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HEATHER ACCURSO: Girl Drawings
Savvy Buddhas, cherubim in leather; chimeras, monsters -- creatures of instinct, innocence, and irony.... Eleven renderings in graphite and color pencil by Chicago artist, Heather Accurso, blend visual fantasy with provocative intent. This exhibition, "Girl Drawings," offers an engaging perspective of artist and woman as self-examiner and, in doing so, underscores that things as they are perceived to be may just as well be viewed in other ways, to posit and perceive itself suggests alternatives, and that this process can alter what one sees and uncritically accepts. "Heather Accurso: Girl Drawings" garners possibilities. They are offered at Printworks Gallery, Chicago, until July 7, 2001.
This is an assertive art. The exhibit gathers singular pieces and work from several of the artist's thematic series of recent years. Each framed piece of art at first puzzles and, for some first-time visitors, confuses and dismays. Look closely at the work. Accurso's art displays an instinct for affinities, and freely works with their apparent unrelatedness, and although her art would seem to assert strong female images, in fact, it affirms a fundamental human nature that is not bound to random facts of sex. Accurso's graphic fancy transforms the social accidents of male and female conventions. It declares a progressive future tense, rather than restating a past imperfect.
The evolution of these drawings reflects a crucial aspect of any artist's rite of passage. Until her graduation from the University of Chicago in 1993, the artist felt a certain reticence before the dominating legacy of all past art; or, perhaps more accurately, the conventional academic interpretations and evaluations placed on what had become canonized. Chicago artist, Vera Klement, wisely advised Accurso to either disregard that cerebral baggage, or to use it constructively as a foil to begin her own creative dialogue. (Critic and philosopher George Steiner once observed: "The best readings of art are art.") "Girl Drawings," however much its imagery pleases and delights, unfolds an interplay, of content and context as well as vision. It is highly individual. At one point, Accurso had been advised by an art school faculty member to omit the head from a torso she had fashioned in order to foster a calculated ambiguity for viewers. Instead, the artist went on to develop images of specific identity. In "Girl Drawings," Heather Accurso finds her own voice.
Accurso's art is not entirely without precedents. Attracted initially to works by De Chirico and Magritte, the artist took council with Douglas Ischar, a mentor at the University of Illinois/Chicago, and investigated the Surrealist art of American, Dorothea Tanning; Italian artist, Leonor Fini; the much-traveled English painter, Leonora Carrington; and Spanish-Mexican Remedios Varo. Art historian, Whitney Chadwick, in preface to those particular artists noted:
Like those artists, Accurso rejected a convention of woman as either seductive monster or degenerate angel. She has noted: "In my work, I affirm the biological world, although only in conjunction with an edgy, visceral, intellectual, deity or priestess perspective -- instead of the passive beauty of the femme fatale approach." Equally, her art evades a compliant domestication of female image. To acquiesce to those conventions would uncritically endorse a residue of history. In this exhibition, Accurso's art shares with the aforementioned, earlier women Surrealists a precise, detailed technique more often associated with scientific illustration; a heightened awareness of image model and gallery viewer as 'mutual observers'; and, at times, a bit of scepticism emerges about this very linking of Object and Subject.
But such prologue is a derived and general afterthought: conclusion. Each work of art is a unique particular. Like nature, art is expressed in specifics. The artist, firstly, and the viewer, afterwards, makes meaning from experience. In Accurso's art, both her focal motif and its role within her overall composition are dominant concerns. Further elements elaborate each theme.
What first strikes the viewer is the artist's central focus: female babies -- baby women. That image was sparked by a chance yard sale purchase of a plastic toy doll for less than a dollar. (The artist still possesses this -- has any model worked for less?) Accurso went in search of female potentials -- gestural, aggressive, and visceral -- and approached a new beginning where beginnings are. Accurso's baby girls, however, counter every conventional expectation: they are not passive nor helpless; nor necessarily soft and lovely; often... they are barely human. It is the artist's permutations -- girl babies of an unnatural maturity in face and body pose, in unseemly attire; and frequently stark chimerical recombinations -- which compel a viewer to question and re-examine accepted expectations for all the disparate elements so plausibly melded into art. Certainly, the girl babies are not "Sugar and Spice, and everything nice." Neither are they truly monsters. They are the thought experiments distilled, not from mundane fact, but grounded in curiosity and imagination: mentor provocateurs to each viewer's alter egos.
