The artist Francesca DiMattio is zigzagging across her vast, warehouse-like studio in the rural town of Hillsdale, N.Y., simultaneously firing porcelain, hand-painting ceramic flowers and touching up pottery glazes for three different sculptures. Wearing a paint-splattered brown mechanic’s suit, crowned with her signature Frida Kahlo-esque braids and vibrant coral lips, she is a portrait of elegant incongruity. “I’m really interested in contrast,” she says, “and it’s something I always want in my life.”
On this morning, there is just over a week until DiMattio’s latest show opens at Salon 94 Bowery in New York City, and her new paintings and sculptures are not yet finished. This is largely the result, she says, of her hectic reality in the two-plus years since her last solo show; she has been hopscotching between city and country living, juggling work and her two-year-old son, Bruno, with her husband, the artist Garth Weiser. “I left months to make this show, which should have taken a year and a half,” she says.
DiMattio puts the finishing touches on “Venus I.” Since she began making ceramic sculptures eight years ago, she has worked to test the limits of the medium. “Ceramic wants to be symmetrical and even and round — that’s what gives it its strength,” she says, “What I make with all these weird forms, it’s straining the material more and more.”
So, on this wintry day, with a sleet storm looming over the Berkshire Mountains outside her expansive windows, she’s working briskly amid an indoor blizzard of paint pots, ladders and chicken wire. Dotting the space are classical torsos, animal figurines and cartoonishly large children’s shoes made of porcelain and stoneware — elements she will later combine in her complex, hybrid pieces. One of her new ceramic sculptures for the show, tentatively titled “She-Wolf,” still lies in parts around an armature of steel pipes. When it is finished, its form will resemble a kind of buffalo-llama chimera, with a bison-like sculpted head, a Turkish Iznik-patterned leg, and breasts on its underside referencing the maternal wolf from the myth of Romulus and Remus.
The theme of contrast has been a lifelong — and career-defining — preoccupation for DiMattio, who grew up in Manhattan in the 1980s and 1990s and spent summers at her parents’ country home in Saugerties, N.Y. (her mother is also a ceramist). Since earning her M.F.A. from Columbia in 2005, she’s steadily garnered acclaim for her large-scale paintings and sculptures, which interweave a dizzying array of art historical references, craft techniques and decorative styles. In her sculptures, DiMattio has spliced together elements as diverse as Delft pottery, Sèvres porcelain, Wedgwood china and spikes reminiscent of nail-studded Nkondi religious idols. Her paintings have toyed with unlikely intersections of architectural space, abstract patterns and textile prints.
DiMattio’s new show, “Boucherouite,” which opened on March 6, takes its name from the colourful, tufted rag rugs woven from torn and recycled clothing by Berber women in Morocco. The works — two paintings and three sculptures — continue her fascination with cultural and aesthetic sampling, using the pieced-together patterns and textures of boucherouite as a leitmotif.
DiMattio, working beside her piece “Venus II,” applies glaze to sculpted ceramic flowers. The artist moves fluidly between a range of ceramic styles — from Iznik pottery to jasperware to Sèvres porcelain — producing them much as they were made historically.
As DiMattio walks me around her studio, the sculptures tower over us in twisting configurations. At the far end of the studio stands “Venus I,” a bright-pink female figure in classical Greek style with a Louise Bourgeois-esque cluster of breasts on her backside. Her hand clasps a phallus adorned with Ming dynasty porcelain motifs. An aberrant arm juts out from one side, sporting a Mickey Mouse glove glazed with Viennese florals. All around the figure encroaches the colourful pile of sculpted boucherouite (made by extruding clay through a garlic press, DiMattio notes). On the other side of the studio, “Venus II,” anchored by a ceramic giant panda with a Venus of Willendorf on its posterior, sprouts a structure that calls to mind an otherworldly tree or magnified piece of coral. “It’s all about the way the different elements interact with one another,” DiMattio explains. “Every piece is interrupted or affected by something next to it. It has a kind of grafted surface.”
The two paintings, titled “The Octopus and the Fish” and “The Fox and the Hound,” are a jumble of historical and pop-cultural references — Japanese shunga prints, flowers from Curious George and Charlie Brown cartoons, Goya’s “The Disasters of War” — pulled together into textured compositions. “I’ve always thought about how imaging moves through culture, especially through copying or reproduction,” DiMattio says. “I’m obviously copying these different elements, and through reproducing an object, it can move from the highest point in culture to, like, a tissue box, or from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to a tattered shirt.”
Two canvases in progress.
As in her previous works, DiMattio is taking crafts — rug-making, pottery — that have historically been considered decorative froufrou and inverting them into something less docile, more aggressive and monstrous, even. “Having a kid, I’ve really felt the pull of domesticity,” she says, nodding to one of the multiple vintage prams she collects, surrounded by power tools along one wall. “There’s a rebranding of domesticity here.”
To see DiMattio at work is to understand how she strives to embody the contrary principles behind her pieces. She makes her works on her own, without assistants, deploying a range of divergent skills; she glazes each of her pieces’ dainty ceramic flowers by hand, then stacks the components of her sculptures with a forklift. She plans to learn welding in the near future. Her ultimate hope, she says, is to create an “unstable head space, where our notions of taste and beauty and quality and gender are more confused.” Judging by the strange beauty of her statues and canvases — at once delicate and tough, familiar and unsettling — she’s succeeded.
“Boucherouite” by Francesca DiMattio runs through April 21 at Salon 94 Bowery, 243 Bowery, New York, salon94.com.
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