Identity is something you perform – a performance restrained by norms and expectations
Almost 100 years ago a small vellum book was discovered in a villa outside Rome. Known as the Voynich Manuscript, it contains watercolours of peculiar plants, mysterious charts and sketches suggestive of both astronomical and microscopic studies (and, rather bizarrely, illustrations of naked women bathing in what look like backyard swimming-pools). But most perplexing is the lengthy text interspersed among all these elements, which offers no explanation. In fact, it is composed in a cryptic language beyond the comprehension of even the best code-breakers at the National Security Agency, who spent years trying to decipher it. Great mystery surrounds its actual age (some claim it to be a modern hoax, written in a fictitious language devoid of significance, while others have suggested it contains the recipe for the elixir of life). Whatever textual meaning the manuscript may conceal, it is in part the strange beauty of the Voynich’s drawings and the mere suggestion of some hidden coherent truth that account for scholars’ enduring fascination.
Ernesto Caivano’s meticulously detailed ink drawings suggest a similar fantastic world of apparent congruity, lying just out of reach. A romantic narrative of great scope underpins his practice, but, like artefacts of some lost culture, the drawings themselves mostly resist our efforts to decipher the story. Having already become lost in the formal beauty of Caivano’s line and composition, it is hard to worry too much about what we may be missing. We encounter an enigmatic cacophony of source material that has been woven into his fairy tale, including early Modernist abstraction, Asian screen painting and prints, archaeology, Art Nouveau ornament, information technology, molecular physics, fractal geometrics and, most prominently, European medieval and Renaissance literature. Working without any specific internal chronology, Caivano switches between depicting specific moments in the story and references to its greater cosmology.
This Spanish-born New Yorker’s ongoing Spenseresque project, which he calls After the Woods, involves the story of a long-separated knight and princess in some mythical near-future past, each trapped in an individual Odysseyan journey to find the other. The series of drawings, several of which were included in this year’s Whitney Biennial, are haunted by a host of fantastical beasts, notably the ‘Philapores’, birds whose ornate feathers carry undecipherable messages between the two lovers. Naturally, longing is a predominant theme. In An Offering Above the Clouds (2004) – a long, horizontal scroll-like drawing exhibited as part of a solo show earlier this year at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center – the princely knight gazes from his illustrative dominion across a huge canopy of clouds that recalls seismic waves or computer graphics, to a distant molecular structure far beyond the horizon. Everything is rendered with a crystalline delicacy and clarity, and the whole world seems as if it might shatter at the slightest breath.
How Caivano’s deft touch interacts with the narrative isn’t totally clear. In general, a complex narrative seems to work best when lurking in the background as a generative tool, not as a structure on which to hang the work. Caivano uses it in both ways. At times his tale appears perfectly assembled, lacking the fragile vulnerability of his star-crossed protagonists. At other times it appears so broad or veiled as to disallow comparative evaluations. (One gravitates easily to his stronger compositions, but the work aspires to a more complex engagement than simple formal appeal.) At such moments one yearns to decode more of the personal meaning that Caivano invests in all this – to discover what’s at stake in this moral quest.
But then again, incomplete or obscured meaning is a central aspect of Caivano’s project. The artist plainly states that he hasn’t totally figured the whole thing out himself. Like the Voynich Manuscript, however, After the Woods has thus far achieved an elusive aura of provocative mystery, enough to stimulate continued study and engagement even in its very lack of conclusive fulfilment. Caivano’s imagined realms are by design a disordered sequence of lost truths, present yet unknowable. Suspended in his fragile world, whose multifarious references never quite coalesce, we find ourselves in a position not dissimilar to the prince himself – a place where understanding is infinitely deferred, but just yearning for it feels oddly rewarding.
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