Body of Work

Clarina Bezzola uses the fabric of human emotion to make statements about vulnerability and separation

Art Column

September 10, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Passersby outside Charles Street's Gallery International last week might be forgiven for not quite knowing what was going on inside: Was it an art exhibition or a fashion show?

Peering through the glass door at the entrance, one could see half a dozen department-store mannequins artfully draped in what appeared to be colorful, if bizarre, couture.

Closer inspection, however, revealed that these "garments" were actually stuffed fabric sculptures cleverly stitched into shapes resembling various body parts.

There was a red-lipped mouth with teeth, for example, worn about the midriff like a spiked corset. There were several torsos with floppy necks, arms and legs that fell from shoulder to floor like enormous, overstuffed bridal trains. And there were still other forms that defied exact description, but which in shape and color may well have fallen under the general category of "unmentionables."

The creator of this curious attire, Clarina Bezzola, is a Swiss-born artist now based in New York who adamantly resists easy categorization, including description of her work as sculpture.

"Art is without boundaries now," she insisted in an interview during the show's opening. "I just try to express my thoughts and feelings. It's conceptual art, but it's not intellectual. My work is very emotion-oriented."

Nor does she consider herself a feminist artist, despite the obvious references to the female body in her work.

"I would say my work is pre-sexual, rather than feminist," she said. "It is about ultimate feelings of vulnerability, ultimate uneasiness. My work speaks about the pain of life, but it is also a celebration, because when you feel great pain, you're often the most alive."

Bezzola, 32, came to the United States 12 years ago to study fashion at New York's Parsons School of Design. But she gave that up after a semester to concentrate on metal-smithing and furniture design. The influence of those studies can be detected in the jewel-like surfaces and cleverly jointed structures of her current work.

Bezzola's pieces operate as visual metaphors for a state of mind that, sadly, is all too common in modern urban societies.

Her Tenderness Shield, for example, is a large stuffed-fabric collar that encloses the shoulders, neck and part of the head and functions a bit like those inverted plastic cones veterinarians put on dogs' heads to keep them from licking an injury.

"I'm talking about people cutting themselves off, making themselves secure to the point of complete suffocation," Bezzola says.

In her work, the fear and discomfort associated with being vulnerable drives people literally to cocoon themselves from all experience.

The same impulse to self-denial is visible in Bezzola's Focus Hood, a ski-mask-like piece of headwear that culminates in a long fabric tube in front of the wearer's face - an embodiment of the kind of fearful "tunnel vision" that prevents us from fully engaging with the world.

Bezzola said she was influenced by the work of British artist Richard Billingham, whose photographs of his parents' genial domestic squalor were exhibited in the Brooklyn Museum of Art show Sensation a few seasons back.

Bezzola said she was struck by how much of the furniture, floors and walls of the Billingham household were covered with cheerful floral patterns, dolls, etc. "I realized that created the effect of another skin over what was really an appalling situation. The patterns gave it a sweet touch, as if the flowers and dolls were a barrier against reality."

Bezzola's first wearable sculptures (for lack of a better term) were created out of women's house dresses covered with similar cheerful patterns.

"The idea was that the form would tell one story - about a creature who is weak and vulnerable - while the surface was telling a completely different story. I called the piece Out of Tune."

Many of Bezzola's works exploit such ironies in a humorous vein. In Symbiosis, a creature represented by a tangle of stuffed arms and legs sits atop a mirrored glass table whose surface exactly reflects the image of a second stuffed creature beneath the table.

"It's like a relationship," Bezzola said. "Each of the creatures thinks they are looking at each other, when in fact, they only can see themselves - they are completely narcissistic. Even though it seems to them that they are connected, they don't even know the other one is there. So it's a piece about imprisonment - the isolation of feeding on one's own image."

Whatever you want to call them, Bezzola's fabric metaphors are provocative, disturbing and endlessly fascinating. The show runs through Oct. 6. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Call 410-230-0561.

Landscapes, streets

Upstairs in the same building, the C. Grimaldis Gallery is showing paintings by Sukey Bryan and photographs and videos by Dimitra Lazaridou, Janelle Lynch and Leslie Furlong.

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