Johnny Costi “PAPER WORK” St. Chads / London by

by May 12, 2024

In the dimly lit confines of St. Chads, teetering on the edge of demolition, artist Johnny Costi unearths the raw and unfiltered truths of his existence in his solo show “PAPER WORK,” by sharing some of the most excruciatingly painful details of his past life. Wrapped up in gangs and addictions, Costi was arrested at eighteen, and charged for five armed robberies, and one attempted robbery. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill show; it’s a visceral journey through the depths of trauma, woven into a tapestry of recitals, readings, and intimate letters shared with Costi’s mother, looping us in the artist’s teenage years, a whirlwind of abuse, violence, despair and fear.

St. Chads isn’t your typical sterile gallery either; it’s a place as precarious as it is defiant. It’s a building on borrowed time, yet it’s precisely this impermanence that lends it a riveting air, an extra edge that sets it apart from the polished galleries one can usually find around the city. As curator and owner Benjamin Orlow jokingly states “the system is not to have a system.” It’s a sanctuary for experimentation, where Orlow champions risk-taking and eschews the suffocating grip of pretentious artsy fluff. The gut feeling approach to curation, coupled with the lack of press releases or commissioned stiff texts, adds into that “zero fucks given” flair, a distinctive essence to the space. There’s no glitz and glamour here: you get what you get. And the results are astounding. Orlow’s program isn’t confined by the shackles of convention, au contraire he’s driven by “illogical” practices, the ones that London clearly can’t, and doesn’t want to accommodate.

Enter Johnny Costi, an artist whose very presence challenges the status quo. “PAPER WORK” isn’t just an exhibition, but a seance with the past, a reckoning with the demons that still haunt Costi’s every waking moment. Through the analysis of restricted documents, personal letters and exposed performances, Costi confronts the specters of abuse, violence, and anguish that have plagued his life. The show is an experience that defies easy categorization; an odyssey into the depths of the human psyche that traverses the darkest recesses of trauma and emerges into the light of healing.

As, amidst the darkness, there is hope. Costi’s performances are not mere exercises in self-flagellation; as he firmly underlined: “I want no pity for myself, it’s supposed to be a story of triumph.” His readings are acts of defiance, of reclaiming agency in the face of adversity while revisiting his past to escape it. Seeing his performances as “rituals,” Costi confronts the ghosts of former times; reading out loud bitter sentences on burning documents and shredding them to pieces immediately after is a symbolic act of liberation. Each performance is a cathartic release, a spiritual awakening that transcends the confines of the gallery space and reaches deep into the heart of its public.

Costi’s practice is a testament to the power of authenticity in an age of manufactured spectacle. Raised in a scene where art was a foreign concept, he defies expectations to forge his own path. His inspiration doesn’t come from high-brow intellectualism or pretentious art-world circles, but rather from the raw, unfiltered madness of life itself, informed by game shows and reality TV. In “PAPER WORK,” Costi challenges the very notion of what a performance can be: he does not perceive the world in static squares or lofty texts, but in movement and conversation, while embracing the messy, beautiful chaos of existence. It’s not a show for the faint of heart.

As the show draws to a close, the echoes of Costi’s readings linger in the air, a haunting reminder of the resilience of the human spirit, as the artist candidly explained “with my work, I want to put more into life than I have taken out, it’s about redemption, or at least balancing the books as it were.” In a world that can often feels chaotic and uncertain, “PAPER WORK” serves as a beacon of hope, a reminder that even in our darkest moments, there is light to be found. And in the hands of an artist like Johnny Costi, that light shines brighter than ever before. Costi’s work is refreshingly honest, unafraid, a transformative journey unlike any other. At a time when performance is often reduced to showy displays, Costi reminds us of its true power: to heal, to challenge, and to inspire.

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Vittoria Martinotti