I Told Her the Kitten Was Just Asleep: Interview with Beatrice Scaccia
By Caroline Corbetta
Beatrice Scaccia in her New York studio | Photo © Gloria Baker, 2017.
Caroline Corbetta: How would you define, very briefly, what you are and what do you do?
Bea Scaccia: Very briefly? Then I'll try with one word: I'm an author, meaning that I'm the cause and origin of what I do. That's the dictionary definition at least. As an author, I always try to keep in mind David Mamet's quote: "The conscious mind cannot create art."
CC: The term "author" refers to an intellectual practice in some way split from "making", while your works are (also) the result of an intense and accurate manual work. There is a craftsmanship in your practice, accomplished using traditional materials such as gesso and wax, which you employ in a rather original way. That's not the case with many artists today. How do you reconcile these two aspects, the intellectual and the manual one?
BS: You're right, maybe the term "author" should be revised. What I meant to say is that I feel like a creator and performer. These two roles belong to two very different parts of the process. When I think of the images I want to make, I experience intense moments of pure enthusiasm, of profound reflection, and of few, very few, limits. I imagine characters that are confused, annihilated, and playful. And I think they are always new and, at the same time, also identical to the ones I already created.
This first stage, one of quick sketches and notes, is then followed by the actual “making.” This second part of the process opens a different moment, sometimes a frustrating one. The hand has its own memory, different from the cerebral one. The images I produce in the studio are always quite “far away” from those I wanted to produce. They always take me to another place and this pushes me to repeat the same process, continuously. Luckily, I am very fast so the frustration of realizing a work coincides with the initial phase of the process. I switch from big to small sizes, from pencils to paint, from Photoshop to puppet making. I am intrigued by the 3D world, but I have not yet begun to investigate it. Mine is a continuous search. I envy a lot of artists that, speaking of their own work, can say: "this is a beautiful, terrific work." I can only understand what a new work adds to the previous one. Or what it can detract. It's difficult for me to be able to see, objectively, what I have made.
CC: I would like to know more about your techniques, especially your use of wax. Did you invent your technique or was it learned from someone else?
BS: I saw how beeswax is used on furniture and in the Batik technique. Then, here in New York, I attended some workshops about paper techniques. These focused on general aspects like resistances, types, and so on. From there, little by little, I developed and perfected my technique. It was born from several attempts, mistakes and lucky moments. I think it's connected to my poetics because it is composed of many layers. First, I draw and/or paint; then I use warm gesso to give myself an idea of the space and the light in the piece; then I reinforce some areas with a collage of rice paper, especially on the edges and on some of the details. Finally, I pour warm beeswax on the whole image, and then, with the use of an iron for encaustic, I remove the excess wax, protecting the paper with pieces of cloth. It is about control and losing control, remembering and forgetting. I love both gesso and wax for their scent, it's a matter of olfactory perception also. I am connected to the art of the past, to traditional preparations, but instead of continuing to prepare my canvases with Bologna gesso, rabbit glue, etcetera (as I used to do in the beginning), I tried to “patent” a technique that says something about myself.
But then again, this kind of things happen in the studio without words, without knowing.
CC: When did you know that you were an artist? Personally, I do not think that one can "act like an artist," but one "is an artist." You have to be aware of it, though. And then work hard.
BS: I agree with you. I think I always knew it. It wasn't clear in the beginning. Since I was a little girl, however, I was always very aware of myself and of life in general, often in a very painful way. I was attentive to changes, to time. A goofy and happy child, but also extremely melancholic. I remember spending hours in the bedroom making puppets, drawing, and writing stories. I was terrified of losing everything, always careful to put aside memories and objects. When I was twelve, I became filled with sadness at the idea of having to grow up. I looked at my toys and protected them as if they were part of me. I was basically an obsessive memoirist as a child. In that sense, I have very vivid memories of my childhood. It was only during the years of high school, and those of the Academy in Rome, that came the actual awareness of who I was.
CC: Studying, in fact. And you're putting in the hard work but when you were still a child, was there someone that influenced you? Some event that took you, even unconsciously, onto an artistic path?
BS: One particular afternoon comes to mind. I must have been seven or eight years old. I grew up in a small Italian village and I was often wandering around the fields with my younger cousin. Behind an old abandoned furniture piece, we found a dead kitten. I remember it was stiffened in an absurd position, with its paws up and the mouth open. I remember touching it with a branch and understanding that it was hard. I lied to my cousin, I told her the kitten was just asleep, but that image changed everything for me. I think becoming aware of mortality is one of the most intense moments in childhood, but I became obsessed with it. For several months, after that afternoon, I could not even touch the parts of my body where I could feel the presence of bones: elbows, knees, ribs, face... I felt crazy about having a skeleton inside because that reminded me of being destined to end, like everything. I do not seem to have changed much, after all.
CC: I personally believe that most artists are pushed into their artistic work by the obsession with human finiteness, an inner urgency that continually compels them to try to transcend mortality. Obviously, it is a futile effort, but it is precisely in that attempt that art is given. Do you come from a family of artists or people linked to the art world?
BS: No, definitely not. My father worked as a construction site manager. My mother was a primary school teacher in the village where I grew up. I think my father died without ever setting foot in a museum. They always gave me great confidence though, they never questioned my choices.
CC: Speaking of choices, when and why did you move to the US? And how much did this affect your practice?
