrealist objects. Yet, with its ridiculous plumage looming out of the crown of the head, Cattelan’s sculpture is invested with the artist’s characteristic caustic wit. Evocative of Italy’s boot-like topography, Untitled explores the artist’s Italian heritage with a self-portrait informed by the collective national memory of Italy’s war-time experience. While many of Cattelan’s self-portraits present a codified persona through the use of proxies, whether animal or human, here Cattelan literally obliterates his own identity, his very presence threatened by the suffocating boot that morphs into his features. Cattelan’s work ceaselessly explores the abuse of power, subverting it through a series of comedic strategies that simultaneously undermine and caution. He has explained, ‘To be defeated, power must be approached, reappropriated, and endlessly replicated, like in a laboratory. Sometimes it’s necessary to practice on manikins, as if they were lab-rats. Every system has its laws: you have to experience them, if you want to get inside. That’s how I learnt to fear images, and not to trust icons’ (M. Cattelan, quoted in M. Gioni, ‘Maurizio Cattelan: Face Off’, in Flash Art, Vol. XXXIV, no. 218, May-June 2001, p. 117).
Displaying an irreverent disregard for figures of authority, Cattelan’s iconoclastic oeuvre aims to dismantle icons of corrupt power, from the repentant kneeling figure of Adolf Hitler in Him, 2001, to the fascist rhetoric of the three disembodied arms mid-salute in Ave Maria, 2007. Deconstructing the vernacular of evil embodied by these provocative images, Cattelan has said ‘power, whatever power, has an expiration date, just like milk’ (M. Cattelan, quoted in N. Spector, Maurizio Cattelan: All, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2012, p. 95). Related to this inflammatory series of sculptures - which includes Cattelan’s most notorious work, La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour), 1999, an image of the then-reigning pontiff struck dead by a meteorite - Untitled addresses misdirected authoritarianism and domination with an edge of irony and absurdist humour. Rendered in sinister black rubber, the inverted boot nevertheless is a comic symbol that challenges authority by denying its own prescribed usage. In an earlier work that also evokes the corrupt legacy of Mussolini, Cattelan depicts two New York City policemen upside-down. Frank and Jamie, 2002, executed in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, recalls the chilling photograph of an executed Mussolini hung upside down by a Milanese mob at the end of the Second World War. Like Untitled, the subverted image turns authority on its head, undermining dominant power structures. Nancy Spector observes that the catalogue of works to which Untitled belongs ‘constitute a new form of statuary, functioning as modern-day icons that are ultimately iconoclastic, raging against authority and lamenting the lost promises of political idealism’ (N. Spector, Maurizio Cattelan: All, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2012, p. 104).