Eva Bovenzi: Messengers
Toomey Tourell Gallery
Thus the Sages reveal to the aware that the imaginative faculty is also called an angel; and the mind is called a cherub. How beautiful this will appear to the sophisticated mind--and how disturbing to the primitive.
--Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed (2.6).
The oil paintings of Eva Bovenzi's "Messenger" series at first glance register as abstractions exploring formalist ideas of picture making. The shaped canvas format recalls Frank Stella's early notched rectangles. The central segmented forms recall the Golden Mean folded canvases of Dorothea Rockburne. The diptychs' off-kilter double image format recalls both Andy Warhol's silkscreens, with their obsessively repeated images, and David Hockney's photo mosaics, with their jittery wandering multiple viewpoints. The astronomical and geographical notations (orbits, bearings, vectors) recall both the poetic assemblages of Joseph Cornell and the minimalist murals of Sol Lewitt. Finally, the delicate, airy color mists recall the abstract skyscapes of Jules Olitski.
Yet these rich, lyrical works, for all their elegance, aim at something more difficult; they aim, I believe, in effecting a kind of psychic or emotional healing in viewers, realigning them with the world of nature (so unfashionable lately in the world of art theory); they aspire to transcendent metaphor and even spiritual elevation. Such Romantic ambitions for art are anomalous and even risky these days. The moral uplift that art used to provide, albeit embodied in Judaeo-Greco-Roman myth, has been as dead as Nietzsche's God (RIP 1966, according to TIME magazine's famous cover story) for many years, and religion--etymologically, the linking of man to cosmos, and, ostensibly, at least, the social glue cementing American culture--now struggles for life on that rocky soil between secularist scorn and fundamentalist frenzy. The contemporary art viewer still makes museum pilgrimages and still seeks the epiphany of esthetic transport, but only reflexively nowadays, almost atavistically, and without much fervor or real expectation. The quest is often futile anyway: most contemporary artists neither believe in transcendent underlying realities nor do they experience raptures of the deep in the fabrication of their products for the market. Bovenzi, whose previous work depicted natural forms (leaves, flowers, sticks, seedpods) in a symbolic, psychologically charged manner, here melds German Romanticism (or at least a similar pantheistic worldview) with modernist abstraction. She creates odes to nature as seen through a skeptical modern temperament.
The Greek word for messenger is angelos, and these paintings invoke past religious and mythological art, though almost subliminally. The splayed segmented wings are like pinned specimens, and the sky-hued metallic backgrounds signify divinity as did the gold and silver in traditional religious art; thus angels or birds, traditional metaphors for the soul, are translated to heaven. Enhancing the magic and mystery, Bovenzi imprints these wings with clouds and celestial bodies (like the Egyptian sky goddess Nut, her blue body spangled with silver stars as she arches herself across a tomb ceiling), and the latitude and longitude grid lines that demarcate and organize the modern world. They're more than wings; they are mirrors or lenses, or fetish objects, and made of unearthly poetic stuff. The paintings become, with their backgrounds tinted subtle shades of purple and rose, the hues of dawn and dusk, a distillation of the magic hour, a time of transformation; they're about becoming and being.
But there is an edge to this myth and mystery. Like Anselm Kiefer and Nathan Oliveira, who have also depicted the wing as metaphor, Bovenzi shows us not the semi-divine messenger between heaven and earth, but a fragment of it, a relic--almost as if we had shot it out of the sky as Audubon did his birds. The rest is absent; only this mechanical membrane, wreckage from a crashed ornithopter, survives. In addition, we see the wings depicted in slightly off-kilter views, one horizontal and one vertical, as if photographed in motion, caught by a glimpse and recorded in memory. How do we interpret these artifacts bridging, as they do, the natural and the cultural?
In the early 1960s, the West Coast visionary artist Morris Graves, famous for his spirit bird paintings, devised a number of sculptures resembling magic wands or fetish sticks, in metal, crystal, stone and glass. Inspired by the nascent US space program, these "Instruments for a New Navigation" were intended, according to Graves, "to gain insight into the mystery of consciousness."1 (There was talk of mounting them on space probes, but it was never implemented, unfortunately.) In art critic Alec Clayton's words, they contained allusions to "both celestial and sea navigation, to stars, compasses, telescopes and magical instruments. They connect[ed] ancient arts with modern science and religious yearning ... like instruments in some mysterious future control room--or maybe a science lab from an ancient fabled city such as Atlantis."2 Graves' assemblages are thus obscure instruments from an indeterminate time, relics of an imaginary or vanished past or souvenirs of a proposed or not yet existent future, like the flower that H.G. Wells' Time Traveler brings back inadvertently from the future, the gift of a girl five hundred years unborn.
Bovenzi's wing paintings are similarly poetic and ambiguous. They point out to the infinite night sky sectioned and subdivided by our global grid, symbolizing the extension of human consciousness; and they become the ruins of a failed past devastated by human limitation and folly, which used to be symbolized by Icarus' crash into the Aegean. Joseph Campbell called for a mythology that could help us to live sanely together in a scientific age, and he pointed to the Mission Apollo photos of earth from the moon as a new universal metaphor. Bovenzi's works, I believe, provide another: the universe as seen from (or recorded in, or duplicated by) a transparent polygonal or spherical device, like a mobile observatory, or cosmic diving bell for submersion into deep space, only fragments of which remain. In the early 19th century Thomas Cole painted the ruins of an American Empire that did not yet exist; perhaps these works foretell a similar inconvenient truth serving not as annunciation of glad tidings but as a badly needed exhortation to shape up--or else. In Fritz Lang's gothic science fiction film Metropolis, the heart (artist) unites head (scientist) and hands (worker); in Bovenzi's celestial/terrestrial annunciations, the ethical imagination reconciles real and ideal.
I think we are born with an expansiveness within us, a sense of belonging to a larger universe. Sometimes this sense gets a bit lost. But when one is involved in creating something, there has to be an involvement in belief or disbelief, which is the same thing. It just means that one doesn't believe in the existing paradigms, that the beliefs are different.
--Dorothea Rockburne. From "An Interview with Dorothea Rockburne, From conversations that took place in October 1988 and February 1989," by Carl Belz, retrieved June 9, 2007, from http://www.artnet.de/usernet/awc/awc_historyview_details.asp?aid=139842&awc_id=1506&info_type_id=7.
"Let's go back to the party. The universe gives me the creeps."
--Willem de Kooning to wife Elaine, after looking into the star-filled night sky. From de Kooning, by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan.
-- DeWitt Cheng 2007
DeWitt Cheng, a Bay Area artist and freelance art writer, is a contributing editor to SFAM.
1Ray Kass, "Morris Graves at Schmidt Bingham--Exhibition, Instruments for a New Navigation - Brief Article," Art in America (July 2000), retrieved June 9, 2007, from http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1248/is_7_88/ai_63365637.
2Alec Clayton, "Morris Graves: Instruments for a New Navigation, Tacoma Art Museum Shows Morris Graves Sculpture," Art Access (August 2000), retrieved June 9, 2007, from http://www.alecclayton.com/morrisgraves.html.