Solo Show - Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, Ireland
by Slavka Sverakova, March 2007
Mute as Leonardos mute poetry Chiecos drawings tell stories. Also but not just.
A paradox constructed between her inventive intention, which is suggested by the elaborate titles, and the composition harvests the freefalling relationships and inconsistency of scale, absence of closure as well as two different levels of representation. In one, the outline defines a human body respectful of the anatomy and proportions, in the other, the illusion of the three - dimensional form, be it strawberry or a badger, is worked in full colour.
Chieco makes drawings in series connected by a theme that is also an event. I shall focus on two of her seventeen series only: Angelus Domini, 2007, and The Banquet, 2006.
The series, Angelus Domini, so far five out of planned six drawings, received its inspiration from an image of people stopping for a prayer, which the artist saw on the television in Dublin.
Each drawing is composed of twelve figures; a number that may be either completely arbitrary or harbouring resonances of cultural codes, like twelve apostles, twelve months in a year, twelve hours as the exact cyclically re-occurring share between day and night, or twelve angry men in a film about truth, honour and justice In each image the men and women are engaged in one activity as described in the caption: watching the badger, smoking the salmon, catching fleas from the deer, licking woodcocks and spreading jam on the seal. The figures are rendered in a delicate outline in a variety of positions ranging from frontal standing nude to crouching and reclining (almost) disinterested bodies. I say bodies and not persons for a simple reason: the selected level of abstraction insists on minimal life, and even that is frozen in a given moment. The bodies are frozen in time, however, the eyes are still gazing at us with a force of curiosity and/or accusation. As if observed from H. Bosch, there are unexpected knots of bodies, mostly in the form of the Y cross. Three bodies connect to create an illusion of the only movement in the composition, like a windmill standing still for a second between rotations. Condemned to never rotate they stay still exuding the denied energy for an observant eye to see.
The objects, like badger, salmon, fleas, woodcocks and the seal are drawn in full colour subservient to a scientific correctness. The colour accentuates details like the red tongues, the jam dripping onto and from various orifices and parts of anatomy, the pipes are held by unexpected parts of the bodies.
In its decline away from the purposeful Angelus Domini moves in between the ordinary and the spiritual. The figures are thus connected by shared fate. However, that is only one story. Underneath, there is another, and may be some more. The one I became aware of connects to the ideas of freedom and truth that would question obedience and submission dominant over the first story. And what better myth it evokes than that of the cave in Platos Republic. Like his prisoners Chiecos persons are chained to a wall. The wall is the empty background of the paper onto which the elegant outlines incise the naked bodies. There is no actual chain; the bodies are chained by their background becoming their bodies, inside the outlines. The male and female gender is clearly but minimally characterised, all comfortable in what appears as a warm daylight. And no they are not either inside or outside. They are in both simultaneously; my perception oscillates between one and the other at a whim.
If an image taxes a sense with that degree of uncertainty and still manages to make it feel good it focuses my attention on the idea of consciousness, or more accurately the phenomenology of consciousness (in some translations phenomenology of mind). Hegel proposes a loop: a move from sensual experience to spiritual experience and back again to sense experience. I think, this is the concept Chieco is addressing in these drawings. She allows the people in her images to know themselves ( to a degree) but not necessarily one another. Obedient to whatever task she chose for them they also obey to stop instantly. Alive and not moving, not breathing even, they still posses energy of inner life.
Some of their poses reflect classical art, some relate to poses modern models assume in the plentiful media of the present. These gentle citations mediate the aesthetic experience of the sublime, a rare occurrence in contemporary art practice. The sublime in these drawings is a perfect embodiment of Kants dialectic between security and helplessness. (Critique of Judgement, Book II, Part 1)
That ambivalent mode of being contains loss and salvation, acquiescence and conflict, servility and freedom. The question What would guarantee an absolute and systematic protection for our existence has no answer. The approximations of an illusion that expels the risks of being in the world by moving ones consciousness above finite existence are anchored to sharp conjunctions of contrasts in an eternally peaceful time and place. Neither time nor place is given concrete characteristics, thus both stay unobtainable, or obtainable through freewheeling imagination.
The relief enjoyed after finding a refuge or unconditional security, say, of a regular meal, becomes real, yet the world as a permanent source of insecurity can never be mastered.
As a compositional principle, the oxymoron appears to me as a dominant guide to what goes in each image also in The Banquet, 2006, a series made up by eight drawings filled with eight or six figures, once they are nine of them, and connected by a menu in an expensive French restaurant (not necessarily in France). The eight courses with carefully selected wine described in French evoke a culture of eating sponsored by the rich. Each one is perfect, beautifully combined ingredients illustrate high craft of preparation of meals. Food, in the titles of these drawings, is presented as the chief of all things, the universal good, nourishment for body and mind, capable of creating daily health and happiness.
The images themselves do nothing of the kind. The whole menu is presented in a public toilet of a Victorian design, each meal accompanied by different detail: oysters with Don Perignon are sited at the open door, entrée under an open window, pasta is placed in a washbasin, fish under a shower, lamb next to a bath tub, cheese and baguette next to a toilet and chocolate with cherries in front of a mirror.
The poses of the figures are less hieratic and less obedient than in the Angelus. Chieco also allows, either by design or oversight, rapid conflicts of different scales, a small figure crouches near, what appears, a giant. One famous example of this strategy is Grunewalds Mary Magdalene under the crucified Christ in the Isenheim altarpiece (1517). There she resonates the feeling of anguish. Anguish differs from fear by pertaining to an individual who has been isolated from a significant being. Chieco almost cancels that possibility by connecting all the individuals with visible lines. Look closely and the connections are not doing their job. They are together as complete strangers, without togetherness.
The high class menu and the public toilet form one of many superb oxymoron tropes invented by Chieco for The Banquet.
Going along with the evocative force of such connections, it is pertinent to think of the Symposium as a classical Greek equivalent. Plato in his take on this has an interesting beginning: Socrates gives his place to another person and disappears; Agathon, the host, sends messengers to call him back without success. They start eating the food with an explicit regret at Socratess absence. Much later Socrates returns and is asked to sit near Agathon, so that I may touch you and have the benefit of that wise thought which came into your mind. As if the food was just a pretext for a different nourishment.
In The Banquet, there are only two persons clearly outside, both partly detached from the groups who a busy connecting, touching, pouring etc. The groups virtuosity in fulfilling the task seems effortless, forging a kind of background noise from which significant articulations in colour derive. The unusual modulations of food and drink are contaminating the wine vignettes, and precise definitions of fruit, meat, cheese, pasta etc. The precise closures insist on normality of these events, the unusual connections undermine that view.
The authentic life (Heidegger) is turned into a spectacle. It may be of interest that the idea of spectacle received similar treatment by Heidegger and St Augustin as a degraded love of knowledge. Modern culture differs the search for knowledge is good.
Chieco degrades the culinary culture by enveloping it with the culture of waste forging, in my view, a stream of wisdom about the convergence of things in undifferentiated closeness. Grasped by opinion and sense perception the physical world comes to be and passes away (Plato, Timaeus, Part I).
Passionate and philosophical these drawings are in a manner preferred by Plato in Timaeus: to be intelligible to the viewer and in the fullest accord with the artists intention.
By leaving each open ended Chieco wrestles them from that duality and offers them freedom to go to a symposium of curious minds.