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Elisa D’Arrigo is best known for her wall works in which the merging of sewing and repetition is a central feature. For 25 years she stitched together scraps of fabric, pieces of old socks, and fragments of flat or hand-coiled paper, after first soaking or covering them in paint, which stiffened the individual units as well as permeated her sewn accretions with a subtly shifting monochromatic tonality. Repetition became one of the defining characteristics of her art, as well as its limitation.
In her recent work — all of which is in ceramic — twisted, tubular forms have subsumed D’Arrigo’s penchant for repetition. The rhythmic labor she employs to improvise upon a basic abstract form — a tube or hollow coil — has opened the artist up to a sense of the absurd, not to mention the quirky, the humorous, and the goofy. D’Arrigo’s shift in materials, coupled with the revitalization of her process, can be seen in her current exhibition, Elisa D’Arrigo: Vases and Drawings at Elizabeth Harris (February 18–March 26, 2016). Ceramic, it should be pointed out, is not new for D’Arrigo, but something she has returned to, having studied it when she was in school.
All the pieces in the exhibition are elongated hollow tubes that the artist has twisted, folded, knotted and pinched. While at a residency at The Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Umbria, Italy, in 2013, she made a suite of drawings in which the abstracted, atmospheric grounds were partially reticulated with fine lines; she was also able to complete a group of ceramic pieces. In the ceramics on display, the surfaces go from smooth to pebbly, with partially reticulated areas that look almost as if someone had doodled on the surface here and there. The combination of an uneven, pebbly surface and a reticulated network on the pale green ceramic, “Twisted “8 (2015), is likely to remind the viewer of a molted snake skin. Equally reptilian, the puckered skin in “Twisted 11” and the pocked surface of “Lava Dyad” (both 2015) suggest the effects of extreme heat, both manmade and natural.
By twisting, folding and pinching the hollow tubes, D’Arrigo knowingly occupies a territory first opened up by George E. Ohr, “The Mad Potter of Biloxi,” who has also been an inspiration for Ken Price and Kathy Butterly. What all of these artists share is a sense of humor, but, in D’Arrigo’s case, this is a relatively new development and a welcome one. Still, it is clear that she can hold her own with these artists, and that is no small thing.
The other affinity these artists have in common is their preoccupation with the vessel: they all improvise on a basic or — one could say — archetypal shape, transforming it into something else without subsuming its original identity. At times, D’Arrigo’s ceramics seem as if they are trying to climb out of their skin, which is impossible since skin and body are identical in her art. What distinguishes her work from Price and Butterly, both of whom I have previously written about, is her ability to animate her forms, make them seem as if they are crawling across the floor, like a cartoon serpent, or ascending like a headless python.
There is something beautifully bathetic about D’Arrigo’s hollow-bodied forms stretching their folded, twisted, knotted and squeezed carcasses across space, as if they are striving to become sentient beings but are unable to do so. On some level, they are three-dimensional drawings, a linear form moving through abstract space. Their rough surfaces and handle-like bodies invite you to pick them up, imagine what function they might serve. Some of the tubular forms are crumpled and sag while others lean, about to keel over. They stir up unlikely associations in this regard – as I was reminded of a hookah that the caterpillar in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland might have used, and for a moment imagined that D’Arrigo has fused pipe and creature into something new. Not many works can transport you on such a delightful journey. This is why she belongs in the special company of Price and Butterly. With their work, you need only open your eyes and dream.
Elisa D’Arrigo: Vases and Drawings continues at Elizabeth Harris (529 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 26.