John Armstrong

Francesca Vivenza
The Art Gallery of Hamilton and The Koffler Gallery, North York

Two exhibitions this spring present a selection of Italian Canadian artist Francesca Vivenza's artworks produced since 1988. The Art Gallery of Hamilton exhibition, Prosperity Returns: The Oral Tradition in Painting (curated by Ihor Holubizky and Tony Scherman) includes Vivenza's MARE (1988) in a cluster of historical and contemporary marine paintings. MARE, the Italian word for the sea, is a domestically scaled painting on gessoed canvas that has been removed from its stretcher and stapled onto the wall. The word MARE has been carefully plotted out in pencil and partially, if haltingly, filled in with chalky blue paint. Its awkwardly attenuated and unfinished letterforms reinforce a sense of the canvas having been discarded, of frustration and incompleteness. In the context of the exhibition, alongside paintings by William Blair Bruce and Patterson Ewen (among others), Vivenza has pulled abruptly away from the romance of any bravura illusionistic rendering of a watery transcendent — an admission of the sheer weight of the linguistic sign she employs.

The Koffler Gallery exhibition, Dive, includes five sculpture and installation works that carry through Vivenza's attention to contingency and unfinished-ness. In the catalogue essay, exhibition curator Carolyn Bell Farrell connects Vivenza's use of found materials to Arte Povera as well as to the recuperation of the artist’s own history. The exhibition’s most ambitiously scaled work, Myths of Escape and Return (1993/95), reads as a set piece — a conditional summary of the artist's longstanding practice. It is composed of three sails (a well-worn mainsail and two mismatched jibs from a small racing dinghy) attached to the gallery’s baseboards and clerestory ceiling with nautical hardware. On the floor, the sails are tied to a core of granite and to a pile of Vivenza’s shredded collage material from her large, open-work wall constructions of the late 70s and early 80s. The sails are bathed in a low blue/grey or turquoise light reminiscent of black-and-white TV. To one side of the sails sit two portable fans that turn on and off on a thirty-second delay, and ever-so-subtly stir the sails. From above, two speakers broadcast a looped recording of what might be an out-of-breath swimmer gasping for air. Any maritime nostalgia proposed in Myths of Escape and Return is certainly skewed. “Escape” is a day’s outing on a pleasure craft, its sails unfilled by the sound  of faltering human breath. “Return” is a sea anchor of the artist’s past work.

Weight of Memory (1988), also in the Koffler show, again gives broad focus to the construction and assessment of personal identity. This work is comprised of a makeshift knickknack shelf that supports two rusting, hardware store weigh scales: one holds a neatly tied bundle of personal correspondence from Italy, the other, a lump of Pre-Cambrian Shield granite — the Old World and the New. The sculpture is awash in the patina of age, positing a sentimentality that is roundly defeated by the impossibility of accurately fixing the value of the constituent parts of any individual’s experience. When it finally arrives, there might not be a message in the bottle.

QW 3, Summer 1995