“…the ambitious woman and the heroine are strange monsters.” — Simone de Beauvoir (1949)
Towering over the viewer, Francesca DiMattio’s monstrous 9-foot tall She-Wolf (2018), with a bulbous black head stretching out from grafted human and animal forms, including a porcelain human front leg and a life-sized hunting dog standing in for a rear leg, restores the wildness of this maternal wolf once immortalized in the famous Etruscan bronze (500 BCE) that the sculpture references. In each work in this exhibition, Statues, which brings together DiMattio’s monumental ceramic sculptures (2015–present), the artist confounds past and present stereotypes of femininity by remaking classical figures, such as Venus or the Caryatids, in her signature cacophonous composite of historical porcelain styles—a medium she chooses for its gendered associations with decoration and domesticity. Building on recent theories of monstrosity by philosophers Donna Haraway and Rosi Braidotti, art historian Rosemary Betterton has used the term “promising monsters” to describe artistic representations of pregnant or birthing bodies that break down oppressive constructions of maternity—and femininity more generally—not through new idealizations but by bursting the boundaries of classical form. This critical deployment of monstrosity as a liberatory tactic is boldly at work in DiMattio’s Statues which are excessive, grotesque, and spectacular, and refuse to be objectified or contained.
On ViewArt Omi
October 12, 2019 – January 5, 2020
Suspended from the lobby ceiling by a pulley and chains, DiMattio’s Chandelabra II (2015) confronts the viewer before they enter the gallery. Its trunk drives downward, sprouting 12 variable-length branches separated in three tiers, and terminates just inches above the floor. Fusing vessels, containers, elephant and monkey figurines, and candle holders—some holding incandescent bulbs—this organism voraciously consumes and assimilates elements from across cultures and time, such as 18th-century Meissen factory porcelain chandeliers, now scaled-up to gargantuan proportions, or orbs decorated with 1950s chintz floral patterns.
At the entrance of the gallery, the She-Wolf stands like a lamassu, the animal-human hybrid that guarded ancient Assyrian palaces. Her left front leg is armored with a pauldron crafted from threads of extruded clay and modeled after the high-pile textures and primary colored, geometric designs of Moroccan boucherouite carpets. Pastel flowers quoted from accents encrusted on French Sèvres vases spread like lichen across her gray, pockmarked and cratered lava glaze torso. The suckling, cherubic Romulus and Remus—the former destined to become the legendary founder of Rome—added by 15th or 16th century sculptors to She-Wolf’s Etruscan ancestor, do not appear here. DiMattio’s She-Wolf instead celebrates a powerful mother whose maternity is signaled by eight modeled, bronze glaze breasts lining her chest and underbelly. Two fragments from statues of Roman men—a porcelain hand sticking out of the She-Wolf’s anus and a front leg—leave masculine heroism in a state of abjection.
DiMattio’s 9-foot high, freestanding Caryatids (both 2019) similarly recover the power and agency of long-subordinated feminine figures. Liberated from their static role supporting ancient Greek entablatures, they dance as their namesake women of Karyai once did in honor of Artemis—goddess of the hunt, wild animals, and childbirth. The foot of Elephant Caryatid’s sole leg arches in relevé as she lithely balances upon a riding-toy elephant. Encased in a knitted pattern of primary colored, pink, black, and white clay coils, which also cover about half of her body (the other half reveals smooth 19th century Viennese DuPaquier vase designs—stately black on white motifs, animals, and water nymphs), her head recalls the shape and texture of the head of the handheld, Paleolithic Woman of Willendorf presumed to be a fertility statue and initially dubbed “Venus” by early 20th century archaeologists. Goose Caryatid’s blue vine and floral motifs taken from Dutch, Iznik, Ming, and Staffordshire patterns blend harmoniously. But this makes her body’s combination of vertically stacked, white porcelain forms, by contrast, all the more grotesque: a Greek male foot and Turkish leg balanced on a pillow, nude female buttocks and torso from a late classical statue, a goose modeled after a concrete lawn ornament in place of a head, and Yoruba-inspired beads intermittently spreading like porcelain moss over parts of her body.
Never nihilistic or cynical, DiMattio’s subversion of classicism is witty and productive, generating open spaces for becoming. Restrictions on female agency tacitly reinforced through classical idealization and the cult of domesticity persist throughout culture today, for example, in the pressure put on female political candidates to be “likeable” and in news coverage of their attire, and in the online vitriol directed against actresses cast as formerly male characters in TV shows or superhero movies. In a sexist society which regards ambitious women and heroines as “strange monsters,” DiMattio’s statues defiantly relish in their monstrosity, fusing masculine and feminine, human and animal, civilized and abject. Positioned in the gallery with their watchful gazes fixed on the entrance and windows, these hybrids of past and present stand like sentinels reminding us to be as critically vigilant as they are.