Francesca Gabbiani at Gavlak Gallery
Through May 26
By Constance Mallinson
In her current exhibition Francesca Gabbiani continues her longstanding practice of collaging evocative imagery intricately cut from multi-colored papers to create allegories of life and death. A “goth” aesthetic appropriately prevailed in her previous work as owls and skulls were intertwined with sensuous florals to evoke ornate funerary wreaths. In “Vague Terrains/Urban Fuckups”, however, the cut paper flora finds itself almost clinging to life among the brambles and weeds in large scale ink and gouache drawings of abandoned and decaying urban spaces. Working painstakingly from personal photographs, Gabbiani renders thousands of shards of crumbling concrete and tangled vegetation to form exquisite webs of intersecting contour lines punctuated with splashes of descriptive landscape colors. Alternating between abstraction and figuration, flatness and illusion, the drawings deftly employ the tensions to full effect, as viewers must negotiate between the aesthetic pleasures or “ruin porn” of her teeming surfaces and the dystopic nature of the scenes.
The artist is finely attuned to the symbolisms afforded by these ruined sites and her compositional skills and manipulation of perspective are fully employed to conjure metaphors of pressing environmental, economic and sociological dilemmas. In “The Unresolved Story” a dilapidated outdoor stairway winds it way from the bottom of the picture almost reaching an opening in a wall at the top of a hillside landscape where blue sky awaits. This figurative up-or-down climb seems to signify choice over our collective fate.
Overlapping deteriorating natural and human made materials suggest a mountainous landfill extending to a sky crisscrossed with droopy telephone wires in “Vague Terrain”. Perhaps the outdoor phone lines are meant to express an outmoded technology, a bygone era. Gabbiani’s favored territories are the disintegrating remnants of structures in deserted and desolate spots slowly being “reclaimed” by nature represented by colored swatches of cut paper foliage. She is drawn to refuse and the amorphous aftermath of the wrecking ball, an overly familiar sight in our cities today as the past is quickly erased for immediate commerce. Despite the human propensity to “fuck up” abundantly suggested by her images, the painter always provides optimistic glimmers of renewal and possibilities for a change in consciousness elicited by the brilliant sprouting leaves and limitless expanses of the upper atmosphere.
Gabbiani is heir to a long tradition of picturing ruins beginning in the 18th century with the Italian Giovanni Battista Piranesi whose detailed etchings of fallen Roman structures and labyrinthine prison interiors began a centuries long examination of civilization’s hubris and a confrontation with narratives of progress. The Romantics perfected ruin worship as landscape painters and poets obsessed in states of melancholy over nature as an antidote to rampant Industrialism, hyper-rationalism and the impending dark side of Modernity. Locating viewers somewhere between nature and culture, the past and present, ruin depictions and sublime landscape imagery henceforth became imaginative spaces to meditate on transience, precarity, and mortality.
Contemporary German artist Anselm Kiefer with his post-Nazi scorched earth and decaying grand architecture imagery or American painter Alexis Rockman with his post- apocalyptic underwater metropolises continue these critiques of utopian narratives. Like Kiefer whose blackened canvases are reminders that empires and isms built on easy ideologies inevitably collapse, Gabbiani’s fractured surfaces speak of the fragility of present empires built on a global capitalist machine, its denial of history’s lessons and rapacious reach into the future. She takes us to the overlooked places where trash is accumulating, infrastructure is deteriorating, and the environment is increasingly compromised.
To borrow a phrase from landscape theorist J.B. Jackson, she embraces “the necessity for ruins” for keeping in play the compelling questions they raise. Gabbiani’s carefully placed intrusions of nature among the ruins, however, seem to inexorably point us toward poet Robinson Jeffers’ words: “the flower will fade to make fruit, and the fruit will rot to make earth.”