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David Carrier: "Beatrice Caracciolo: Exquisitely Stealthy"

Beatrice Caracciolo, The Parable of the Blind, installation view, Paula Cooper. Image courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery. Photo by Steven Probert.

Contributed by David Carrier / What does it mean for a contemporary artist to be inspired by an older text or artwork? The Gospel of Matthew 15:14 says: “If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.” Moved by those words in 1568, Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted The Blind Leading the Blind, which hangs in Museo di Capodimonte in Naples. Now stirred by that picture, Beatrice Caracciolo, a young artist who grew up in that city, has drawn The Blind 16: one large image of the blind beggars and several smaller details also derived from the Bruegel. Between Matthew and Bruegel and then Bruegel and Caracciolo, there’s a kind of creative slippage whereby the meaning of the prior statement is transformed. At each stage, Matthew’s basic conception is partly preserved while something is added or subtracted. He doesn’t specify, for instance, that there are six blind men. Caracciolo shows his entire work, but without color, in grisaille. In smaller rectangular works on paper, she focuses on the trees and on some of the individual blind men.

An old masterwork with an iconography that seemingly needs no explanation, The Blind Leading the Blind is a strange, even a perverse subject for a visual artist. Matthew’s parable may seem to offer a clear meaning. Don’t, he says, follow untrustworthy leadership. Brueghel, by contrast, shows in a literal way the unfortunate fate of the blind. The artist’s appeal to sighted viewers can seem sardonic, even cruel. Caracciolo’s drawings, though, effectively aestheticize Brueghel’s image, deconstructing Brueghel’s painting and recapitulating the narrative in exquisite, chalky-colored near-abstractions. In The Blind (triptych), we see the outlined shapes of the beggars’ bodies. In The Blind (trees), we see the outlined leaves and branches of the trees behind them, without explicit reference to blindness. The closer she takes us, the harder it becomes to discern her source in Brueghel. A viewer who missed or ignored the wall labels might puzzle over the drawings, requiring details from The Blind 16 to understand them.

The Paula Cooper website says that her accomplishment is to “tenderly outline the expressive depictions of ignorance and suffering on the blind men’s’ faces.” That’s a valid enough interpretation, but mine is somewhat different. Because we are deprived of immediate focus on Bruegel’s subject, we can respond to Carraciolo’s drawing in a purely formal way that would be impossible were we to clearly apprehend six blind men headed for the ditch. I initially thought it unlikely that her appropriations from an old painting, so distant from most contemporary art, could have any obvious present-day political significance. Yet a glance at online commentary on Matthew’s text relieved me of that perhaps comforting belief. The ditch in which the blind men land alludes to the wrong-headed beliefs of the ancient Jews, which led them to reject the Messiah, but the point about the limits of blind leaders makes sense whatever your political or theological viewpoint or your historical context.

Parables, of course, are opaque by design, and blindness is a tricky theme for a visual artist. Viewers and readers can tease out and customize the political relevance of Caracciolo’s drawings for themselves. I offer just a modest point: that her magnificence as a draftsperson and a student of art history should not occlude the political potency of her work.

“Beatrice Caracciolo: The Parable of the Blind,” Paula Cooper Gallery, 521 West 21st Street, New York, NY. February 17 through March 23, 2024.

— David Carrier