Accurso did begin her dialogue with male and female stereotypes, and her art renews the ever present debate about Nurture versus Nature. (If that is indeed a debate, and not itself an ongoing condition and response.) After earlier efforts of the artist to find bearings, her art approached the realistic and animal -- became, as the artist notes, 'edgy.'
Flimming ["Flying/Swimming"] melds zoological features with Accurso's baby girl image. The viewer is presented with sea turtle flipper, chameleon nose and insect-inspired appendages. An initial impression was of viewing a prepared slide of microscopic life-forms -- water-fleas, rotifers, vinegar eels.... But, as in many of this artist's works, the creature in the closely studied specimen box itself scrutinizes the viewer. Flimming not only dissects the act of observing and categorizing, but as well interjects a disconcerting female image into a context all too often set aside as a male preserve (whether expressed as little boys' love of outdoor curios -- frogs, snakes, "snips and snails and puppy dog tails," or, at end, in the more exact biological sciences). That in many of these drawings the focus is a human chimera does underscore how many illusions of observation rest in the separation of observer from object. But neither scientists, social theorists, nor philosophers (nor, especially, artists) truly contemplate ordered objects upon a table. And, among humans, the objects of our scrutiny are ultimately ourselves. We set the contexts and concepts, however imperfect or errant. The unexpected or incongruous resets our frame of reference. The artist has noted that this piece was prompted when a drawing returned from the framer with a bug trapped inside.
Heather Accurso's precise and figurative Surrealism -- a Magic Realism -- strongly exploits dissonant frames of reference and conflicting contexts. In Peach Pit and Three, three chimerical girl babies gather about a sundial or clock, as if mounted on a slide. (At first, that background element recalled a coin so often placed in field photography for scale.) With Peach Pit and Three, the artist completed the inner drawing, and in review felt the image called for further reference, a framing element. Here, the intertwined snake bodies of the outer mount amplify similar scaled features of the baby girls who form the centripetal focus. Their braided and trailing hair coiffures unexpectedly assume a serpentine nature. And yet, here is no sense of malevolence. The overall impression approaches one of insemination: baby girls clustered before a clock -- time fertilized by predestined female forms. It is a painting. It is free to engender its associations. (Picasso, once when challenged on a work which 'did not look like a dog,' countered: "But Madame, it is not a dog. It is a painting....") Peach Pit and Three is a painting: that is, a visual event, not naive illusion.
Which is not to imply that there is no dark side to the 'little girl.' In Black Seed, more 'nameable' references are evident: a somewhat Biblical allusion to Adam and Eve, a protecting of the Biblical fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Black Seed, two bat-eared baby girls sport green snake tails and, if they are indeed guardians of a two-edged wisdom, their own implied nature is equally ambivalent. There is a sculptural puncture in this drawing, a dissection clawed out, which reveals from within the pear-like fruit... its embedded seeds. These images suggest a multitude of possibilities. Potato and Two Views, a kindred work, continues Accurso's tight, believable style; convincingly real, and poised against her modeled and articulate imagining. Here, a Sumo wrestler physique, a body form not celebrated in Western circles and now given to a baby girl, confronts and studies its gallery visitor. Within this work, there is a continued pulse of control and then release. The artist documents, then speculates, and presents the end result in a final, clinical, and scientific form. The viewer meets a front (ventral?) and an upper (dorsal?) schematic drawing of a so-said non-reality. With a work such as Potato and Two Views, several viewers at the opening felt the human and the vegetable were being forged into an equation. A comprehensive view of all works in this show suggests a certain scepticism toward the ready tendency to equate the disparate by mere adjacency: the quick response is often false. There is more at work within this art.
One fundamental tendency is evident. It stands out in comparison with earlier artists. When one examines the admitted achievements of such as Leonor Fini, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, or even Illinois artist Dorothea Tanning, there is a sense that their work was conditioned in response; perhaps subject to their formative milieu, a reaction against predominating precepts. So much of Tanning's vision seems a polemic with Salvador Dali or Rene Magritte; Fini's excellence nonetheless reveals a fascination with decay, a looking back toward what nurtures but does not bloom; Carrington's or Varo's art acquiesces in the then prevalent visual idioms (one contemplates Balthus's programmatical females, or Paul Nash's dreamscapes). "Girl Drawings" does represent a more timely expression. Highly individual and based in the personal, Heather Accurso's "Girl Drawings" reveal both a modern awareness of scientific influence, a very contemporary concern with insistent identity and self-image, and yet an affirmation of postulates -- unrealized potentials. It is thus assertive rather than reactive, a specific idiom, rather than an inversion of received convention.
