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June 19 - July 24, 2004, at DoubleVision Gallery, West Hollywood

by Marlena Donohue

“On Salmon-Colored Palaces,”
2001-04, oil/mixed media
collage on canvas, 66 x 120”.

Abstract painter Francine Matarazzo is courageous. Courageous because she is passionate about and gifted at an art form that comes besieged from within and without. It’s besieged from without because we have so totally appropriated abstract expression in all its guises as a bourgeoisie commodity that at the dentist, the YMCA, the local $3.99 breakfast special eatery, one is surrounded by a sea of art consulting rip offs of Kandinsky/Miro/Klee/Pollock/Rothko, to the extent that I find myself in the presence of this stuff begging for an abstruse Beuys, Mike Kelly, anything with half a synapse behind it.

The genre is besieged from within, if you will, because serious practitioners of abstract expression past and present, who counteract its apparent facility with rigor and clarity--Malevich, Kelly, Newman, Stella--are accused, and sometimes rightly so, for tipping the formula in the direction of theoretical credibility at the expense of humanity.

This is where Matarazzo’s courage and talents are most apparent. If you do this work seriously--as Matarazzo surely does--and, whether consciously or unconsciously, work from a belief in the Worringer-ian notion that abstract means--line, rhythm, color, tone, overlay-- can be some utopian, direct, authentic mode of unmediated communication able to side-step language, narrative, biography, the banality of specificity yet speak in a human way--then your work has this whole besieged anti-history of abstract expression riding on its poor back. And it must be the more compel-ling to be taken the slightest bit seriously.

If, like Matarazzo, you feel that a yellow surface--layered, deftly worked, nuanced by intuition, a gift for color, and filled with calligraphic marks--can hold a world, that such a surface can tell a tale in a manner that mirrors the open-ended, half remembered/half invented mechanisms of memory, then you take on this beleaguered legacy with courage. And at your own peril.

Matarazzo is more than up to the task. She takes on the baggage of abstract expression and wins. So comfortable and adept is this artist with the workings of abstract expression, so well does she manage to make a style that has been thoroughly mined fresh again, that her approach goes well beyond courage into a kind of confident, believable exuberance.

She is confident enough, in fact, to paint to great effect with eccentric egg-yolk yellows, whites that are muted as the sun on sand, opulent harem reds that in less skillful hands could (and do sometimes here) descend into decoration.

Matarazzo trained her hand with the unruly medium of chalk pastel, and in previous shows she has made it clear that she possesses the technical control and self-discipline to never let abstraction reduce to mushy marks or sappy sentiment. Though the artist says she works from instinct, there are years and years of art school lurking, checking each decision, solving each color dissonance and concordance, wedding means to emotive ends in a way that is just plain impressive.

Large and small scale works include painted surfaces, collaged elements, and passages of pastel and pencil calligraphy. Bits of old canvases are resuscitated as accents, leafs of rice paper enliven the surface and even threaten to peel away, sketchbooks collected over the years have been cut up and added. Snippets from Matarazzo’s Tunisian notebooks of the ‘70s, in which she studied daily to write Arabic, as well graph paper are imbedded, peeking in and out of washy fields to pit the idea of a grid, of a fixed system of signs, against the free play of the mind.

This show is called Stories, implying that the works are recollections of experiences, records of sights, sounds, and actual life events. These Stories recall the artist's travels during the ‘60s, ‘70s and later in life throughout the Middle East, to places like Morocco, Iran, Jordan and India. She does not tell you the Conde Nast version of an exotic place and how it came to life for her as she learned to love a people and learned to see anew--how corny would that be? Matarazzo instead allows a field of calibrated beiges to be an opportunity for our gradual discovery of all the rich hues within it, thus recreating for us her experience in the desert as she first found the place--odd, plain, drab--only to locate a rich emotional and visual world there. In this way she keeps to Kandinsky’s dictum that art should create the experience or emotion within artist and viewer, rather than represent via mimesis the copy of the thing that makes us feel.

In the way most salient memories defy linear recollection--and are often linked via weird emotional circuitry to a feeling, an aural, sensual, olfactory trace rather than a clear anecdotal tale--Matarazzo’s abstract canvases strike us as dim reminisces over which we layer our own. In a series of small canvases called Shahreza the sky and light of a place by that name comes to life. A dense blue seems built from azures, ceruleans, cobalts layered level on level, texture upon texture. I have never had the pleasure of seeing a North African sky, but in these blues I was tossed back to a long forgotten memory--perfect and pristine as I may ever have--of laying on my back looking up at the crisp Santa Barbara sky making shapes from clouds with my toddlers.

Most of the works on paper are untitled, which helps her stories become ours. And this is precisely how memory works. The small to huge scaled collage, pastel and paint works are joyful; small orbits of color become a tiny signature exploding from work to work to promulgate the sheer energy of creation. In Untitled Stories #24 these swirls of color stand in for markets where vendors lay out gorgeous skullcaps, one after another, for sale in the desert sun. There are a couple of passages in very large works where disciplined intuition falls into eye candy, but mostly you are alternatively charmed and keenly aware that gut guesses here are metered considerations by a sophisticated art maker. The artist also says that she cannot help but realize her looking back at the Middle East occurs at a time when such bridges are sorely needed.

Whether your remembered universe is architectonic (No Street Names), or ripe and sensual as an expatriate’s sunset during the tripped out ‘70s (When the Day Lilies Close), Matarazzo has a knack for allowing us each our own view of sheltering skies.