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Houseguest: Francesca Gabbiani

February 15, 2009 - May 24, 2009

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About the Exhibition

The Hammer Museum presents the second exhibition in Houseguest, a new series in which artist are invited to curate a show from among the university’s diverse collections.  For this exhibition, Los Angeles-based artist Francesca Gabbiani explores the subjects of witchcraft and sorcery.  She browsed through the collections of the Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts at the Hammer, and UCLA’s Departments of Special Collections at both the Charles E. Young Research Library and the Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library.  Gabbiani pursued her research with an eye for mysterious and macabre images, illustrations of poisonous and deadly plants, as well as representations of unearthly figures like saints and fairies.  The eclectic selection of prints and illustrated books range in date from the Renaissance to the present. In this installation, Gabbiani proposes an intriguing exploration of mystical powers and magic spells.

 

Essay

As Good as a Witch
By Trinie Dalton

Opening Sir Walter Scott’s little green field guide, Demonology and Witchcraft (1868), one is immediately enchanted by its incantatory sensationalism.

 

          Letter One: Origin of the General Opinions Respecting Demonology Among Mankind
           —Belief in Immortality
           —Apparition of an Abstract Spirit Little Understood by the Vulgar and Ignorant
           —They Are Often Presented by the Sleeping Sense
           —Story of Somnambulism
           —Depraved State of the Bodily Organs
           —Difference Between This Disorder and Insanity


With such long-winded Victorian chapter titles illustrated by George Cruikshank’s manic etchings of grim reapers stalking bedridden individuals (The Spectre Skeleton) or witches fiendishly surfing a churning sea (Witches Frolic), the manual serves as key to the dark spirits artist Francesca Gabbiani unleashes in this exhibition. For this exhibition, Gabbiani takes an elliptical curatorial approach by selecting a body of work that both stretches sorcery’s definition to its outermost grotesque emotional, physical, and imagistic sources and shows common undercurrents in popular belief that have endured through time. What results with viewing is an uncanny reminder that there is an entire alternate universe looming alongside ours. In this way, the exhibition functions as a spell and is aptly installed in a ring around the Vault Gallery. This collection of prints and antiquarian books with botanical illustrations from UCLA collections has been curated from a delicate balance of modern and premodern female perspectives on witchcraft, sorcery, and magic.

Gabbiani—in the tradition of feminist scholars who have repurposed clichéd, sexually deviant, snaggle-toothed, spell-casting femme fatales into heroines—mashes images of aging, mutating, shape-shifting women and criminals against those of stately queens, vibrant gypsies, voluptuous whores, doomed classical goddesses, and sultry art nouveau beauties to propose a monstrous feminine that attracts and repels. As the image of the Western-historical witch was refashioned from the pagan, nature-worshipping, medicine woman under the dualistic confines of Christianity, with its belief in good and evil as dueling forces, it makes sense that Gabbiani has selected primarily black-and-white artworks (save one by Alphonse Mucha) that formally emphasize mystical concerns through light and shadow while glancing back, temporarily, at the shameful European historical legacy of witch genocide and ostracism. Yet she recognizes that the image of a charmed woman remains highly eroticized and does not get bogged down by past discussions of revisionary gender politics. In this exhibition she proposes a new, decivilized, decadent ideal based on the ancient, in which the most powerful sorcerers are multifaceted. Violent and gentle, pure and abject, the ideal witch in Gabbiani’s fantasy disregards gender, sees no wall between human and wilderness, and has no moral boundaries. More

 

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