Paul Thek and the muses of Italy
Death, decay, and the Technological reliquaries, 1637–67
in Republics and empires
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American artist Paul Thek lived in Italy intermittently during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1963, he visited Palermo’s Capuchin Catacombs, where, photographed by Peter Hujar, he first began to reckon with the raw themes of death and decay that would inform his major body of art, the Technological reliquaries. Drawn to the catacomb’s macabre materiality and preservation of the dead, inspired by the metaphors of corporeality also apparent in Italian Renaissance sculpture, and informed by his Catholic upbringing, Thek began to make hyper-realistic sculptures of raw meat and faux body parts. Displayed inside pristine glass or plexiglass boxes carefully edged in metal trim, his ‘meat sculptures’ consisted of glistening gobbets of bloody flesh or amputated human limbs encased in classical Roman armour. Each was meticulously rendered from beeswax and resin and painted in acrylics, with some pieces pierced by metal pins or wires and perforated by plastic tubes, and others studded with beads, hair, mirrors, and plastic insects (flies and butterflies). Less interested in romantic stereotypes of Italy as cultural muse, he was drawn to the affective, materialist, disruptive, and process-driven practices of Italy’s postwar avant-garde, many of whom shared his interests in corporeality and decay. By extension, Italy’s course of empire, its repeated cycle of rise and fall from the age of the Caesars to the regime of Il Duce, functioned as a metaphor for Thek’s own repeated attention in the Technological reliquaries to the decline and destruction of the body over the course of human life.

Republics and empires

Italian and American art in transnational perspective, 1840–1970

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