Francesca Gabbiani: Houseguest
Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Through May 24, 2009
by Quinn Latimer
Like a spell, Ted Hughes’ lines unspool in liquid white letters across the gallery’s russet-colored walls: “Once was every woman the witch / To ride a weed the ragwort road: / Devil to do whatever she would: / Each rosebud, every old bitch.” As a preamble to the witchy new show curated by Los Angeles-based artist Francesca Gabbiani at the Hammer Museum, Hughes’ 1960 voodoo curse “Witches” is perfect: the prints and woodcuts and illustrated books that follow, dating from the 14th century to the present, are a menagerie of sorceresses, whores, tarts, frights, opium-eyed royal highnesses and the macabre landscapes (poisonous plants, ravens, unsettling waters) such hussies keep.
Conceived by Gabbiani, whose own works on colored paper are an inspired blend of ominous architectures, sinister exteriors and spooky, sorcery, horror-film theatrics, the exhibition took on an absurdist, decidedly feminist bent. The artist clearly luxuriated in the masterful graphic works she gleaned from the Hammer’s impressive Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts—works by the likes of Albrecht Dürer, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, José de Goya y Lucientes and Jan Muller—and her tight focus on such dark themes brought not only their darkness but also their silliness to light, adding an abundant humor to the fear-filled proceedings. As melancholia, sloth, rape and death were hammered out in skillful cross-hatching again and again, I entered—with pleasure—the gruesome, artful and altogether art-historical fairy tale that Gabbiani had wrought.
The artist hung the works in a kind of round robin, with Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione’s 17th-century etching Melancholia, or Circe Turning Ulysses’ Men into Animals, starting things off. Two engravings by the Flemish artist Pieter van der Heyden quickly follow: Desidia (Sloth) and Ira (Anger), both from1558. Each comprises an extraordinarily landscaped vision of hell: trees bent, mouths agape, figures distorted, demented and undone. Moving on from such horrors, I quickly I found relief: a wonderful 1544 woodcut by Hans Baldung Grien called The Bewitched Groom, in which an old groom lies supine on the floor, a horse’s heart-shaped ass floating above, while a frightful old woman (the blushing bride?) shakes a lash at him. It’s the funniest, most surreal work on view, giving the hellish landscapes all around a more dreamy run for their money.
Since much of the work dated from the middle ages, a few more recent pieces stood out like bits of bridling modernity, eternal themes flawlessly intact. Marc Chagall’s Magician and Bridge, an engraving from 1923, and Paul Klee’s Die Hexe mit dem Kamm (The Witch with the Comb), a lithograph from the year before, were made even more evocative by being sandwiched between Dutch woodcuts from the 1500's (Hendrick Goltzius’s Demogorgon in the Cave of Eternity and Dürer’s St. Michael Fighting the Dragon, from 1511). The two female artists included— Käthe Kollwitz and Vija Celmins—also contributed some of the most contemporary works. The soft shapes of Kollwitz’s Tod greift in Kinderschar, from 1934, depict death in a dense black cape with its hands coming to grip on a group of children. Celmins’ work, from 1994, is less narrative but no less haunting, with its troubled ocean surface offering not meditative relief but something infinitely more sinister; stylistically, her woodcut’s extraordinary detail coupled with its enigmatic moral plays counterpoint to the much earlier works—expertly wrought yet parable-laden—that surround it.
With the works on the walls a constant monochrome (but for one odd Art Nouveau–inspired inclusion by the Czech artist Alphonse Marie Mucha), color was relegated to the center of the gallery. There, a number of table vitrines offered richly illustrated botanical books. The open pages were deliberate, delightful, and a bit deranged. Here were plants that poisoned (mushrooms), drugged (poppies), or both, along with a beady-eyed, black-bodied raven from Audobon’s “Birds of America.” A rash of “Local Poisonous Plants that are Most Harmful to Humans,” published in Berlin in 1798, sat near a detailed rendering of a cannabis plant drawn by Leonhart Fuchs in Basel in 1542. With their lush color and pointed polemic, the illustrations gave the autumnal room a bit more buoyancy.
As I left the gallery, my eyes fell again on Hughes’ poem, writ near the door. “Bitches still sulk, rosebuds blow, / And we are devilled.” The harm of his words, their damaging spell, had been broken by Gabbiani’s game use of them. So it was too with many of the historical artworks on view. Her reclamation—indeed, her celebration—of them had softened the blow of their fear, paranoia, and recriminations. In its place, Gabbiani’s own subversive enthusiasm for the malevolent and the magical took hold. Like a witch herself, she has feted with infinite good humor what she herself would have been burned for. And for an exhibition ostensibly about fear (in both its meanings: fright and awe), the good cheer it imparted was a surprise—and a revelation.
Quinn Latimer is a writer based in New York and Basel, Switzerland. Her poems have been featured in the Paris Review, Boston Review, and a recent Best New Poets anthology from the University of Virginia Press, and she has written about contemporary art and literature for Frieze, Modern Painters, Art on Paper, ARTnews, and Bookforum.