Magic Grip, 1998
Rebecca DiDomenico works from the inside out, abstracting observations – the subtle bend of a twig, the elegance of a frozen kingfisher, or the mathematically precise patterns on a expired tomatilla pod – into drawing and sculpture. In DiDomenico’s Magic Grip these interests are realized, in part, through manifestation of spirals and worm holes, time and humanity, intangible thought and dreams, and varying methodologies of scientific inquiry. Her work relates to themes of time, alchemy, gender, sexuality and science, and a desire to realize the universe through touch.
When Meret Oppenheim challenges the surrealists with a fur-lined teacup, she found in an everyday object substantial powers for the transformation of the language of art. The teacup, delicate and mundane, was protected by the skin of a slaughtered deer. Rebecca DiDomenico’s art follows Oppenheim’s tenacious line of questioning. Through Magic Grip, a dialogue between the artwork, nature, and self emerges as thoughtful observations of a luminous and gracious world, full of wonder and contradictions.
Also like Oppenheim, DiDomenico has a keen interest in words. On a conceptual level, Magic Grip resembles a prose poem, the objects and symbols forming phrases. Rock, flame, palm, bowl, legs, crown relate to the words history, experiment, vocation, and hut. Magic Grip suggests that within the logical and the unknown is the artist, an inquisitive translator and a medium for magic.
Cydney Payton, 1997
Rebecca DiDomenico: Forage-Voyage
Simon Zalkind, October 1997
Know the world is a mirror from head to foot,
In every atam there are a hundred blazing suns.
If you cleave the heart of one drop of water,
A hundred pure oceans emerge from it.
If you examine closely each grain of sand,
A thousand atoms may be seen in it.
In its members a gnat is like an elephant.
In its qualities a drop of rain is like the Nile.
The heart of a barleycorn equals a hundred harvests,
A world dwells in the heart of a millet seed.
In the wing of a gnat is the ocean of life.
In the pupil of the eye a heaven:
What though the grain of the heart be small,
It is a station of the Lord of both worlds to dwell therin.
-Mahmoud Shabistari (thirteenth –century), Gulshan-i-raz
Alchemists used many strangely shaped bottles called “alembics” that were intended to echo or signify parts of the human body, within which the “secret Sun” (the innocent soul) was hidden. The innocent soul hidden in these glass beakers and retorts was prepared to fly (like a bird) into the world.
There is always something to be guessed at in Rebecca DiDomenico’s work – something inchoate and subterranean, which erupts in imagery and yet remains ungraspable – outside the scope of rational surveillance. The drawings in particular demonstrate that rhythm of release and restraint, of spontaneity and contrivance through which DiDomenico seeks to crystallize, firmly and quickly, whatever emerges from the shadowy regions of the unconscious. In this she owes a debt to the strategies of surrealism.
However, the surrealist image – perverse, novel, witty, and incongruous – is seldom allied with the task of restoring symbols to their bio-psychic potency, to their original and creative source.
DiDomenico offers persuasive visual clues to the hidden alchemical argument embedded in her work. This can be easily missed is one fails to relate the images to one another in a grammar of overall meaning. At the same time she is also nourished by primitive, naïve, and “outsider” art traditions. She mingles the great sophistication of alchemical allegory with the guileless clarity of vision common to outsider art. One is tempted to describe her work as “spiritual” and while that may be true it is also misleading – this work does not ascend, it doesn’t aspire upwards; it finds its rootedness in elemental forces, in urges, earth and instinct.
She uses color sparingly and the preponderance of black and white in her drawings alludes to the character of these works as a kind of “text,” as real information. They often function like the rigorous illustrations that accompany scientific and medical writing, clarifying and demonstrating in palpable visual forms the author’s written hypothesis. Postmodernists insist that our reading of any text is shaped by the culture in which we live. DiDomenico’s work is loaded with alchemical signs, allegorical and richly associative, but our culture no longer provides the means by which these allegories and signs can be incorporated into an overall meaning or discourse. We recognize the individual sings, the “letters” of her alphabet, but we lack the means to form those letters into words and phrases.
Acknowledging that alchemical symbols and sympathies inform DiDomenico’s work is not to insist on them as the single hermeneutical key through which her work might be approached. These works are not about alchemy. But alchemical lore provides her with a rich vocabulary of images that are about “correspondences.” Macrocosm and microcosm. Cosmos and kitchen sink. Everything on the higher order or scale of frequencies reflects and is contained within the manifestations of lower, more earthbound frequencies. The “as above, so below” of alchemy provides the means through which the artist’s wonderment can be contained within a system of archetypally charged associations and correspondences.
The alchemical quest also provides a rich metaphor for the artist’s task – to transmute the “dross” of ordinary perception into the “gold” of a meaning-rich field of awareness. DiDomenico’s work is allied with the power of that – with that “other thing” – the separate reality dimly felt behind the veil of appearances.
