Agrodolce Bliss Bomb
July 2 - 27, 2002
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Agrodolce is a term in Italian cuisine, meaning bitter-sweet or – in a more vernacular translation – sweet and sour. That combination of contrary tastes can be either an exercise in balance and computation or, by subterfuge (embedding one flavour inside its opposite), a technique for surprise. On one hand, to poise these contrasting elements of a menu in a kind of equilibrium is to make a symbolic statement about the value of purity, symmetry and harmony. In that sense, even if they remain distinct tastes they’re ultimately synthesised within a preference for unity that is manifest in the reversal and defeat of contradiction. On the other had, to embed the sweet inside the sour or vice versa is to urge the difference between them towards a state of direct conflict. One of these opponents must forcibly take the place of the other, but by doing so is contaminated. The loser is not absorbed and erased but instead pollutes the winner, as is polluted by it. Both the elements then become hybrids, neither one nor the other. But also, they don’t become a single combined thing; not a simple conjunction, they become the sweet-sour and the sour-sweet. And the more you eat and try and fuse their differences, the more confused the combination gets.
This mode of dynamic imbalance is not just an instrument for variation, but an act of comical terrorism against the appeasement of so-called “good taste” – the pretentious art of composure and regulation. Suck on one of those sweet-looking little candies that kids like to trick gullible adults with and you get a blast of lemon laced with chilli that makes the mouth pucker into the shape of a cat’s ass-hole. The joke is inevitably vulgar in comparison to the economy of taste that demands lucid division between savoury and sweet. It’s a bomb, scattering the statutes of taste and their moral connotations. If we enjoy this vulgarity, we can’t afford to be discreet or attempt to be prudent about its use. Like a bomb, it will decompose everything in the vicinity with a traumatic ecstasy. This sort of vulgarity is a bliss bomb.
Wilma Tabacco has manufactured her bomb out of the simplest of materials. Stripes. They jostle about in densely packed rows. They weave through each other in thick lattices. They push and sway and surge like a soccer crowd, warping the edge of their enclosure. They suddenly shift direction en masse with the inexplicable instinct of a flock of birds, and fold the surface of the picture like an origami diagram. They shimmer and buzz in psychedelic moiré patterns resembling the flicker on shot silk vibrating on an expensive, lush body. Whatever they do, they are unruly. Exuberant. Even when they seem to illustrate a structure, they are anarchic and deceptive: their frameworks collapse into the unstable spaces of Escher-like optical illusions. And when you look at them, you can’t quite find that comfortable position in front and centre that most easel paintings offers. It’s not that you are given several, mobile viewpoints; but more like you’re not given any. While the picture seems to be performing in front of you, it’s equally uninterested in you. And yet, it is attention-seeking: it doesn’t want you to look away. “I like those colour bars”, says Tabacco, “because the are treacherous and disloyal – you can’t own them, or make them yours.”
You can think of the dolce in her recipe as those colours, sexy and candy-like in their synthetic brilliance. This is sweet, this joyful optical flutter and dance. It’s not superficial; it just seems effortless in its repetition like a blissed-out dervish or a raver tripping on e. Then, perhaps, the agro is the hard game these coloured stripes play with you. Their impudence and immodesty. Their insistence that you enjoy them, even, even if they won’t accommodate your preferences. But it’s important to realise that even if their game is hard, this doesn’t mean we are supposed to take it as a reprimand. “Lemon tree very pretty, and the lemon flower is sweet”, goes the old folk song in a warning against the allure of worldly pleasure, “but the fruit of the lemon is impossible to eat.” Remember that the sweet can always turn sour…but, in counterpoint to his world of illusion, by the grace of God, sourness can be transfigured into its inverse, sweetness. Either way, that would be a dour moral lesson! You have to earn your fun through honest work. Or – in the manner of a still life with dead game from your estate and rotting fruit on the side – do not forget that all things (the pleasures of taste as well as of possession) must pass.
Tabacco’s paintings are, instead, amoral. There is no lesson – aesthetic or moral – lurking inside their indulgence. Not that there isn’t hard labour involved; but it is perverse in its motivation and perverse in its satisfaction. The big moiré paintings, for instance, are produced with three overlays of around two hundred 7mm bands of colour repainted up to three times. Where acrylic paint could have been sprayed on with relative ease in an afternoon, Tabacco chose to paint these stripes painstakingly by hand in oil over two or three weeks. The result of all this hard work is to produce a surface that resembles the unmarked, featureless sheen of acrylic spray. To get to that surface effect requires close work, rotation the canvas periodically so that, after a few days, there is no more sense of up and down, of left and right in the painting, nor in the artist’s orientation to the canvas. “My body becomes contorted and warps as I get into position to paint,” Tabacco explains. “Once I put the work on the wall it then warps the space of the wall as well.” This labour intensive activity doesn’t have the sort of pleasure associated with intricate craft work, with its variations in routine and its quiet, domestic but uplifting patience. No, this activity involves a degree of masochistic perseverance that stages an erotic exchange between domination and being dominated. “I feel that I have caressed the surface a thousand times” the artist admits, “and that’s a good feeling.” It is an agonising but blissful caress that twists the space of the studio and gallery, flexing and agitating the wall.
“The stripe doesn’t wait, doesn’t stand still,” notes the medievalist Michel Pastoureau in his recent cultural history of the stripe pattern, The Devil’s Cloth. “It is in perpetual motion…animates all it touches, endlessly forges ahead, as though driven by the wind.” The potentially endless repetition of the stripe, both vertically and horizontally, means that the stripe can extend beyond any boundary drawn up for it. And it escapes this enclosure merely by duplicating itself. Unlike the rigorously ascetic and secularised spirituality of the modernist grid structure (evident in geometric abstraction from Mondrian to Minimalism), the stripe carries the connotation of a decorative art. Its regularly alternating bars render foreground and background undecidable. Its open-ended geometry is suggestive of décor rather than architectonics. And this is a surface pattern that is lacking decorum, since it threatens to multiply the contours of its supporting or defining structure to infinity. The stripe is a diabolical sign, scandalising aesthetic order and moral restraint. Pastoureau documents how the stripe has been associated with hangmen, jesters, lepers, heretics, adulterers, convicts, servants and their accomplices in the West’s vast taxonomy of the socially marginalised, transgressive and outcast. It is the brand they are repeatedly forced to wear. “A stripe often leads to a uniform,” says Pastoureau, “and the uniform to a penalty.” But, in the same way, it signals the renegade and the rebellious. It is after all, the visual drapery of pageantry and the sports carnival, of freedom and play.
In Tabacco’s paintings the stripe is a sign of containment – of a willing subjugation to repetitive and arduous action, of an eager and inspired submission to the despotic confinement of routine. And yet it is, in the same gesture, a mechanism for escape through an explosive intensity of pleasure that is as disorienting as it is focussed. Agrodolce is the combination of these impulses that permits the blissful confusion to burst in front of our eyes.
Edward Colless ©