José Maria Sicilia
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen, Caen, France
‘You’re alone and you know a few things. The stars are pinholes; slits in the hangman’s mask. Them, rats, snakes: the chased and chasers’. James Ellroy quoted this epigraph by Thomas Lux in his novel Suicide Hill (1986) and in turn inspired José Maria Sicilia’s exquisite artist’s book You’re Alone (1992). A series of lithographs sewn together with thread dipped in beeswax, the work was the first in what has since become an intimate and inventive collaboration between Sicilia and his Paris printer Michael Woolworth. The artist has been investigating what one might call ‘spiritual materiality’ since the 1980s, a paradox that was clearly expressed in the fragile, highly sensual works on paper exhibited in this show.
For You’re Alone Sicilia explored some of the things alluded to in Ellroy’s text - butterflies, skulls, insects and various animals - which often duplicate those he obsessively employs in his paintings. He makes vaguely clumsy stencils and cut-outs, or sews his images with thread to indicate the flight of a butterfly or a spider’s web. Blurred and almost indecipherable in the low light of the gallery, Sicilia’s mysterious images flickered like phantoms, as if they had been buried in wax and covered with luminous golden varnish. Luz plegada (1993-94), for example, is a magical, wordless narrative in which bees seem to melt into the light.
Although Sicilia’s minimal use of materials recalls, say, the work of Wolfgang Laib, he accomplishes the opposite of Laib’s sensuous wax chambers, which seem to suspend reality. Instead of using wax as a metaphor for preservation - as in the chambers of the pyramids or a jar of raspberry jam - he chooses to communicate the inherent beauty and sensuality of decay.
The seductiveness of disintegration and mortality is best expressed here in ‘En Flor’ (1999-2000), a series of monumental prints whose size paradoxically accentuates their intimacy and fragility. Subtle, almost monochromatic, these works are made from pressing fresh flowers onto the paper - the ensuing images are created from the liquid that oozes from the withering blossoms. ‘Les orifices’ (1998-2000), a luscious series of lithographs of erotic-looking flowers, takes its title from Laurent Busine’s book Le prince, l’aveugle et le disciple (The Prince, the Blind Man and the Disciple, 1999), a text that links flowers with orifices in the body. Laid out on the wall like an enormous patchwork, a red hibiscus, an elongated forget-me-not, and a delicate freesia floated against remnants of diaphanous lace. In
Le livre des mille et une nuits (The Book of A Thousand and One Nights, 1997-98) Sicilia and Woolworth reconfigured the pages of a 1910 French edition of A Thousand and One Nights which the artist had found at a Paris bookseller’s and turned into an artist’s book. In the original the printed text sits within pale-coloured, ornamental, Islamic-looking frames.
In an intricate system that suggests the complexity and variety of Scherezade’s nightly seductions, Sicilia either printed on top of those pages or added translucent Japanese paper, printed with haunting images of birds, delicate flowers, or splashes of varnish that softly radiate from behind or whisper through a printed veil.
In Sicilia’s work translucent, fragile-looking materials look as if they are about to disintegrate, creating an atmosphere that suggests evanescence and mortality. Seductive and decorative, these images are essentially superficial, in the sense that the images are often literally buried in highly built-up surfaces. It is this very superficiality which declares the inevitable loss of such beauty.