Alongside her debt to the Surrealist enterprise, one intuits in many of DiDomenico’s assemblages an affinity for the Romantic eccentricities of Joseph Cornell. Saturated with yearning and nostalgia, Cornell’s boxes restore the objects of the past to the pleasures of the present. Like Cornell, DiDomenico is a relentless forager. Her constructions are the work of a connoisseur of fragments, emblems, and numinous talismans – enchanted bric-a-brac whose preciousness is ratified by memory and desire. They enclose and perpetuate histories and they emanate Time. Even her home brims with charged objects, artifacts, and souvenirs that are displayed instinctively and innocently – like a Cornell box on a grand scale.
Crowns. Potent symbols of dominion and authority, they make frequent appearances in DiDomenico’s arsenal of images. The adept’s crowns of perfection, the a saint’s crown of glory, the king’s royal crown of temporal rule – these readings come to mind unbidden and quick. Less obvious is her crown’s occasional nod of resemblance to the “fool’s cap.” Previous to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, which declared madness a mental illness, the fool is an affirmative image. Imbecile, lunatic, jester – the fool’s position of privilege originates in medieval society’s connection between madness, clairvoyance, and wisdom. The fool was outside the system – ridiculous but strangely gifted and charismatic. The fool spoke “love to the lovers, the truth of life to the young, the middling reality of things to the proud, to the insolent, and to liars.” The fool’s cap is the crown to which DiDomenico aspires.
The idea of concentration which includes the whole of oneself as well as the whole of the object raised another question. How exactly does the capacity to make a wholr picture in which every part is related connect with the capacity to be a whole person? Is the striving for one at least partly based on the striving for the other? When we look at such a picture do we get a temporary glimpse of what it would be like to be a truly whole person?
The Aesthetics of Alchemy (or How I Learned to Love Change)
To reiterate the forms that recombine a hundred ways around you is pedantic at best, but even a partial list is instructive: bricks, eggs, vessels, roots, oven, eyes, labyrinth, horns, rocks, wands.
That these items can be identified and classified like data suggests that other lists are possible—such as the forms each piece might take:
Parable, proofs, allegory, treatise, fable, hologram, cryptogram.
Even the dust by the side of the road is changing and so quickly that you’d need an electron microscope equipped with a high speed camera to catch the precise instant when, in your mind, it became something else.
Change a seed into a flower, an ear of corn, a crystal, a baby raccoon, an idea? Ask anyone who knows; it’s not that much of a trick. Change a fish into a rock? No problem. A dinosaur into a diamond? Just double the baking time.
That’s the alchemy that kids already know. Of course, in grade school it’s something else—biology, chemistry, geology, critical reasoning—but transformation, the xs and vs of phenomena great and small, physical and mental, organic and nonorganic, is what catches our collective eye. We’re just kids like that. Of course, some kids are more sophisticated than others.
One thing is always leading to another when it comes to alchemy. Do it in the right order and you get gold; do it wrong and you get lead casserole or some other kind of junk. But then, junk isn’t exactly what it used to be. Now, a lot of it is made in Hong Kong, and it turns itself into gold. It’s the Industrial Revolution all over again, when alchemy becomes commerce.
Take the found object. What made you pick it up? What made you want it? For every connection, there’s a history on both sides of the transaction. But using something around you to make something you want, well, that’s a different story. That’s where your side of the history turns into a burning bush.
At the center of the exhibit is the oven, a brick and mortar nod to both the Industrial Revolution and the hearth, at once wondrous and mechanical, mystical and vocational. What wonders live here? Kingfishers in fissures (their crowns are somewhere else), test tubes for mixing an egg under glass with the fire in the belly. A home with an oven like this will never give you a straight answer, but the answers it does give will last for years.
If control is a dirty word these days, let’s call it Magic Grip instead. And besides, why vilify precision or the capacity to appreciate it? After all, precision and its patron saint, concentration, are what make civilization itself possible.
Without it, memory, experience and vision would all be reduced to the unintelligible soup of gut reactions to disconnected stimuli. So much would change. We wouldn’t be able to conceive of the past or the future, couldn’t focus on the difference between good and bad, here and there and there, nouns and verbs, delirium and nausea.
Fashions would never change. (we’d all look like Andy Warhol, but wouldn’t know it.) Language and history and metaphysics would change, but, arguably, physics would not. (We’d still be made of atoms, but maybe not Adams.) Even lists would change with no one to determine the difference between first and last. (Time would march on in its deliberate way, but no one would have the wits to notice the interval between now…and now.)
The other extreme, though, might be worse. Everyone would know everything all the time, immediately. There would be no mystery, no cognition save the instantaneous click of a thousand proofs looking into a binder that will never be looked at because everyone already knows the contents. And as for aesthetics, well, there would be nothing but elegant balances of forms designed exactly for the minute contours of each individual brain. All the mysteries of the universe swallowed up by the automatic nervous system.
So, maybe, we’ve already got the right stuff—or at least the right amount of it. We live in a world where someone can still teach us something, where there’s still a discrete moment between having a breath and not having a breath, where reaching doesn’t necessarily mean grasping but always means something, where time marching its pedantic march gives that something a texture and a body and a chance for that moment to last forever—but, again, only a chance. It was the chance that the alchemists wanted, even more than the gold they hoped to coax from it.