BS: I started visiting New York from time to time in 2007 and two years later, I spent a whole summer here producing a new series of works at the Lower East Side Printshop. I moved permanently in 2011 because I had fallen in love with the city, even in a very naïve way. This is a city that changed a bit of everything for me. The risk is getting too caught up in the competition and the need to "make it" as an artist. Perhaps in the beginning this way of thinking had some effect on me too. Then I decided to build beautiful protective walls and start again from myself. New York has influenced my work, freed it, and perhaps made it more playful, more conscious. I am happy to have studied in Rome, to have formed myself as an artist by looking at an incredible, baroque and cumbersome city like that. But New York is a city that was necessary for me to understand many things, to strengthen myself.
CC: Do you have any reference artists? Or do you find many of your references outside the visual arts?
BS: There are many artists I love: many in the past, some in the present. I watched Goya until exhaustion, especially the incisions. “Quinta del Sordo" is one of the places I've dreamed of seeing in its original structure. I love the Flemish masters, their interiors, their use of color. Among contemporary artists, I love Anselm Kiefer, Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Ugo Rondinone, Nathalie Djurberg and many others. I think my work gravitates around/towards Bacon, Giacometti, and Bourgeois. I say this because of my interest in the (human) figure and in the basic concepts of being, of self, childhood, art as an experience of life, and life itself. My true references, however, are in the literary and theatre texts. I always find my answers and some solutions there.
CC: How important is emotion in your existential and professional experience?
BS: It matters a lot and I cannot even distinguish between existential and professional experience. Being here, wanting to be attentive and present to myself... this can only be dealt with in an emotional, instinctive, empathic way, sometimes even neurotic. An instability seems to be necessary to proceed: there are doubts, contradictions, weaknesses and errors. There is this book that I started reading recently, it's mainly about writers such as Kafka, Camus, and Sartre. The title is "The Outsider." I started it and I felt at home, its approach resonated with my own. Quoting the book: "The outsider problem is essentially a living problem, to write about it in terms of literature is to falsify it." I think this concept can be applied to the visual arts, to everything I love, respect and I aim to be. It is always and exclusively an existential problem, a basic one. It is a question of authenticity, of being faithful to what one is, of one's own urgencies. In this sense, I like to call myself an outsider. I'm proud of it.
CC: Can you elaborate this concept of “outsider” in which you reflect yourself? It seems very interesting, but it can also imply that to achieve success, at the top of the system, we must be strategists and we must be cynical (the opposite of authentic) and this reasoning is likely to be self-absolutory...
BS: You're right about that, but I was not referring to a self-absolutory attitude, far from it. To paraphrase Whitman: we contain multitudes and therefore one can declare oneself an outsider with regard to one's own work, one's urgency, and one's own poetics and proceed in any case with one's own "career" as an artist with determination. Part of being authentic is also about accepting the absence of fidelity towards a modality, accepting there are days when one feels invincible and days when one can barely walk out of the house.
I like my work to be unique and not easily associated with others. As for the cynicism and the strategy necessary to "make it," we enter a complex discourse. I think that, yes, one should possess a certain amount of lucidity, but I also think that there are so many ways to proceed and there is a certain degree of freedom.
Every day I put everything in perspective and I laugh. The world of contemporary art is so unpredictable that no one is safe; so, in the end, defending your work and your passions are the only things that matter.
CC: Speaking of successful artists, you worked for some years in Jeff Koons's studio. What can you tell us about that experience? How did you get there and why did it end?
BS: I arrived there because I was looking for a job and I had the right skills. I remember I was at a workshop at the Art Student League and I met someone who worked for Koons who invited me to visit the studio, then I got an interview and so on... It ended because it was time to end it. After the first exhibition of the Gazing Ball Paintings in 2015, for different reasons, I decided it was time to leave. I learned so much working there, I refined my knowledge of color and painting, I listened to hundreds of audiobooks and above all, I met people who have become my family here in New York, on all levels.
CC: I have a question about the gender of the characters in your works. Their faces are always hidden, hooded, and it is, indeed, impossible to attribute a gender. One of your first series was titled "he, she, it" (2010) even suggesting that the characters represented could also be non-human creatures... Why this gender indefiniteness of your characters? And why do you continue to represent only "beings" that move in a neutral space, a sort of great emptiness?
BS: I think I'm interested in the indefiniteness we contain. There are moments in our daily routine in which we have no conscious awareness whatsoever: like when we are half-awake and we forget who we are, where we are and we are just sense but not sensibility... I'm interested in that feeling, in the vulnerability of those moments. That's why I play with senseless movements and senseless attire/accessories. It is a modality that brings me back to the absence of awareness and brings me back to childhood, to the days when we could play as everyone and no-one.
A tail becomes a cigar, an umbrella becomes a curtain, a boy becomes a girl, a girl is a woman, a kid becomes an old man, a pillow becomes your best friend. Everything goes.
I love the expression "put yourself together." Long ago, I listened to a lecture on American literature in which Professor Arnold Weinstein was speaking about it. "Put yourself together" recalls almost a physical action. Getting together again, reconstituting... reminds us of all our theatricality and inconsistency.
That's why even when I play with metamorphosis, I use the accessories to cancel and almost make fun of that transformative aspect.
The transformation of man/animal, man/plant in my work is harmless: I add a hat with horns or a tail or a myriad of breasts/sacks, but without making them credible.
For example, in my latest works, the main character wears sacks that recall the many mammary glands/testicles of the Artemis of Ephesus; it is obviously also a tribute to the unforgettable costume by the Bourgeois in the series "Confrontation" of 1978.
There is a fragility at the core of the concept of identity that touches and terrifies me, and with which I have always compared myself.
[Caroline Corbetta is an arts writer, independent curator, and artistic director of @ilcrepaccio] December 2017.