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Out of The Past

Two Artists Confront Time's Passing in Two-Woman Show

OLD SCHOOL: Jen Blazina's "Recollections"; Natalie Guerrieri's "Josephine Iacono (below)."

By Deborah McLeod | Posted 3/12/2008

Time Capsules: Jen Blazina and Natalie Guerrieri

At Gallery Imperato through March 29

Jen Blazina and Natalie Guerrieri mingle personal histories for their two-woman show, Time Capsules, at Gallery Imperato this month. The experience they provide is umber tinted and Proustian. It is an intimate and romanticized glimpse back into previous generations and into familial and social mythologies.

Both artists primarily work in portraiture, often using the nondiegetic gaze of their subjects to pull the viewer backward through the veils of time. The time veil's material itself is the most idiosyncratic element for each artist. Blazina casts her subjects' old photographic portraits in glass and rubber, which she tends to miniaturize, while Guerrieri's immigrant ancestors are rendered in near life-size photo collage. Blazina's chosen medium insinuates a cool, ceremonial, occasionally cathartic sense of formal remove and speaks of being more sequestered or belonging to another plane--as if the class photos and locket portraits are image reliquaries. Guerrieri's works are much more visceral, literal, vulnerable, even a little messy. They incline to house disquieted ghosts, while Blazina's past-tense portraits are serenely predestined for infinity.

Guerrieri's pieces somewhat recall Whitfield Lovell's work, only hers are Italian-American instead of African-American. Never mind that detail momentarily. These people who formed this country with their evident faiths, Old World customs, New World values, infirmities, and vanities stand to face us primly, directly in their starched portrait studio best or, in one, a poignant bathing suit. They deliver "the gaze" stimulating our voyeurism on behalf of their expectation of immortality and our desire to imagine these individuals.

Like Lovell, Guerrieri performs a manner of shamanism in bringing her ancestors back from the dead. She surrounds their images with a mixture of media chosen for symbolic potency. Bits of fabric, birch bark, moss, and feathers engulf the figures in strange grotto-scapes making vacuums or auras around them. This is ostensibly undertaken by the artist for self-understanding: Who were they? Who am I? She interprets the importance of their memories by defining their being and soul through a complex, almost automatic layering of glazes onto enlarged and manipulated photo transfers. It facilitates her encounter with the deceased on her own emotional terms but also honors their lore with each cognitive observance. This is partly what makes Guerrieri's large-splayed, rippling, nailed-to-the-wall canvases eerily ritualistic. The presentation paired with the reflective surfaces assumes a glistening, fresh carcass quality but also holds the spirit's spark. Guerrieri supplements her imagery with a handout of written stories about each individual to explain her motives in the conception of their individual memorials.

Because people are interesting, this is interesting, but these narratives don't necessarily support the images as art. The liminal condition that the visual works suggest is that they are awaiting something else to nudge them into their rightful maturity. They tend to feel a little formulaic without having nailed their own sublime state and read more as transitional work with a full resolution to the oeuvre yet on its way.

One of the most memorable and effective of Guerrieri's works is "Ruby Baich-Yacono." The artist's grandmother as a young woman in a bathing suit, Ruby is presented as a reversed-image diptych. Her two opposing views are slightly mismatched and stitched together up the center. This simple alteration to Guerrieri's conventional scheme of presentation gives this work its own singular epiphany. You don't need to know precisely whom this mysterious woman is or why the artist might want to know about her. We want to know her on our own separate terms. Additionally, the photo-transfer element of this work is psychologically robust enough to support the manipulation/assemblage components. But also, there is outward energy, movement, and expansion in this work. You might imagine folding this work together and closing it like a book, observing how the two Rubies would never be able to integrate pressed together and how the central stitching exacerbates the polarities that Guerrieri wants us to experience from her story.

Blazina uses the metaphoric content of glass to capture the past in her sculpture and installation pieces. Little ghosted faces peer back at us from their glass- and rubber-sealed realms. Like fossils trapped in amber, the screen-printed array of grim expressions trapped within cast-rubber lockets that comprise "Bittersweet" seem to turn the tiny found portraits into specimens as much as mementos. This marvelous wall installation suggests a vast congregation of sitters, all of whom--by virtue of being placed in a locket--can be imagined as once intimately loved and worn as amulets next to the heart, but now lost. Cast from their proper family lineage, they've fallen into flea-market anonymity until Blazina came upon them. She pairs faces without prior history together in some of the lockets--an arranged marriage accorded to romantic fancy or irony: a yearbook from heaven, perhaps. Some pairs appear time appropriate, while others match a flapper with a bopper and even, in one curious instance, a bunny. Reverence and benign irreverence--love the one you're with--mingle in this revisionist's confederation of souls. Blazina includes a few empty lockets here and there as well, which seem to inquire: Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved?

Blazina's "Recollection," originally an installation of nine chalk-white vintage school desks, is paired down to two for this presentation. Their writing platforms have been replaced with screen prints of old class pictures cast in translucent crystal and lit from inside. These are beautiful haunting works on time and innocence, identity and possibility. The two in Imperato's gallery don't suffer the absence of the other missing seven in the least. One is enough to carry its beholders back through the sequence of events that has them now standing in front of this apparition, to recall all of the complex emotions, trials, lessons, and universals inherent in human time.

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