Wilma Tabacco: Gilt Edge
Langford120, North Melbourne, Australia
1 June–30 June 2013
By Dr JANET McKENZIE
Wilma Tabacco was born in the province of L’Aquila, Italy and has lived in Australia since childhood. Her new exhibition in Melbourne: Gilt Edge is based on all of her work to date but focuses on the materiality and meaning of gold as a powerful means of communication relating to the numinous sphere of human life.
Gold is above all a prized and precious substance with many meanings and associations throughout history. Symbolic of flexibility in spiritual terms (gold is a transitional metal) it is life itself that is seen to galvanise faith. Gold is the ultimate manifestation or symbol of perfection, and represents the human quest for betterment and perfection. In physical or scientific terms gold is resistant to both heat and to acid, and therefore has become the symbol for immutability, eternity and perfection. Christian symbolism endows gold with the attribute of virtue; golden hues are used in Christian art to convey divine love.
“Gold has long been associated with a divine sphere, both in pre-Christian and in Christian religion. The shine of gold, its indestructible nature, its malleability and its relative scarcity made it an ideal material to embody divine qualities, but also expressions of human veneration of the divine. Gold was perceived as an appropriate material with which to address the gods (Elbern 1988). Temples, sanctuaries and churches were decorated lavishly with golden or gilded statues and images. Liturgical equipment was made out of gold (La Nièce 2009)”.1
The use of a gold ground became standard practice for both icon painting and mosaic in Byzantine art, creating for the viewer the atmosphere of a world withdrawn from the exigencies of the daily life. In icons and mosaics the viewer could enter “a denaturalized setting against which the holy figures float, already more at home in a heavenly rather than an earthly realm”.2
The ancient legend of alchemists turning common metals into gold is itself a parable for the human quest to change crude or profane human attributes such as: greed, hate and selfishness into qualities such as love, virtue and compassion through the process of self-purification. Alchemical symbolism has been used by psychologists such as Carl Jung who reexamined alchemical symbolism and theory and presented the inner meaning of alchemical work as a spiritual path.
Many artists working in the 20th century endowed their work with greater conceptual meaning by employing materials from the outside world. Joseph Beuys is perhaps the most influential in this field with numerous contemporary artists (including Francesco Clemente, and Bernhard Sachs as reviewed on this website) asserting the importance of his life and work. The choice of materials for Beuys, as for Tabacco here, are not random and the materials are never neutral. “Beuys viewed certain materials as having important associations with his past, and through repeated use they attained a personal symbolism. Other materials were viewed as having magical or therapeutic power both for Beuys and for the audience or viewer.”3
In the context of Tabacco’s recent work, which is based in drawing research and experimentation, the relationship between drawing and what has traditionally been regarded as “secondary” or “primary” works (painting, sculpture), Beuys’s approach is extremely important.
Drawing is the first visible form in my works … the first visible thing of the form of the thought, the changing point from the invisible powers to the visible thing … It’s really a special kind of thought, brought down onto a surface, be it flat or be it rounded, be it a solid support like a blackboard or be it a flexible thing like paper or leather or parchment, or whatever kind of surface … It is not only a description of the thought … You have also incorporated the senses … the sense of balance, the sense of vision, the sense of audition, the sense of touch. And everything now comes together: the thought becomes modified by other creative strata, within the anthropological entity, the human being … And then the last, not least, the most important thing is that some transfer from the invisible to the visible ends with a sound, since the most important production of human beings is language … So this wide understanding, this wider understanding of drawing is very important for me.4
Joseph Beuys, quoted by Bernice Rose, ‘Joseph Beuys and the Language of Drawing’.
Bernice Rose points out that in the four decades of his career, the practice and concept of Beuys’s drawing underwent profound changes. “As Beuys changed course he reconceptualised the role of his earlier drawings in the light of new ideas. That retrospective reconfiguration compels clarification, since in its process Beuys came to radically reorder the relationship between drawing and what is traditionally regarded as an artist’s major work. For Beuys art and life became inextricably one, and the vocation of artist came to carry a specifically social and ethical responsibility. Through drawing Beuys did no less than radicalise the notion of art as it relates to the larger category of the aesthetic in Western thought.”5
Intellectually conceived and informed by the work of many artists, on whom she has carried out detailed research in the past, such as Frank Stella and Bridget Riley, Tabacco infuses the apparently unyielding language of optical art with a poetry and release from the strictures of early modernist explorations, with a remarkable freedom and sheer beauty, with an exacting tenor. Her recent work makes allusions to the process of art, to history and to personal experience, and the point at which individuals are touched by another realm of experience altogether.
Central to her work since is the experience in the early 1990s, when Tabacco attended a month-long drawing workshop in Como, Italy where she recalls, “the most frustrating dilemma facing the participating group of international artists, curators and theorists related to drawing’s methodological inclusiveness or otherwise: that is, what constitutes a drawing. I recall discussion regarding a group of grisaille oil on paper works made by Andrea Mantegna. A London gallery featuring only the paintings of this artist claimed these works as paintings, while a New York gallery, simultaneously featuring only the artist’s drawings, claimed these same works as drawings. This discussion exemplifies the ambiguous, slippery ground that enables drawing practices to flourish and be revitalised”.6 While discussions such as this continue, where contemporary art practice is concerned, drawing now claims artistic procedures that years ago would have been deemed outside its scope.
