Trial and error - Mónica Giron / Exposition El día y la noche, filigranas. Gallery Cecilia Caballero Arte Contemporáneo


Midway upon the journey of our life

I found myself in a dark wilderness,

For I had wandered from the straight and true. 

How hard a thing it is to tell about,

That wilderness so savage, dense, and harsh,

even to think of it renews my fears! 

Inferno Canto I,[1]

Between 1480 and 1495, Sandro Botticelli made illustrations for the one hundred cantos in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Since he was an outstanding Renaissance artist, his drawings are conceptual, ponderings of space and time, space and figure, of philosophy, morality, and adventure. There are perspective studies, groupings, and one-offs[J2] . Botticelli made small scenes—as was the custom of the day—where the size of the characters indicated their hierarchical position, their reason for being. They are scenes that formulate scenes, situations, shifts. Many of the figures recur to express ideas, quantities, and volumes.

In an age well before the digital copy-paste, we see how Botticelli returns with pencil or ink to the mark he first left on the parchment with tiny holes. Experts say that he must have replicated the forms at great speed.

For several centuries, Dante’s text and its illustrations were hidden from the public eye. Even today, the Vatican jealously keeps in its library Botticelli’s original map or drawing of hell along with seven other illustrations of The Divine Comedy.

Isabel De Laborde has drawn inspiration from that collection of drawings and prints, exhibited together for the first time at the Royal Academy in London in 2000 and 2001. She carefully observed the works in that show and brought the catalogue back to Buenos Aires with her, where it remained on her bookcase until she stumbled upon it some fifteen years later. Meanwhile, after that exhibition in London, Botticelli’s series of drawings on The Divine Comedy gained popularity: we have seen them together and individually in documentaries and fiction films, enlarged by microscopes with the text they illustrate or without it.

Botticelli’s hell is a conceptual hell with upside-down spiral; his purgatory a set of treacherous elevated terraces; the concentric circles of his heaven once again capture the collective imagination. The images within reach are countless thanks to contemporary technology that reworks them on celluloid, in digital video, and in print, and allows them to journey through cyberspace.

Different times and levels are manifested in each of the master’s compositions; he often repeats a single element to refer to different things in different illustrations. A wave looks like a gust, a breeze, the sea, a curl, or a flatulence, depending on the context, depending on the amount. Every so often, precise circles delimit, fence off, or highlight a rounded section, like a magnifying glass, like a certain time, like a hole, like a stage within the composition of rectangular paper.

When that strange tribe,

Lifting their eyes toward us: “If ye know,

Declare what path will lead us to the mount”

Purgatory, Canto II,[2]

Isabel returns to those drawings today—some seven hundred years later—by way of the silkscreen. They are small bits, parts, or segments of the characters’ attributes and of the circles in Botticelli’s drawings. She resumes, clips, sunders, and digitalizes. And she re-creates three series of paintings or prints on three different types of paper. In these new compositions, there is no distinction between heaven, hell, or purgatory. She says that they are all the states of consciousness together. They are, in a sense, all the plots of The Divine Comedy jumbled like a choppy sea, a composite whole. Darkness and light, face and cross, appear at once. Fragments that seem adrift or displaced advance along the papers’ surfaces like rivers that are, in turn, like folds or areas more or less dark.

The print in the age of digital reproduction: Isabel de Laborde says she is working with light at two poles. By virtue of a playful and compositional force, new overlapping zones are created. Isabel explains that she is not an expert in The Divine Comedy or in Jung, but that the intersection of those two fields of knowledge—along with the beauty of Botticelli’s drawings—is what she deploys in the three collections of prints she exhibits today—in 2017—in Buenos Aires in a show curated by Santiago Bengolea at the gallery belonging to her friend Cecilia Caballero.

Isabel—excited, perhaps to the point of madness—scrutinizes and edits the drawings by Botticelli in the book using digital technique. (In the Middle Ages, she would undoubtedly have been burned as a witch.) She doubles her effort by working with Florencia di Salvo; with the help of experts, they do research to be able to then turn the printed material in the Royal Academy catalogue into new material to be printed. They adapt the drawings so that they have enough threads to be transferred from the offset print matrix to a map of bytes that will then be imprinted or transferred onto the stencils ; they will print the results of the transfer onto sheets of paper as often as they please, using silkscreen, and layer, juxtapose, rotate, rotate again, and break the fragments they choose to rework.

The fragments have been re-conceptualized, torn into parts, split from the bodies, chapters, verses, or regions that provided understanding. Each piece has enough information, though, so that we know where it comes from. When intermingled, the parts stray from the narrative order; when layered or intersected, they generate new patterns, patterns more or less abstract, more or less spatial. From afar, they look like colorful textures, like stained surfaces of color; from up close, the details of meat hooks, stairways, clouds, curls, wings, and parts of demons or of angels emerge. The gold in the plates rests on the sheet of paper every so often, giving a thickness that, like metallic or pristine highlights, makes the compositions shine. 

Like cards falling from a shuffled deck, the fragments of Botticelli’s drawings do not seem to be in any particular order or, as Isabel would say, they are the conscious and unconscious mind at once. She adds that these works can be seen from both sides: they are reversible images on reversible sheets of paper. They can be hung up or placed on a surface: she is interested in highlighting their transparencies.

