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Friday, March 16, 2007

hearts and bones

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Elizabeth Marruffo’s first solo show was very much a continuation from her last body of work that was shown at the 2006 Edith Cowan University Graduate Exhibition.

An investigation of borders, heavily influenced by her childhood living on the border of the United States of America and Mexico. In her most recent work however, this investigation of borders has been shifted somewhat, to focus more on the walls erected between people, the hedgehogs dilemma and how this can become institutionalised by governments and cultures. This is evident in looking at the point of origin of the majority of her images, and noting that they all share the same common ground.

Elizabeth’s work can be viewed to have stemmed from the strong Magic Realist movement that grew through Latin America in the 1960’s, mixing fantasy with reality in a way that moved beyond simple swords and sorcery and instead suggested more of a lyrical or poetic life. That magic wasn’t a force that was driven by wizards, but rather the verbal label applied to the everyday, unexplainable events that we all experience, or feel we experience.

Elizabeth has managed to push her way out of the Magic Realist movement, which has become somewhat cliché ridden (in the same way that surrealism did, being typified by melting objects and floating architecture) and becomes something new and unique. I believe this is through the abstraction of background and the visual tension this creates with the figurative subjects. These blue/grey backgrounds in Elizabeth’s work are a reference to the mountain ranges visible from her home in Mexico.

On the canvas these shapes undulate in and out of focus, offering a strange and unstable geographic foundation on which to rest her figures on. Upon viewing, the eye shifts between a horizontal, naturalistic view of the mountain ranges and a topological one, as if seen from a plane. The borders then slice through the work to create an even greater challenge to perspective.

Returning in this body of work are images that Elizabeth used to great effect in her graduate body of work. These icons, or symbols can be read as part of a new language with them being words, sentences, whole complex theories. Their arrangement and subsequent rearrangement with every new body of work is similar to a the work of a wordsmith, refining their use of a language and it’s effect on the reader.

The first three films of P.T. Anderson also spring to mind, with the director assembling a stable of actors that continue to be called upon. In so much as Elizabeth continues to draw on these motifs and ideas.

The Dog: the small, deathly ill canine. Based on photographs taken by Elizabeth of a dog she rescued from the streets and nurtured back to health. An element of her work that is continually rendered with ever increasing love and care. This dog is sometimes accompanied by another dog, whose colour scheme seems reversed, like a poltergeist or film negative version.

The Border: represented by an army of simplified animal shapes, marching single file across the canvas. A curious visualisation of a key theme in her work.

The Artist: placing herself directly in the work, not in a conceited or contrived manner, but as a way of anchoring the work as a more easily identifiable personal experience. Like a catchy guitar riff, this is perhaps the easiest “entry” point for the viewer.

The Bones: specifically of hummingbirds. These images are perhaps some of the most haunting, with a vibrant and colourful creature being stripped back to a mechanical and mystical level. Suggesting both at once, the beginning and ending of all life (especially with the image of a baby hummingbird skeleton curled in it’s nest). Given the title of the exhibition (Hearts and Bones), it is unusual that the prevalence of these skeletons has been cut right back to only one example.

The Tree: perhaps representing a purity, and perseverance in the face of adversity and perversion. The white trees could also be read as being petrified, dead and hollowed. Relating back to the images of bones and the life cycles of all living things.

With this latest exhibition, these “classic” symbols are joined by perhaps the most important addition to Liz’ visual language that I have seen. Small, colourful knitted finger puppets that are a common form of Mexican craft. What Elizabeth does here, is to marry, in one succinct image, all of the concepts present in her work. The finger puppets are all representative of people in her life, friends, family members. The puppets act as a cultural a priori, as well as a personal one. Demonstrating the gentrification of our relationship with nature and animals our occasional generalisation and simplification of relationships. Using analogies or similes as an abbreviation for an actual experience.

We replace a zebra with an image of a zebra, and thus feel and share a common cultural understanding of the animal. This concept is key to the conflicts that erupt during border disputes. Broad generalizations and misunderstandings about social, cultural, religious, economic and ethnic groups are always at the heart of such disagreements.

In the same way this is seen on a broad level, it is also seen on a smaller one. Personal borders in relationships are often erected out of misunderstandings, or miscommunication. Creating rifts that can widen over time through a lack of open discussion.

With this new language developing it is exciting to start forming new sentences with these words. To play, as we all do with language to better our understanding of concepts, to challenge meaning and to explore ourselves.

What would happen if the antlers, were growing from The Dog, instead of The Artist? If The Border was circular instead of in a line. If the Finger puppets were being worn, instead of occupying the same surface area as the other elements of the painting. What if The Artist was standing next to The Tree, which was normal size compared to her, but growing out of The Dogs head. The possibilities of experimentation and the resulting meanings and aesthetics are a joy to contemplate.

What this new language can both revel in and be frustrated by, is the mass illiteracy in meaning and comprehension. With so few people being aware of the stories and reasoning behind the work, it can be a frustrating to express a clear and succinct idea. What this lack of understanding does however, is free up the work for a wide interpretation that is not necessarily bound by culture or geography.

Cute images, icons that elicit the rapid response of empathy/sympathy and the desire to mother/nurture are basic human emotions that Elizabeth massages with great skill. Never falling in to the trap of making anything gaudy cute, but instead merging (the new) classic commercial cuteness with fine technical skills in traditional art practices.

Regardless of an understanding of this critical theory that underpins all of Elizabeth’s work, the sheer beauty of it is enough that it shouldn’t matter for the average viewer. Like viewing a foreign language you engage with the image on a more aesthetic manner, understanding that while there is a rich meaning behind every stroke, it dances, full of life, just outside your realm of understanding.

Since graduating, Elizabeth has gradually allowed more and more colour to permeate her work, the abstracted geography present in her paintings now features more predominant blooms of colour, blues, violets, greens. Never too much, and with the same colours being echoed in small flickers throughout the same canvas.

With the addition of the finger puppets, her paintings are starting look like humming in the dark, when it’s a little scary and you’re trying to toughen yourself up. A fitting evocation for her works on human lives caught in the fences of governmental wastelands.

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