Poetry in materials
Rachel Spence, 2009
Catálogo exposición “Il nero non è solo buio” de Rossana Zaera
“Whether suspended in mid-air, like delicate, amorphous insects, or figured on paper in a wavering, anxious line, Rossana Zaera’s beds embody the contradiction that is the heart of her vision.
On first sight, the image appears the essence of fragility: poetic, hesitant, uncertain. Yet as one’s gaze lingers, quite different qualities assert themselves. That sculpture, with its ethereal froth of fibre, is re-enforced with iron. The drawing, for all its informel lightness, is contoured by a outline whose dense, uncompromising blackness is firmly anchored in the real.
It is easy to read Zaera’s beds – simultaneous expressions of frailty and resilience – as the legacy of her childhood, during much of which she was confined to bed with polio.
Yet Zaera is no Tracey Emin. The latter’s famous installation, My Bed, with its detritus of stained sheets, discarded underwear and used condoms, was grounded in an imagery so intimately personal it threatened to destroy its artistic value. To move from Emin’s blood-stained panties to a broader awareness of a collective female experience required a leap of the imagination too challenging for the majority. The sheer materiality of the work – her blood, her sheets – blinded the eye.
Emin showed. Zaera makes. With steely, obsessive devotion, she returns again and again to that skeletal frame. Yet every image stands alone; each one could be the first bed, the only bed, that she has ever made. Such diversity is ensured by her range of techniques. Dipping into gouache, pastel, watercolour, Zaera draws, drips, scratches, stains, shocks with a patch of red, dazzles with splashes of white. Sometimes she adds a crucifix on the wall, or a bedside table. Her bed, important as it is, is no fetish.
By creating this galaxy of shape-shifting, minutely calibrated images, Zaera’s vision transcends its origins in the personal. This is no longer her bed; it is a bed. Our bed. From Caravaggio to Joseph Beuys, the capacity to transform personal suffering into an expression that has universal resonance has always been a safe measure of a true artist.
As Zaera puts it: “The bed represents the pain of being human, of anybody being human, of solitude, of anguish. It is the cliché of the wounded, the place of darkness and of shadow, of death. Its representation permits the sharing of something that was individual and intimate that now we can share. In this way, we can understand the grief of the other, and also our own grief.”
No-one could deny that suffering is intrinsic to Zaera’s vision. She describes her lightboxes, where limbs appear like luminous, painterly phantoms, as “radiographies of the soul. Light which surges from grief.” Her heads, sightless and bandaged, evade the viewer’s gaze as if ashamed of their wounds. Her gauze-wrapped mummies cling to the paper like wordless, insistent messengers from the after-life.
Little wonder that artists who have moved her profoundly include Goya, considered the first truly modern painter for his intimate portrayals of human anguish; Van Gogh, whose uncanny perception of essential forms ultimately proved intolerable; and Rothko, who was also ultimately engulfed by his “tragic and timeless” imagination.
Yet Zaera is not an artist of despair. The tenacity of her line allied to her passion for light – diaphanous flashes, stark black and white contrasts, star-like constellations – ensure that her oeuvre is infused with hope as well as sadness.
One of her favoured artists is the Cuban-American feminist Ana Mendieta. In the 1970s, Mendieta’s performances – which included manifesting herself as a victim of rape, and sculpting her own body into sand, earth and snow – were forceful statements of resistance both to the exploitation of women’s bodies and to society’s increasing dislocation from nature. Although her death was recorded as suicide after she fell to her death from a window following an argument with her husband, the minimalist sculptor Carl André – who was subsequently tried and acquitted of her murder – the verdict shocked all who knew her. For Mendieta’s art was marked by an angry, passionate commitment to change that was the antithesis of defeat.
Zaera’s politics are less explicit. With her repertoire of hermetic subjects and subtle gestures, she makes work that neither judges, nor shocks nor pleads for sympathy. Instead, the cumulative power of her images, the ceaseless, rhythmic whisper of their iconography, coalesces into a quiet statement of faith in art as a medium for salvation. A poetics of survival where the refusal to surrender to suffering, to cease the artistic work, is noble in itself.
“From that living hell, where we have been buried many times on our own bed, a renewed being will rise who will build himself. It is a process of restoration; I take myself, I catch my thousand pieces and build myself…”
Animated by an intense, vital interiority, Zaera’s images could be illustrations for Emily Dickinson’s poetry.
“The Soul has Bandaged moments
When too appalled to stir
She feels some ghastly Fright come up
And stop to look at her -“ wrote the Massachusetts poet, even now regarded by many critics as the quintessential spinster, who poured her creative energy into poetry only because she was disappointed in love.
Yet Dickinson’s decision to live a secluded life in her father’s house – where she wrote over 1000 poems – can also be seen as a conscious choice to liberate herself from the creative constraints of life as wife and mother. Two verses after lamenting her “Bandaged moments,” Dickinson acknowledges:
“The soul has moments of Escape
When bursting all the doors
She dances like a Bomb, abroad
And swings upon the Hours….’
The exhausting oscillation between agony and ecstasy is a familiar torment to most great artists. To find a balance, Dickinson retreated from the world. Zaera, instead, sees no dichotomy between the roles of mother and an artist, painting her son as he lies in his hospital bed with tender, lyrical, maternal passion.
In a world where many highly successful artists produce works on which they have barely laid a finger, relying instead on factory-style workshops where digital images are realised by hired craftspeople, Zaera’s description of herself as a “builder” is significant.
Fruit of a scrupulous, meditative manuality, her art is the antithesis of this hands-off trend. Her fidelity to the old-fashioned process of making gives her works a particular resonance, as if their surfaces silently transmit the memory of the artist’s hand – vulnerable, fallible, human – that is denied to purely conceptual pieces.
Kandinsky perceived that the challenge for every artwork was to transform “emotion in the soul of the artist” to “emotion in the soul of the observer.” According to the Russian, what bridged this passage were the senses of the observer: sight, touch, sound. When we encounter an artwork that is conjured not only out of intensely-felt emotion but also of virtuoso manual technique, our senses are awakened on a powerful, visceral register. Zaera’s vision vibrates on our souls.”