The Transformation of Desire: A new Installation by Franca Marini

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Robert C. Morgan
exhibition catalogue Franca Marini Universal Language Queens College Art Center, New York 2009, p.61-63
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The true test of a work of art is the manner in which it transmits ideas that touch us emotionally and in doing so remain contemporary. For a work of art to be contemporary means that it lives and breathes in the present, that the work is somehow alive and in contact with present-day experience. The Italian artistMaurizio Nannucci once said that “all art was at one time contemporary.” We might extend this further by saying that if a work of art is truly significant – going back 32,000 years to the Paleolithic caves in southern France – then it must remain contemporary. Unless a work of art retains the depth of experience indicative of its time, the work loses its sense of being in the present. Yet the notion of art being within the present should not be confused with works that follow a particular trend – the latter being a condition of commercial media. Trends have little to do with art. Rather they represent a kind of superficial appearance that passes by quickly instead of giving us an actual experience built on real substance.

Somehow I began to think of this problem while studying the installation, titled Universal Language, by Franca Marini last week while visiting the Queens College Art Center in New York. What is the quality that makes her work feel contemporary? There are five groupings of abstract shapes cut from translucent paper, a kind of synthetic vellum used in architectural drawings, brushed over with several coats of oil and tempera. Other materials included in this work include spray paint to darken areas of the paper along with delicate hemp fibers, supported with twine, rope, and copper wire. One does not think of endurance or permanence in relation to these materials. The work seems rather temporal. In essence, Marini’s installation – wrapped around a sequence of circular plate glass windows that surround a circular atrium on the top floor of the building – was constructed on the basis of a carefully calculated inspiration. Like the novels of Thomas Mann, the metaphorical writing signified by the forms is made to appear light and air-borne as if it exists without gravity.

I considered the sublimation of desire in Marini’s work, the ability of the mind to take a submerged conflict and transform it into something positive. Much great art – ranging from Picasso to Chagall to Carla Accardi – is developed in relation to this point of view, whether the method is made conscious or unconscious. In the case of Universal Language, I believe there is a combination of both. While there is a clear path that emanates from the unconscious into conscious reality, yet there is also a clearly determined sense of experimentation in discovering where and how the fragments of cut-paper are going to be placed, how these elements will be fastened or stretched, and how the proper tension of the wire will hold, among other decisions. In binding the elements together, Marini is seeking an overall effect, a tenacity and integrity true to her intention. To focus on details is one thing, but to sense the wholeness of the piece is something else. In fact, one cannot separate one from the other so easily. The details have to work indirectly to the installation just as De Kooning’s split-second brushwork required moments of reflection in relation to the previous gesture.

Without clarity in connecting the forms, the sense of space does not exist. Rather than seeing the continuum between the five aggregates that surround the atrium window, one might see a jumble of isolated incidents removed from the concept of the whole. For Marini, it is the holistic conception that plays heavily in her work. The process involves a kind of archaeology where broken vessels are taken out of the earth and then tossed into the air. The connection between the suspended shards is very real. We understand intuitively and metaphorically that these shards must inherently belong to one another. There can be no mistake. The precision of their placement is essential to the poetry, and the poetry is essential to both the structure and the resonance. Moreover, the aesthetic dimension comes into view through the act of perception that concomitantly reflects on what we are seeing as our experience is bound to the place in which the work resides, if only for a temporary duration. The mental effort contained within Marini’s work – which is as much emotional as it is conceptual – is what sustains our memory of Universal Language as a holistic intentional object.

For Marini to arrive at a formal solution, which in turn offers an experience in the phenomenological sense, the pattern of growth and development must go through a number of interesting and significant stages. Having written on the artist’s earlier metaphorical landscape paintings – if I might use such a description – thirteen years earlier, I emphasized the narrative expression that at the time seemed implicit within her work. In 1996, the concern of being a Siennese painter living and working in New York was of primary importance. Some trace of this concern is still present in Marini’s recent installation. However, she has traversed many bridges since shebegan as a painter. By 2001, the artist had moved from metaphorical landscapes to a more explicit use of writing in her work. This overall writing technique led to abstraction in which linear elements played an important function in her work. This tendency was present in an exhibition that year organized by the Museo dell’Antica Grancia in Serre di Rapolano. Four yearslater, Marini presented yet another group of works at the Galería Nacional in San José, Costa Rica involving spray paint on large sheets of paper in which various threads extended from the cut interior surface to the external wall. This work revealed a transition in Marini’s painting from the language paintings of 2001 to the hybrid notion that a painting could exist as an installation, and that it could extend beyond the frame. Therefore, it could also exist beyond the limitation of the medium.

By 2008, Marini had discarded the conventional notion of painting in favor of using her materials in real space. This was shown as an installation at Studio Arte Fuori Centro in Roma. Titled Urban Lines, the artist used the medium of video to describe the space in which clusters and aggregates of lines, derived from various materials, wove through and intersected one another. While one could detect the pattern of a polychrome grid in the background, one could also see what appeared as chaotic bundles of pleated ducts and bent copper tubing mixed with wood and paper. The chaos, however, was only a decoy for a highly sophisticated structure – again reminiscent of the abstract surfaces found in many abstract expressionist paintings. Even so, by now Marini’s painting exists in actual space.

I mention this trajectory of evolution in Marini’s work to explain that her journey from painting to installation was not a sudden phenomenon. Like many artists, who are persistently dealing with their intentions in a way that offer a guide to plasticity without usurping it, Marini has taken years to advance through myriad passages resulting in where she is today. However, there is another unpredictable analogy I may have discovered in studying the cut-paper shapes at the installation for Queens College. The shapes suggest a connection to nature, which is to say, they are not calculated strictly from an internal perspective. While Marini’s shapes may have been calculated in relation to the external spaces between the windows that surround the circular atrium, the origin of the shapes suggests a style of biomorphic freedom that reference the paintings exhibited in 1996 at the Elizabeth Harris Gallery in New York.

For example, the cloud forms in these paintings that either contain or once contained figures of angels in the skies over the landscapes have a close relationship to the abstract cut-paper shapes used in the current installation. This may suggest that angels are implicitly present in this installation as well. This, of course, is a poetic idea, but also a signifier of Siennese painting where multitudes of angels are present. In this case, I am thinking specifically of Sassetta. The other curious affinity is related to Pollock’s elongated painting from 1948, titled Summertime. At regular intervals between his swirling drips and pours, there are enclosed biomorphic shapes that resemble the rhythmic formal punctuations found in Marini’s work.

What I find satisfying about these metaphorical shapes is the fact that Universal Language closes the gap between the Italian Renaissance as an isolated historical phenomenon as seen within an institution, such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the imagination of the viewer to think of lightness and the potential transformation of desire as we function within the secular space of a digitally-enhanced library. It would appear that Franca Marini has endowed this library with a work that is not only contemporary, but also a gift. Universal Language heals the divide between the secular and spiritual components inscribed within the way we reflect on the nature of art and also on the human condition that intervenes within this process.