And, if the narrative of which they form part has been cut off countless times, it continues to move ahead. Like a river of bits, like remains of magnet powder that sometimes head in one direction and sometimes in the other, twisting one way and then back madly. Signifiers adrift. They are like little bits of figures trapped in a cloud of motion, like syncopated notes.

Isabel explains that they are, for her, parts of a topography in two dimensions. Judgment suspended and the ability to classify and to discern clouded: muddled wholes, muddled parts. We sense from up close Renaissance intelligence, but we lose sight of it instantly only to then find it again below, back there, up here, in the distance.  It is as if hell, heaven, and purgatory were a single thing. It is like a composite chaos formed within the rectangles of the paper.

Isabel says that shadow, which is your treasure, is there; there as well is that the other treasure—light—which can only be seen against shadow. It is the dream of love’s longing, it is the path of terror and trust at once. States of consciousness that I engage in my work, Isabel says. A sort of collective concert as well. As if in a dance, Isabel and Florencia go back and forth, from one winged being to the next, around tables where the stencils are printed on papers first stained with colored inks. Dream and wakefulness, care and play.

O ye, who in my pretty little boat,

Eager to listen, have been following

Behind my ship, that singing sails along,

Turn back to look upon your shores;

Do not put out to sea, lest peradventure,

In losing me, you might yourself be lost. 


The Dream’s Addresses and Planetary Dreams series:

The amate tree [J10] is part of our earthly paradise, and its bark yields amate paper. Pursuant to a hellish preparation process with hot water and lime that has been performed manually for millennia, its surface becomes resistant, unctuous, heavy. These works [J11] are small self-sustaining vegetable-fiber tablets measuring approximately 60 x 40 cm. Intimidating, says Isabel, and almost religious. Coarse and matt, it is paper for drawing, painting, and writing, though it works well for printing too.

The Ocean Eyes, Water and Earth Eyes, Inner Eyes, and Sounds and Echoes series: 

These works are [J12] like rice paddies shaken by the wind or like Purgatory’s terraces. Rice fiber is used to make light-weight paper, mostly in long and narrow sheets (140 x 70 cm, 70 X 70 cm, or 70 x 85 cm). While hard to handle during the composition process, they can later be ironed, stretched, or rolled. This is the paper used for square Chinese and Japanese letters [J13] and for Chinese inks, for woodcuts and haiku, for prayers to the wind. To survive handling by inexpert hands during the exhibition, the marouflage [J14] technique has been used, which means that at the exhibition we will encounter a very light-weight paper mounted on thicker paper.

The Sonatas series:

Tyvek is a recent invention of the North American company Dupont Chemical. It is a non-woven material of high-density polyethylene fibers. A cure-all for builders of wooden homes in humid locations, tyvek is a paper from the deepest levels of hell. It is inorganic and impermeable. Because impervious, it saturates quickly, which means that it would be very difficult for water or ink—or anything else that leaves an expressive or emotional trace—to make a mark on it. It is used in contemporary wooden houses for isolation. [J15] It is also used in clothing and in design objects. Because its surface is unctuous, it does absorb silkscreen inks. It dries slowly, but after it has it is malleable yet sturdy. Once the inks have seeped into it, the surface is like a thin translucent parchment with different markings on the two sides—a front and a back with wonderful transparencies on which the pieces of Botticelli’s drawings swirl, stack up, and contort like traces of choreography.

New compositions, then, based on those drawings from the late fourteen hundreds. They have a collective temperament, and both a conscious and an unconscious cultural heritage. Part abstract and part figurative. Ecstasy of fragmentary manipulations. A bit of digital work and a bit of traditional apprenticeship[J16] . Hits and misses—but can we be certain which are which? What we have is painting, blotches, and printmaking—silk screens. Collaborative efforts: How is it to be displayed? Framed and hung on the wall, like a traditional painting, or placed on a table to be handled, like a book or a drawing underway on a work table?

They might be a stretch of wallpaper or a patterned fabric. They might seem divine or heavenly, but they are in fact human stuff—questions in painting format or impression, which is also printmaking, technique, experimentation in repetition in the expanded field of printmaking in contemporary art.

Isabel has a background in the decorative arts, and these works partake of that as well. Marielle Bancou, her beloved mentor since the time she studied art in Paris, reminds Isabel that gold is the place where light and shadow generate great ambiguity: gold’s shine rivets and blinds.

As a vital, experimental, and topographic proposal, Isabel adds, one might engage one’s shadow in the print, exploring its folds, identifying its fragments, parts, segments, repetitions here and there. A little like a kaleidoscope or a piece of filigree through which we see what we can, what each of us can add and take away in order to re-compose. Rejection of a scene that can be repeated with precision. It is as if the viewer were asked to delve into a world where his or her own projection is what completes the journey or experience; at stake is what each of us, what our own light or shadow, can or wants to add.

Mónica Giron - Buenos Aires, July 17, 2017

[1] Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto I, Ed. Edhasa, Volúmen I, pag. 15. Traducción y notas de Jorge Aulicino. Buenos Aires. 2015. 

[2] Dante Alighieri, Purgatory, Canto II, Ed. Edhasa, Volúmen II, pag. 29. Traducción y notas de Jorge Aulicino. Buenos Aires. 2015.

[3] Dante Alighieri, Paradise, Canto II, Ed. Edhasa, Volúmen III, pag. 25. Traducción y notas de Jorge Aulicino. Buenos Aires. 2015.