This latter sensibility is most explicit in Heather Accurso's drawings centered about creators as a type or model, a potential. Here again, technical skill -- delight in the sheer visual -- joins to propose contexts and imaginings. "Girl Drawings" presents several renderings from the artist's "Creator/Creators" series. (Her titles here reflect the singular or plural of focal motif.) These drawings offer a denser compositional texture -- visual foci anchor an intricate tapestry of intense, supporting linework. There is an exuberance of detail worthy of Hieronymous Bosch or Giovanni Piranesi. And here, Accurso's girl baby motifs mature and grow more active. As the artist's gallery statement notes: "... their chubby muscularity is poised in the act of artistic creation, biological and reproductive in appearance."
Creator I: Composer, Conductor with Sphinx itself insinuates a Delphic character to its art; one which reflects a basic strength of art as a whole. Psychologist, Rollo May, discussing the Delphic Oracle in The Courage to Create (Bantam Books:1985) observed that such qualities not only open interpretation, but require it: "... they open up new areas of psychic reality, shake us out of our customary ruts, and throw light on a new segment of our lives." But, Rollo concluded: "...the recipients had to 'live' themselves into the message." Heather Accurso's "Girl Drawings," progress through female images, but they remain free of petrifying agendas. Creators II: Sand Sculptors, Water Soluble Graffiti Artists in Gaudi Chicago with Abyssinian and Devon Rex seems an oriental fantasy of detail and bizarre form; and it is, in part, an homage to Spanish architect and artist, Antonio Gaudi. But here creation is linked to play -- Homo ludens -- an integral component of both learning and creativity. It is a sandbox of the mind, complete with pails, toy balls, and even a somewhat medusoid windmill. One cat at foreground plays with a string above a cupola which melds sand castle, breast and layer cake in a single image. Unlike the cat images of Leonor Fini which grew from sheer creaturely affection into mystic signs often bearing erotic overtones, Accurso's felines more directly suggest not abstraction of concept, but empirical adaptation, whether cognitive or social, reasoned or felt. Above all, they are, as the artist notes, "funny and entertaining."
Creators II in fact incorporates two cats. They are felicitous. Although the feline has been maliciously associated with female, the two share affinities that, in a profound sense, are truer to a vital creativity: exploratory, adaptive,... generative. Creator III: Installation Artist -- Rocks, Hair, Abyssinian continues and expands such motifs. Furthermore, Accurso's art, as represented in this exhibition, tests and plays at the artist's interests and aspirations as yet unrealized; particularly those of puppetry and abstract art. Creators IV: Puppeteer, Puppet Maker with Albino Gorilla, serves as example. Interestingly, the albino gorilla here was based upon a real albino in Barcelona, Spain. As with the Surrealists, Heather Accurso employs actual details and impressions as a raw material, a toy for inarticulate sensibilities. Each resulting drawing is a process of contingent decisions made by the artist in the course of working.
Such an approach need not be solely personalized; nor confined within an arts mindset. In this, Accurso's drawings diverge from the domination of a restrictive 'personal reality' which frequently characterizes a self-consciously Womens' Art, and it remains free of art as aesthetic artifice -- art bound within art circle criteria for content or expression. In Big City Girl 2 and Big City Girl 3, Accurso focuses on cultural symbols and the 'scientific outlook.' In Big City Girl 2: Books, Feeding Foxes, Science Project, two foxes are a central focus. Above them a baby girl, enshrined within moose antlers, holds a pencil in her right hand. Her coiffure sports two extravagant pigtails. The tongues of each fox unite into a jellyfish among the antlers. An additional science project element, caterpillars and butterflies, is interspersed among this interior scene. As in much of this graphic series, abundant visual elements form a thick, richly woven matrix for the central baby woman.