Although most artists draw in the initial stages of creating pictorial images, not all works can be claimed as drawings. Tabacco maintains that she is involved in drawing in the initial stages of creating an image, be it on canvas or on paper. She does not, however, work from prepared sketches. The creative impulse is enacted directly on whatever surface she chooses. “I prefer the flow of aqueous mediums: on paper, my preferred ground for drawing; this is either ink, watercolour or acrylic paint. A brush loaded with pigment gliding along a surface suits my expressive means more than the stop start and drag of grit on toothy surfaces. I have recently expanded my materials to include powdered pigments applied with cloth or brush and leaves of gold adhered to a sticky surface. The works completed on paper, I regard as drawings, those on canvas, I refer to as paintings.”7
For Wilma Tabacco, “drawing is a way of determining and experimenting with structural ideas concerned with creating spatial ambiguity and accentuating the idiosyncrasies and indeterminable nature of colour relationships”.8 When she is painting she usually draws directly on canvas using masking tape. The preparatory work is done on the canvas itself. From this structural component the oil painting evolves. The original drawing is, however, subsumed within the painting. This close relationship between drawing and painting is intrinsic to her art practice. “Works on paper evolve in the same manner but, unlike my paintings which undergo a multitude of minor colour and compositional adjustments, these works on paper remain unaltered and often the exposed paper itself remains an integral pictorial component of the work. My drawings just are: the initial impulse is either satisfying or deemed a failure. The latter are discarded the former survive.”9
This fastidious approach to all of her work can be traced back to her printmaking, where attention to technique imbued her art practice with patience and perfectionism; she now chooses the exacting method of gold leaf, but enjoys the role of chance, of accident in the overall process. The surface of her works on paper, Airborne, 1-9, (2008) and Test Flight, 1-4, (2008) using gold leaf and pigments is meticulous, and poetic, addressing fragmentation and the fractured self. On a personal level the works she had been making for some years were given a bizarre impetus by reality, when she sustained a disastrous injury. A fall on a marble floor in an airport shattered her knee cap, and left her with constant pain and incapacity, yet Tabacco continues the very physical life of an artist (standing, bending, kneeling). The role of chance and uncertainty are given free rein in the ironically beautiful works. Gold leaf has traditionally been popular and most common in its use as gilding material for the decoration of art (including statues and Eastern Christian icons) in religious contexts it can be used to express veneration of the divine or an actual divinity. As a method it is difficult and a lifetime of painstaking application does not guarantee success. The sheets are so thinly beaten, creating an immediate paradox that of a fragile metal. They are almost transparent and affected by temperature; humidity, air movement, the breath or sneeze of the artist can be ruinous. Where traditional Byzantine or Italian Renaissance artists learned in a workshop with masters teaching them: no such tradition exists today, leading the artist to learn from books, a frustrating task, or from trial and error. Liquid leaf exists but it kills the delicate patina of gold leaf; gold leaf in a wax base is an enjoyable process but heavy compared to the results obtained by the traditional methods.
Unwilling to travel as a method of self-preservation, Tabacco’s works enable her to explore an inner world. Maps have always held a special interest especially hand drawn and coloured ancient maps. Her “recent works flirt with the idea of representing actual or imagined spaces – in a manner suggestive of cartographer’s maps.”10 Her 2009 exhibition at Niagara Galleries, Flights of Fantasy, suggests that “travel through space and time need not always be a burdensome corporeal activity; it can be, as the works presented depict, an imaginary journey without physical limitations. The works plot possible fight paths, meridian lines and resting stops in undescribed journeys to unknowable destinations”.11
In Airborne, for instance, the gold leaf forms derive from the alphabetic letters that make up the words “Melbourne” and “London”. These letters have been randomly cut but purposefully arranged to resemble the aerial views of city blocks. Five of the nine works “spell” Melbourne, four make up the word London. None of this information is retrievable from the works themselves. One sees abstract shapes and pictorial spaces that map the artist’s methods of construction and artistic processes. Despite this, they do have the potential to transport the imagination beyond their seemingly logical, measured and abstract representations.
The Tourist Map (2008) series, however, derive from modified maps of actual cities: Paris, London, Aix-en-Provence, Seoul, Bologna but they lack the type of information that would allow one to travel knowingly from one place of interest to another. Instead, Tabacco points out: “these maps suggest that losing oneself in unknown spaces can be a rewarding and enriching experience, if only one takes the time to look and enjoy. Certainly the encounters can be frustrating, however exploration of the new, the different is most rewarding when approached without preconceived expectations of what one will discover. Permitting oneself to be guided only by chance, intuition or blind faith, can be considered as a valid corollary to, or perhaps a metaphor for, the act of drawing itself. For me, it is through drawing that I allow myself to meander through untested visual imagery, to experiment with making vague visual and fleeting sensations of spaces, places and times. Drawing permits me total involvement with unrehearsed mark and image making during which I can lose myself in a timeless and unfathomable space.”12
1. Charlotte Behr, “The Symbolic Nature of Gold in Magical and Religious Contexts” (University of Roehampton) Papers from the Staffordshire Hoard Symposium (Portable Antiquities Scheme: http://finds.org.uk)
4. In: Ann Temkin and Bernice Rose, Thinking Is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys, Thames and Hudson with Museum of Modern Art and Philadelphia Museum of Art, New York, 1993: 73. Thinking Is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys (1993) was organised jointly by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Museum of Modern Art, New York, by Bernice Rose and Ann Temkin. Thinking Is Form, expressed Beuys’s conception of the processes of drawing and making sculpture as profoundly akin to thought.