Sid Sachs, Our lady of glass

Voyager, catalogue, Contemporanei, Bergamo, 2006

An artist is an alchemist. She sifts memories, fables, sand and silt into the maw of the mind and spins threads of gold. The true artist doesn’t need a loom or a philosopher’s stone to do this; the sibyl herself is that catalyst that weaves sights into visions, sounds into chorales, events into epics. Although purity of heart is to will one thing, there are many kinds of saints, each with a varied path, each with miraculous feats, tortures, and miracles. Some artists are meteoric, glowing spectacularly then vanishing. Other artists grow more slowly, incorporating their experiences like accretions of a shell to gain breadth. Mariella Bettineschi’s works are more than the sum of plain parts.

At the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery of The University of the Arts, the artist is presenting a theatrical space with references to Marcel Duchamp. If we are surprised that an artist would attempt to carry coals to Newcastle, take on Duchamp in Philadelphia, we must remember that Duchamp was a master of three continents and that the Italian gallerist Arturo Schwartz had much to do with the resurrection of Duchamp’s reputation. The artist speaks of leaving traps for the viewer and again one thinks of Duchamp’s Trebuchet (1917). Duchamp’s work was erotic (as is life) and charged and metaphoric. He too dealt with alchemical change, transitions and transformations in states of being. His work, like Bettineschi’s, was both abstract and representational.

Bettineschi talks about the inner drawings of things. That inner drawing is the core of each thing’s essence. She makes us question what and where are the boundaries between the private and the public. Bettineschi’s earlier drawings: wounds, and stigmatas cut through fabric, books, and paper, instead of being concrete and tactile have become oddly automatized, otherworldly, dimensionless. Like memories, these marks, take from the world but exist elsewhere. As with Duchamp’s infra-mince, the ultimate thinness, Bettineschi carries us along in the spaces between things, from the second to fourth dimensions and, here, beyond.  Their particular glow is celestial, comprised of meteoric dust. “ This immaterial effect does not prevent us from building a meaning.”

The installation is comprised of 30 images printed on glass. She has used painted or printed glass for over 20 years. Glass is used as a showcase, a reliquary, a plinth, a slab, a perfect orb, a thing present but not there.  It is transparent to process, yet spectacularly vitreous, gemlike. By nature, its planar surface is sleek, classical. As in reverse paintings or illuminated manuscripts, the glass varnishes the images, making their color glow. She is interested in this luminosity, this electric aura of things. By using glass as a support, the images float in space. Being transparent allows the signs, their site, and the viewer to interact in a real way.  As transparencies they are light as angel wings, the images are filaments or skeins of language to be tied and woven into a poem. Some images stay close to their sources, we see water drops, buildings etc. Some carry us along: we see gears and cogs, notches and glyphs like computer punch cards, arrows, and keyholes. Some images remain clear, The Ocular Witness makes one focus, as acuity needs an optical target. Although some objects remain concretely real, others are morphed into a theater of the unreal. Duchamp’s waterwheel is capsized onto a Tatlin-like apparatus on diagonal. Others are as hazy as an Adam Fuss photogram. The artist then takes us on metaphoric journeys through time and space; she uses “travel” as a metaphor to transport the viewer. Some arcs are enormous: one charts the transit of the moon; Planetario 1 marks a pre-Galilean (the earth is located centrally) celestial map of planetary orbits amongst the signs of the zodiac. Disegni 17 plots the voyages of earthly explorers like Magellan and Columbus. Disegni II, a disc with enigmatic letters around the perimeter, reveals itself as straightforward international airport codes.  Another morphed photograph of an industrial space with reversed lettering reads “Sanomatalo” with difficulty. To innocent American eyes unaccustomed to world travel it is gibberish, to Europeans it is the name of a new Finnish building.

The total of traces of thought connect like words in a sentence making a whole.  A digital palimpsest, a concatenation of signs drifts poetically from image to image. Bettineschi states, “although I work in fragments, I try to keep them together like a thread keeps pearls in a necklace. My way of thinking makes me collect things around me even if they are not related to each other and they are inconsistent… I consider these elements as little traps, to catch the real, to try to understand and build meanings of things.” Her entire oeuvre follows this praxis; it places the work in the lineage of installation art. The parts are not haphazard or arbitrary; they flow with a sense of personal yet formal syntax.

Yet one is often transported by the random incident as those of grave import. Consider the impact of the fleeting glance of a beautiful girl from a window of a moving train; Duchamp fell immediately in love with this maiden, transfixed her visage in his memory. This chance occurrence in turn became the impetus for the painting Dulcinea (1911).

At the end of the gallery array are two penultimate images of a bella donna. Brazenly yet ethereally naked, she is the elusive embodiment of Our Lady of the Glass, rather than Duchamp’s mechanical bride. Bettineschi’s Madonna is of our time, of the 21st century, not the Futuro/Cubism of the last. The fact that all the Bride’s coordinates have been starkly graphic and monochromatic up to her portion of the installation makes the Bride’s flesh even more radiant and shocking. Whereas Duchamp’s Brides are all sleek machines and the head of Etant Donne is hidden from us, Bettineschi’s Child Bride presents herself directly to be seen and desired. In Bettineschi’s telling, the Bride arrives at a state of awareness where she is both exposed and controls the gaze. “She is an object and subject of beauty. She looks at herself and is looked at.” She acknowledges and controls us and before her we become mere Chocolate Grinders, seduced to meaning on her terms.

In other installations the abstract works literally radiate. Bettineschi’s tondi, like pure halos of heaven, give off pulsing harmonic colors. Yet her roundels are not psychedelic like Peter Sedgley’s or comic like Ugo Rondinone’s. This voyage lacks rigid earthly location. Radiance is neither here nor there, it transcends location. Bettineschi’s orbs are situated between the object and the viewer in a way mere paintings do not.  These spheres and planes seemingly meander off the wall into our own space. There is a nonlinear core, a spine of sighs that ties the art together. It is the invisible language to be seen. Not literal, dealing logically or illogically from point to point, they map a sense of consciousness. They are neither A nor Alpha, neither zero nor zed, but the holy spirit of being, the arcane poetry that we lost when we grasped the names of things. This is alchemy; neither quackery or magic but faithful and mystical.

Just as Kant felt that beauty could not be functional, Bettineschi strives (withoutstriving) to arrive at an epiphanic visionary state. Starting with rather mundane observations and gathering visual materials as note taking, she engages the images, manipulating them into glory. Her work is not didactically theoretical, on the contrary, it attains the state of irrational, primitive, oneiric brilliance. Sol Lewitt once wrote that conceptual artists were mystics who leap to conclusions that logic could not reach.  Although not a conceptualist, in a singular way, Bettineschi is a mystic.