Adventures in Terra incognita
Barbara Rose

 

The dream of flying is one of the oldest images in human consciousness. Since ancient times, the myth of Daedalus, who fashioned wax wings so that his son Icarus could fly, the idea of the airborn winged man has haunted the imagination. Soaring above the earth, Icarus could enjoy the birds-eye view of the earth and its inhabitants below. This is the view pictured by Pieter Breugel in his famous sixteenth century depiction of The Fall of Icarus. By choosing the tragic and fatal point of Icarus' journey, the moment he flies so close to the sun that his wax wings melt, causing him to tumble to his death, Breugel emphasizes the aspect of hybris implicit in all man's endeavors to transcend limits and transgress boundaries. In her paintings, the architect turned painter Alessandra Zorzi takes us along on her journeys into imagined worlds and unexplored planets. This journey is not without risk as well since she paints images that are neither ingratiating nor decorative, but rather disturbing and disquieting. Her unusual sense of space combining shifting viewpoints is informed by her own experience as an amateur pilot. That she chose to learn to fly is not coincidental, but very much part of her character as well as the choice of her subject matter as an artist. Zorzi is passionately indeed sometimes hopelessly curious about art, science, psychology, and the latest discoveries in every field. She is an inveterate indeed perhaps even one might say a compulsive explorer impelled by her need to know and to understand to cross-new frontiers. The space she explores on canvas is not the outer space beyond the earth's orbit that astrophysics probes, however, but the inner space of the imagination, where the truth is stranger than any science fiction. The notion of an interior landscape where free association evokes enigmatic themes and hybrid images was originally extrapolated by the Surrealists from psychoanalytic theory. However, it would be a mistake to see Zorzi's hybrids as Freudian nightmares or for that matter in any sense related to the amorphous space of Surrealism or its automatic techniques. She is conscious of the potential anxiety she provokes, but her intention is to wake us up to our contemporary reality with its terrors and traumas rather than to encourage more dreaming. It is true that she distorts and transforms the reality of human relations and of the new landscape we are creating through technological mutation, but she does so to make us face the nature of the brave new world we are creating rather than to remain like ostrich with our heads in the sand. The irrational fantasy world of grimacing monsters and entwined figures in menacing landscapes suggests suffering, but it does so with a sense of humor that is at once welcome but at the same time uncomfortable. Zorzi has clearly labored to create a new language adequate to express and communicate the contradictions and surprises of our contemporary experience. She does not illustrate the images of cloning, hybridization and various other disruptions of the natural order with which we are daily confronted, but there is no doubt they are among the disturbing references that lie just beneath the surface of her imagery. The many artists from Botticelli to Blake and Rauschenberg who illustrated Dante's Inferno depicted the tortures of the damned with painful specificity. With the lost of religious belief, this hell of the afterworld seems to have lost its capacity to frighten. On the other hand, we fear the chaos and churning disorder and the possibility of total anarchy and the breakdown in human communication implicit in the tower of Babel that is today's global civilization. Zorzi, despite the fact that she is not of the generation born with the Internet, has courageously plunged into the marvels of the computer's capacity to transform imagery, even to the point of animating her tragi-comic marvelous monsters. Often she translates familiar scenes based on art historical precedent into the collective vulgate of comic strip imagery. Her intention is not to be obscure and conceptually elitist, but to communicate directly with an audience who may not be familiar with the original masterpieces she uses as a point of departure. In her choice of a simplified, rapidly communicated deliberately aggressive imagery, she acknowledges the need to invent a new style that can be understood by the many, and not just by Flaubert's "happy few". Unintentionally she often arrives at images that remind us of the zoomorphic fantasies of Romanesque art that were the antecedents of the Surrealists combinations of man and beast. These hybridized images that Jungian theory acknowledges as part of the collective unconscious, testify to the continuing existence of man's baser and more brutal instincts that lie just below the polite surface of civilized repression. Zorzi rejects a psychoanalytic reading of her work, but it is difficult to discuss without thinking of Jungian concepts of evolution. Her prehensile, prehistoric, gargoyle like figures remind one of the earlier stages of evolution before homo sapiens walked the earth, when winged dinosaurs and amphibious sea creatures were the masters. As we have suggested Alessandra Zorzi's spirit, her curiosity about technology and cultural innovations as well as the challenges she has set for herself have far more in common with those of a generation younger than her own. Whereas the rapidly changing visual landscape we perceive on billboards, television and computer screens terrify most people over thirty, she is willing to make use of their imagery and speak their language. Like Amelia Erhard and Karen Blixen, Alessandra Zorzi loves exploration, even if there are risks in plunging ahead into unknown territory and uncharted space. Her choice of a brazen, loud and sometimes clashing palette and of a style that has as much in common with Keith Haring as it does Matisse is intentional. Her experiments with animating her paintings do not result in cartoons, but in witty moving pictures of psychological conundrums familiar to all of us from our daily experience. For example, her Thinker is no ideal nude with head resting on chin focused on deep abstract philosophical issues, but a confused hydra headed zoomorphic humanoid whose brain sprouts five different personae at odds with each other, which is far more the case of our complex, multilayered, chaotic contemporary experience where high and low culture bang against each other. The Pugilists who jump at each other across the frame are not just an image of aggressive conflict. Each frame is an individual composition that understands the formal proposition that to be contemporary, the image must fill the whole of the field. Her aerial views of mushrooming cityscapes, undoubtedly conditioned by her experience as a pilot, depict a chaotic and unstable landscape of competing forms that is the opposite of the ideal city that we know now can exist only in theory in a world of global multicultural cacophony and rapid change that often permits no time for transition or reflection. Perhaps the most important content of art is the feeling of the experience of the time in which it was created. Michelangelo's Last Judgment records the apocalyptic anguish of the later sixteenth century, when a deep spiritual crisis unbalanced the perfect harmonies of the Renaissance. Vermeer tells us about the comfort and orderliness of bourgeois Delft. We love the way Fragonard paints, but only the culture of the ancien regime could have produced such a light touch and such charming pastel colors. Our reality is more brutal and, like that of the Middle Ages, more grotesque, insecure and unsettling. Zorzi's ability to capture the spirit of the times with wit and fearlessness -even if what lies before us is terrifying-creates an entire universe of characters as strange and weirdly hybridized as those who populate Star Wars. She accepts the notion of impurity, of hybridization. Of mutant new forms, which may strike us as monstrous with a courageous equanimity. There is something Gothic in this spirit of melting the playful with the grotesque. In her topsy-turvy world, we sense something, too, of the sense of folly of which Erasmus wrote and that Breugel illustrated in his parables, which are in many ways the inspiration for Goya's Caprichos. One imagines that Alessandra Zorzi's paints such strong and sometimes unpalatable images to force us to confront, accept, but finally to transcend through humor and the excitement of exploring the terra incognita of our own human situation without giving in to defeatism, cynicism or sentimental nostalgia for a past that is gone forever. Refusing to deny a future that may in its complexity and mobility seem too chaotic to control, she proves, as Andre Gide wrote, that the artist is the antenna of the race, signaling what is to come, as well as the means to prepare for it, no matter how unprecedented and full of new challenges the future we are creating may be.