Niki de Saint-Phalle: Target Practice
by Nikhil Melnechuk

Fondazione Roma Museo
Via del Corso, 320, Rome, Italy
04 November 2009 - 17 January 2010

The first sound I heard was the clicking of high heels. All the gallery attendants at the Foundazione Roma Museo wear 4-inchers, and are dressed to kill. This is the only misstep in the museum's comprehensive retrospective of Niki De Saint Phalle, and perhaps not even that: the clicking gave me enough warning to put away my camera before I was caught snapping pictures...

Curated by Stefano Cechetto, over 100 works by Saint-Phalle are being shown; this marks the first extensive exhibition of Saint-Phalle in Italy. Rather than a chronological arrangement, Cecchetto has developed four "Memory Rooms," which reflect thematic threads running through Saint-Phalle's career in her paintings, drawings, sculpture and photographs, and in so doing, the viewer is given a template with which to explore Saint-Phalle's artistic development.

The first thing I saw upon entering the show was a colorful, poster-sized map of Italy. Instead of place names, there were names of renowned Italian artists displayed on the map. This was Saint-Phalle's homage to Italy, and clearly the respect is mutual. Beside that piece, a paper shredder and a box of colored paper stood, with instructions to "write your thoughts and shred them." The show is curated with a mix of whimsy and sincerity, and these qualities make themselves most obvious in Niki's bipolar portrayal of Woman.

Starting in 1961, Saint-Phalle began "Shooting Paintings," where she embedded paint-filled sacs in white plaster sculptures, which she would then shoot at with a rifle. When the bullets hit the sacs, colored paint would splatter and drip on the figure. While the show has only a few of these innovative works, this target-practice art helps explains her next (and here, most represented) era of work—the Nanas.

Part goddesses, part dolls, part shooting targets, part dancers—Saint-Phalle's Nanas are voluptuous, brightly-colored plastered sculptures of women. At first the Nanas seem out of The Beatles' Yellow Submarine (which appeared in 1968, only three years after the first Nana was shown at the Alexander Iolas Gallery in Paris). But, slowly, these figures reveal a terrifying visage of womanhood. Seen from an admiring, childlike perspective, they are an ideal—dolls; perhaps even Barbies of a kind. But from the male gaze they are idols to a singular god: sexuality. Their breasts and buttocks are painted, quite literally, as targets. This simplicity of form (smooth, bulbous) and palate (mostly primary colors) is both an aspect of the figures' female power, and what makes them an easy target. Naked means open, but open to vulnerability, too. In this way, the Nanas are simultaneously innocent and encourage transgressive thought—a matured Lolita.

The curation provides both historical data on Saint-Phalle, and (somewhat stillettoed) introductions to each of her artistic periods, but leaves it to the viewer to connect the dots. This allows for multiple interpretations and a depth of exploration.

Much of Saint-Phalle's work was spent on sculpture gardens for all ages—her Tarot Garden in Italy, and Queen Califa's Magical Circle Garden in California—and the Foundazione Roma honors this. The exhibition is a bright and bouyant journey into the complex world of this extraordinary artist.

--Nikhil Melnechuk

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