Figure of Speech
September 14 – November 4 2006
In her splendid new exhibition at Woodward Gallery, “Figure of Speech,” Cristina Vergano depicts an intriguing world where beautiful, soulful creatures, both human and animal, inhabit pastoral landscapes or rich interiors. How they have arrived at these places, she gives no indication, only implying in their serene demeanors that they now exist there, as in the classical tradition, solid and firmly planted for all time.
This year, she introduces rebuses, word puzzles, into her paintings, adding another tantalizing layer of meaning to works already dense with allusions. Letters of the alphabet dance across a visage or balance on foliage forming words that create statements or pose questions, for instance, “Belief or Dogma” decorates a portrait of a sweet faced dog and “Why fear?” a study of a girl.
Gazing directly at viewers from their richly symbolic surroundings, Vergano’s subjects invite us to study them as we would ancient scriptures or relics from lost civilizations, hoping to discover life’s meaning in their beguiling countenances and the words integrated into their portraits. Strikingly open, she lays bare her heart in these works, in a sense all self-portraits, while also displaying her vast knowledge of history and myth more obviously now than ever before.
Born in Milan to art loving parents – her architect father also painted and her grandfather was a published writer and well known painter – Vergano learned to value art as a way to communicate as a child. Unable to speak without a stammer that has lessened but not disappeared, she found drawing and painting the best way to express her thoughts.
“I never decided to be an artist,” she says. “Art was always just what I did best, the only thing I could do, really. My father always praised and fostered me, and taught me color, composition and design and how to analyze things visually. He taught me to be unafraid to draw and paint freely and boldly. Having trouble speaking made me a loner, and forced me to think about a lot of matters beyond my age. It was a source of enormous pain, mostly in my teenage years. I think that pain, in the end, enriches us.”
Vergano studied at the International School of Milan, the Liceo Classico and the University of Genoa, majoring in art history. “Not having gone to art school,” she says, “I always felt I was all by myself. At the same time, I knew I was following in the footsteps of the European artistic tradition. I was very influenced by the classical tradition – the idea of balance and proportion. At the university, I obtained a good knowledge of art history, art techniques, archaeology and restoration. But I developed on my own, which may have led to my process and work having a personal look and feeling.”
In the 1980’s, she moved to the United States, never faltering in her commitmoent to her passion. Her critical reputation has grown tremendously ever since. Museums and a wide variety of art lovers, including many celebrities, avidly collect her work, as she offers abundant emotional and aesthetic riches in each resonant, technically brilliant painting.
Vergano continues to develop, daringly exploring new territory with each new impressive exhibition. In 1998, after exhaustively studying the early history of the Americas, she painted lost portraits: “Pan American Thanksgiving,” portraying the clashes and exchanges between the Spanish invaders and Aztec society in Mesoamerica in the 16th and 17th centuries. Some works shocked in their portrayal of the rape and pillage of a rich culture. Then and now, many of her subjects are dark-skinned women and girls.
“I don’t fully understand it myself,” Vergano says, “but I have a very, very powerful connection with African-Americans, and generally black women. Maybe it’s the fact that they’ve been outsiders and had to overcome all sorts of difficulties. I’m also fascinated by the early representations of dark-skinned people in early European art because they obviously came from another world.”
In 2000, in her exhibition “Cristina’s World,” she compiled an alternative natural history by creating pseudo-scientific records of imaginary human and animal hybrids throughout the centuries, each a variance from the norm and none more unforgettable than the hirsute, voluptuous “Alexandria, April 1840.” In 2003, she painted new hybrids of human beings and dogs for the exhibit “Bitches;” as is often her custom, creating tension by introducing bizarre subject matter into an ordered, neoclassical universe. In “Birth of Venus,” the head of a lovely woman with flowing blonde hair is attached to a small dog’s body. It sits on the beach, its paw on an egg with the sea the backdrop. Dali would find a lot to be enchanted with in her works.
It was while caring for her dying mother in 2004 and 2005 in Italy that Vergano became intrigued with rebuses again. She perused the magazines with these puzzles that her mother had always loved. A visual child, she had never been interested in their puzzle aspect but was fascinated by the strange, surreal juxtapositions of heterogeneous objects that were used in the illustrations to compose the sentence and the starkness of the graphic element, the letters. As an adult, she began to see how she could elaborate on the concept in her own work. When she returned home to paint in her Tribeca studio, she began the paintings that make up this exhibition, which is homage to her mother.