The precise and intricate, picture-puzzle composition of these drawings lends a sense of interior and invites close investigation. Like Rollo May's Delphic Oracle, these renderings "not only open interpretation, but require it." And when motifs seem incongruous and yet striking, sensical but unexpected, viewers are impelled to novel, delightful discoveries. It is frequently observed that like ideas, images, if repeated or prevalent, assume a life of their own. They influence conduct and belief. In Big City Girl 3: Rhino, Weapons, Games, Accurso's baby girl leitmotif a la Maharaja, with corded, bundled hair, holds court and receives a second baby girl who appears at lower left, back to the viewer. About them are the ritual objects of physical science: at right, a telescope; elsewhere, a magnifying glass, calendar, tools, measures, theories. At farthest right, hang three wall scrolls: the most distant is covered with a pattern of filigree and flourish; the next closest, with scientific schematics of analogous biological forms -- calyxes of fossil blastoids, sea lilies; while the closest scroll presents models of earth core geology and strata. Here, what for many in the past two centuries often seemed an exclusively male preserve, is environment for creative female. At the opening, a visitor questioned whether this implied a release of woman's potential, or a capitulation to a peculiarly modern world-view. The drawing intrigues, entertains, and provokes a strong, if open response.
A strength of this art is that while based in female image, its graphic fancy sheds the erotic and social rubrics of sex. It affirms a deeper wholeness: human nature. Big City Girl 4... This is the drawing to which another visitor at the show pointed as evidence that the artist is not wedded to a modern 'scientific mindset' (as if the Magic Realism of these works were not enough to confirm that point). In Big City Girl 4 Accurso dwells upon the role of totems -- art and magic -- to unite a community, to keep a society healthy. If in many ways, the rise of science has set humanity apart from nature, throughout time and the world, fetish and ritual object, whether or not perceived as art, have purged, restored, cured. Big City Girl 4: Jellyfish, Music, African Art, Chapel mirrors a universal dreamworld in which expression is as fluid as motif. In this drawing, even jellyfish metamorphose into hat and hair.
Accurso has a predisposition toward drawing, as its status, like that of women in modern times, has been pushed to a periphery. On first viewing, Accurso's "Girl Drawings" seem like black and white graphite renderings tinted with color. The artist intentionally chooses color not found nor normally associated with her models. And she does so noting that color is a powerful trigger of response. Chicago artist, Hollis Sigler, exerted a significant influence for Accurso's use of color and her feel for the 'flat look' of work consciously conceived as art. (Like Picasso's declaration: "It is a painting!") Accurso's initial fear of color was a starting factor. She worked beyond this in part through the demands of teaching that discipline. (Heather Accurso teaches color theory at the Illinois Institute of Art. Many teachers best clarify their technique when they are called upon to teach it.) But Heather Accurso also acknowledges the influence of Chicago art movements -- the "Fairy Tale with a Bite."
The fantasy and delight of Heather Accurso's art emerge from solid motives and inspirations. What in "Girl Drawings" at first seems a scepticism toward every commonplace, reveals a mature and wise sense of play... which is what prevents our scaffolding of perception from being carved into stone. (Which for us as human beings is a good thing. The latter is a natural tendency to which we all too often fall prey.) Savvy Buddhas, cherubim in leather; chimeras, monsters -- creatures of instinct, innocence, and irony.... Eleven renderings in graphite and color pencil. And the artist anticipates a future evolution -- the girl baby image is expected to mature over time.
The artist's self-portrait supplements this exhibition. (It is reproduced in www.artscope.net's review, "Self-Portraits 2000": Jan. 2001.) Heather Accurso's "Girl Drawings" arrests a visitor's attention and holds a viewer's involvement. In its strengths, it is a woman's art, unlimited by agendas or prior expectations. "Girl Drawings" is at Printworks Gallery, Chicago, until July 7, 2001. Her art is represented at Printworks gallery on a continual basis.
--G. Jurek Polanski
Editorial Note: Books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews may be purchased through this site's Amazon.com link. The Dictionary of Women Artists (Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers:1997) offers an invaluable precis for Leonor Fini, Dorothea Tanning, Leonora Carrington, and Remedios Varo. Of additional relevance are Whitney Chadwick's Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (Thames and Hudson:1991) and Women, Art, and Society by Whitney Chadwick (Thames and Hudson:1996). Vera Klement and Hollis Sigler are profiled in Art in Chicago: 1945-1996 (Thames and Hudson/MCA, Chicago:1996). George Steiner is quoted from Real Presences (University of Chicago: 1989).
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