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June 9-August 4, 2001 at Tasende Gallery, West Holllywood

by Margarita Nieto

With his Parc Gruell in Barcelona, Spain Antonio Gaudí began a new direction in architectural and landscape design by drawing on the imagined reconstruction of an arcane and pre-historical past. Through the incorporation of natural and organic forms, and above all by an awareness of the sentient nature of the land itself, he invented a new architectural language.

Heir to Gaudí's initial exploration in her environmental approach as well as in her utilization of found materials, Niki de Saint Phalle has explored the dreaming unconscious of a magical transcultural past through a career spanning over three decades. Among her collaborators, the most prominent was her companion-husband Jean Tinguely. Informed by a broad array of historical and religious sources, as well as artists ranging from Old Masters such as Giotto and Bosch, to contemporaries such as Klee and Calder, her mysterious, monumental works have been commissioned in Europe, the Near East, and the Americas, locally including the Sun God at UC San Diego (La Jolla).

Her largest environmental project is the Tarot Garden in Tuscany, Italy, begun in 1979 and opening in May, 1998. Twenty-two images of the Tarot are enclosed in sculpture-dwellings. The monumental sculptures created over welded metal frames, mesh and cement are covered by mirrors and tiles filled in with hand-cut pieces of glass were worked, in the artist's words "in the Egyptian style, in situ."

“Nana on Elephant,” acrylic on
plaster, 5 x 7 3/4 x 3 1/2”, 1979.

“Nana Star," painted poly-
ester on steel base,
29 1/4 x 25 1/8 x 18", 2000.

References to the Tarot Garden with its allusions to the power of magic, alchemy and intuitive knowledge continue in this exhibition of 16 sculptures including five from her recent Totem series, as well as works from the earlier Nana (French for dame) and Poet and Muse series.

Nana Star (painted polyester on steel base) is a large blue figure wearing a tank suit emblazoned with brightly colored stars and constellations. One massive breast is covered by a heart and amorphous yellow spots. She holds golden vases in each hand--perhaps pouring out her magical powers upon the earth. A recurring concept, the Nanas and the Hons, are female figures embodying the intuitive feminine and the power of women, which she began in the sixties and whose variants also appear in Tarot Garden (the Popess, the High Priestess). In a second of these figures, Nana on Elephant, sits astride an elephant covered in radiating circles of color.

“Eagle-Head," painted polyester,
47 3/4 x 29 x 9 3/4", 2000.

“Lucky Totem," painted polyester,
1 of 8, 15 x 8 1/4 x 4", 2000.
De Saint Phalle's absorption with the magical and spiritual power of objects continues in the Totem series, works with reference to the mythological world of the North Coast Native Americans. Totems, traditionally carved out of cedar trees, represent a family-clan, a kinship system, adventure narratives, dream narratives and their animal figures are representations of the animal guardian, the power dream companion. For de Saint Phalle the totem conveys both visual and symbolic interest: "containing a spiritually protective and mysterious glow. . .it was a natural step after the Tarot Garden to be drawn to another form of spiritual art, particularly one so related to Mother Earth and the Universe."

Ranging in size from 12 to 48 inches in height and created using acrylic paint on polyester, they follow the traditional structural composition of the totem. In Eagle-Head a golden headed eagle with one black, gray and white wing, a rainbow wing of red, yellow blue, green and orange, and a green body covered with mysterious tattoo-like symbols, sits atop a red mask with white bared teeth. At the bottom a female figure clasps the pole itself. Adhering to an important tenet of totem carving, the narrative begins at the bottom and "reads" upward. Again, de Saint Phalle reiterates and emphasizes female power linking the female to the golden eagle.

In Lucky Totem the dice at the bottom begins the narrative. Reading upward, a pink-bodied woman with yellow hair is clasped tightly to the magical pole by a green double-masked power figure. Above his green head sits a red, black and white bird mask, possibly an owl. To one side a blue snake emerges, while the tail of a blue and white fish emerges on the other. The figure at the top seems to be a kind of protective blue cat figure. In this obviously autobiographical Totem de Saint Phalle's mysterious language comes out full force. The key lies in the symbolic ambiguity of the guardian animals, which recall the past but initiate a new discourse, one in which de Saint Phalle continues exploring new aesthetic territory by collapsing the strictures of space and concept.