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Fosse | Wilma Tabacco
October 10, 2019 - November 9, 2019
Born in the province of L’Aquila, Italy, Wilma Tabacco has lived in Australia since childhood, yet her diverse art practice reflects her Italian heritage and her fascination with western European archaeology and history. The works in this exhibition trace places which have been the site of dug trenches (the French word ‘fosse’) and other physical markers of battlegrounds and contested sites. While these ideas inspire the works, ultimately they are conceptual works which are disconnected from any figurative or literal representation in favour of colour theory and geometric composition.
Wilma Tabacco has been making and exhibiting art for over four decades. A self-reflective artist with an enormous awareness of history, visual culture and an obsession with the archaeology of past cultures, Tabacco works intuitively, but then analytically tries to determine why she made certain decisions in her work. She is an artist who has developed a high degree of visual literacy with an extensive knowledge of developments in twentieth and twenty-first century art, yet there few direct parallels between her practice and that of other artists. Frank Stella, Agnes Martin and Sean Scully can all be described as fellow travellers.
Although Tabacco has lived in Australia since childhood, her Italian birth in a small village in the central Apennine Mountains in the region of Abruzzo, in the province of L’Aquila, an area surrounded by the Gran Sasso and Sirente ranges, looms prominently in her thinking. Possibly as she grows older, her Italian heritage increasingly asserts itself. This is particularly the case in the present exhibition titled Fosse – which can be interpreted as a moat or a ditch surrounding or protecting something – a precious vulnerable centre.
Early in 2019, Tabacco participated in a group project – Reciproco – which brought together five Australian artists of Italian extraction with five artists from Italy. Tabacco worked with Angelo Bellobono, who is an artist, mountain climber and ski instructor. Coincidently, he had climbed areas of the Gran Sasso where Tabacco was born. He met her cousin (who still lives in the vicinity); visited the town where she was born (left uninhabited after the 2009 earthquake and within the red zone that for reasons of personal safety is out of bounds for visitors) and took video footage that included the house in which she was born. From this footage, Tabacco and Bellobono spliced together a short video, Saluti dai Paesi Fantasma. They also created collaged maps of the area with insertions from maps of Australia.
In Tabacco’s art, it is somewhat foolhardy to draw direct or literal causational links between any body of her art and specific circumstances in her biography, and her entire oeuvre has a sense of continuum – almost a diary-like sequence where each piece builds on something that happened earlier. In the series of nine Small Panels included in this exhibition, there is a sense of introspection and the idea of excavating the past – literally and metaphysically. In terms of execution, this series consists of collage, where strips and patches of linen have been applied to a wooden panel and then explored and manipulated with acrylic and pigment. On realising that the linen is actually derived from earlier paintings by Tabacco, where we are seeing the back of the painted linen – the verso rather than the painted recto – through the material, this suggests a retrospective and personal dimension. The artist is interrogating and rediscovering her earlier work from a new perspective in a different period of her life. The areas of paint suggest architectural or landscape forms, but frequently seen from an aerial perspective or in dramatic profile.
It is possible that while collaborating with Bellobono on the collaged aerial maps, the idea of seeing things from a distance and from above had arisen and had extended into this body of work. The titles of some of these small panels including, Outpost barricade, Outpost parapet, Rampart and Naples carapace, may suggest something of a military campaign or of things holding out against the tides of change. Not infrequently in Italian villages, one encounters Roman and Etruscan remains – a slice of archaeology – a cross-section in time where many centuries are compressed together and not completely subsumed in the most recent redevelopment. Although these small panels are exquisite and refined, they also contain considerable tension, not only in the surface textures, but also in a design that in some instances, as in Outpost parapet and Outpost barricade, creates a considerable visual tension with the compositional elements locked-in and held together like a tightened spring. The palette is subdued favouring in most of the panels earthy tones, but, at the same time, the colours can be provocative and unexpected, as in Rubian fall and Tyrian rise, where the verso of the old linen has suggested these unexpected reds and purples.
All of this series, in one way or another, suggests a dialogue between the individual elements that involves looking back at a personal past from a great distance, a past that is unattainable, but at the same time real and tangible. Despite the modest scale, there is something solemn and majestic in these paintings.
There are two other series of works in this exhibition, both closely related with the Small Panels, Formation Works, in the same medium as the previous series but on slightly larger panels and the seven paintings of the Campus Martius (Field of Mars) in the more conventional oil on linen with each painting a metre square. The Formation Works are to some extent conceived as individual clever explorations into colours that bear place names – Siena, Verona, Venetian, etc. The Field of Mars, in other words, the ancient Roman military parade grounds, is the most disciplined and deliberate of the series in the exhibition with a heightened colour palette and compressed design. The compositions are like military formations – tight, compact and self-contained.
Tabacco enjoys the spatial game with an illusionist centre that appears to be suspended in space and a tight articulation with defined edges that keeps it in control and fixed to the flatness of the picture plane. If the first two series were more openly explorative and seemed to possess a more personal perspective, the Field of Mars paintings, especially Field of Mars #6 and Field of Mars #7, are more preoccupied with formalist games of structure and visual control. It is a series where little is left to chance and the artist is determined to take no prisoners.
Wilma Tabacco is an artist with an extensive and consistent track record who is presently working at the peak of her powers and is now overdue for a major retrospective survey exhibition of her art.
Sasha Grishin September 2019