Vergano’s ideas come from daily visual processing, as well as from her early European travels with her parents and her schooling where she obtained a solid base of visual and conceptual information. “When my ideas come out,” she says, “they may be composed of something I saw in a museum thirty years ago, compounded with a photo, say, from a beer ad, as well as from a dream. My mind is a grab bag. In my twenties and thirties, I read mostly 19th century classics and history books. Currently, I’m reading about medieval food and I discovered popular fiction.”
No one can look at a Vergano painting without being struck by her use of symbols. Her fascination with them began as a precocious eight-year-old with her first exposure to the films of Ingmar Bergman. “In my own little girl way, and then teenager way, I got it, “ she says. “I understood that symbols aren’t meant to be understood literally, for example, a goat means stubbornness; a woman eating fruit represents sex. Instead you get more out of them on a fuzzy emotional level, without involving the rational mind too much. This has been applied to the arts for millennia, before psychoanalysis tried to explain everything. At times, I’m not sure why I put something in a painting, but amazingly, many viewers understand it on an emotional level.”
Vergano begins a painting by sketching out ideas in a notebook in pencil. She doesn’t do very detailed drawings, generally confident enough to know how the painting will work out. She then draws on the canvas or panel with charcoal, following with paint. She paints in oil, using very few colors as she blocks out and defines the painting. She usually starts with raw umber, titanium white, yellow ochre, Indian red and ultramarine blue.
“I prefer to paint wet on wet,” Vergano says, “and when the gods are with me, often the part I’m working on comes out in one session, before the oil paint dries. As the painting takes shape, I add more intense hues, often glazing them over. This technique was used in pre- Impressionistic traditional painting, mostly in the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, when the brightest color pigments, made from minerals and plants, were the most expensive and had to be used judiciously, and only added toward the end. It’s also an exercise in restraint as it requires you to focus on the painting’s volumes and composition.”
Vergano’s lovely subject in “When, What, Why” was inspired by an image that came to her of a “nude girl, triumphantly shameless,” she says, “with rosy cheeks and pert breasts. She fits all the parameters of a classical Venus, triumphant and uncomplicated, with the single purpose of being beautiful and loved, more than loving. The other painting in this pair, `Please Leave When It Is Wise To,’ is very much a Minerva, the classical goddess of wisdom. Venus and Minerva are complementary and opposite, embodying the two side of femininity: love-beauty and intellect-wisdom. The phrase, `When, What, Why,’ is uncomplicated like the young woman. The three W’s crown the figure symmetrically.”
The image for “Please Leave When it is Wise to” also came to Vergano in a form very close to the final painting, of a woman turned away from the viewer, not revealing of herself. She is withholding, cooler and more intellectual. “Her phrase,” she says, “came to me at the same time as the image. I thought, ple-sleeve, `please leave,’ was interestingly complex, and I needed a sleeve in evidence. From that need came the position.
“A hen being held is slightly comical to me, because the hen is sort of defenseless and undignified. So that made ‘w-hen.’ Choosing a book to hold the YYYs appealed to me because I like books and often paint them. I could have used `it’s’ instead of `it is,’ but I chose to have more letters in the painting. I repeated the choice in several paintings, when I actually could even have made up the phrases with images only, but chose instead to put in a good number of letters, to achieve that juxtaposition of image and graphic elements.”
Vergano is as painstaking with her animals as with her goddesses. Her “Fears and Tears,” a painting of a Chihuahua against a clear blue sky in a trompe l’oeil frame, looks like an early Renaissance portrait. “Lending so much dignity to the smallest of dogs is a little tongue in cheek, of course,” she says. “But the phrase does have a serious connotation, because being as tiny as a Chihuahua makes you fearful of a lot of things, but at the same time it’s a little ironic: such a serious phrase for such an un-serious dog.”
Like all Vergano’s work, “Fears and Tears” is homage. In this case not to a person or to art or to history but to her steadfast companion, Nina, the Chihuahua who keeps her company the many long hours it takes to produce each astonishing painting.
Contributing Writer for The New York Times and ArtNews magazine