A short walk from Rome’s Piazza Navona, Frutta – run by a Scot, James Gardner – has, since its opening in January 2012, proved to be something of a phenomenon. There can be no denying that Gardner’s first gallery project, loved and loathed in roughly equal measure (there are many here who do not understand its very British mix of irony and irreverence), has helped to shift the artistic focus in Rome. Its latest exhibition, John Henry Newton’s first solo show, presents an incisive portrait of the Eternal City by a young English artist who spent just a few days here in 2012. This marks a first genuine engagement with Rome’s politics and everyday life on the part of Frutta, which may have previously appeared at times aloof from its locality.
On opening night, outside the gallery, Bangladeshi immigrant street hawker Milan Sayal peddled umbrellas identical to one hung immediately inside – which, along with the metal coat peg on which it was displayed, forms the work Ex-patriot? But I wasn’t one in the first place (all works 2013). The piece is inspired by the very Roman phenomenon in which umbrella salesmen, mainly of Bangladeshi origin, appear as if from nowhere as soon as it starts to rain. These particular brollies, meanwhile, featured a print by the artist of an apple ridden with a particular type of fungus often depicted by Caravaggio, whose works are displayed in several churches and museums close to Frutta.
In the gallery’s small downstairs space Newton displays 43 enamel McDonald’s badges worn in the past by employees of its Rome branches (Reuniting the team). The badges feature Romulus and Remus, the mythic legendary founders of Rome, suckling on the she- wolf that raised them, above the ubiquitous golden arches of the fast food giant. The artist collected the badges, via online solicitation, between September 2012 and March 2013. The first McDonald’s in Italy opened in Rome near the Spanish Steps in 1986. Valentino, the fashion house situated nearby, had blocked its opening for years, for fears that the smell from the food would ruin the local ambience. Slow Food, the international campaign for healthy eating and dining, was founded specifically as a response to the opening of McDonalds. In Italy, where food is a fundamental part of culture, a battle over eating habits serves to define the nation’s future.
While looking for enamel McDonald’s badges, Newton chanced upon an enamel badge of a football hooligan masked with a scarf in the shape of the Italian flag and wearing a baseball cap bearing the acronym A.C.A.B. (All Cops Are Bastards). All the pride that’s being chucked around (A.C.A.) features the thug’s blownup image drawn in electrical tape on one wall of the upstairs gallery, together with a shelf upon which are placed three glasses of water containing seaweed and live shrimp. Each glass represents a letter of the acronym, excluding the ‘B’, while the shrimp represents the closed community of the football hooligan.
Criminality, solidarity and the coexistence of vastly differing realities meet in Maximum Quality for Everyday, as a reminder that just beneath Rome’s tourist surface there reside tensions and dynamics fundamental to the life of the city itself.
This article was first published in the May 2013 issue.