Beatrice Scaccia: Is There an Outside?
Beatrice Scaccia grew up in Castelmassimo-Veroli, a small town in central Italy, running around the countryside like a wild thing; a bit of a prankster who staged games with the children around her, drew countless pictures and composed odd stories in the shelter of her bedroom, and snatched books from her late grandfather’s library—first drawn to the smell of old pages, then happily falling down many literary rabbit holes as she read undisturbed for hours. A born artist in a family with no such inclinations, Scaccia eventually attended the Fine Art Academy in Rome and was trained as a realist painter, inheriting the formidable legacy of the Italian masters. The city itself, with the thrill and ambivalence of so many layers of history condensed in one place, was at the heart of these formative years. Enter New York: a few months of studio space and a profound desire to shed baggage and unlearn: “I decided to not use color for a while because I wanted to understand what my true message was. I got rid of everything: kept just paper, pencils, some pens, and began thinking about what to do with that.” Since then, an undercurrent of existential unease and Scaccia’s gift for turning pigment into mimesis destroyed each other a little to create something new.
The artist’s process begins with letting go of rational thought; only images, never concepts, are to be trusted. Solid appearances then become malleable shapes, emerging in monochrome dimensions where color seeps back in cautiously and eloquently. Looking at this oeuvre means stepping into unstable grounds, where everything is at once grave and slightly absurd—think of Gregor Samsa’s tragicomic predicament as he wakes up one day transformed into a frightful vermin. Scaccia portrays a cast of characters (which she also calls archetypes, myths or performers) quarantined in nebulous interiors where a succession of mysterious enactments take place. These characters are metaphors for the plasticity of identity that connect us back to childhood; to make-believe and role-playing, and further back to the archaic pockets of the brain where we still believe that objects possess souls. Scaccia depicts performance as a kind of vital sign, but she also ponders on the moments when meaning and the structures sustaining it fall short—the liminal, aimless state where we are neither one role or another—which is to say that her innate skill for figurative representation is often at the service of something fundamentally abstract.
Scaccia’s technique unfolds through a sequence of steps that have the cadence and the sensory cues of a ritual. It starts with a graphite drawing and sweeping strokes that yield and omit just enough detail. Then comes the brushwork, warm gesso (with its humid, chalky scent reminiscent of locked rooms) to add luminosity or contrast. Then, occasionally, quick touches of enamel and soft pastels for depth and emphasis. Finally, the artist strengthens the perimeter of each work by adhering strips of rice paper with archival glue and prepares a concoction of melted beeswax mixed with high gloss varnish—and sometimes oil paint—to coat the entire composition, smoothing out the excess with a hot iron. This procedure gives the paper a translucent effect and causes some of the pigments to transpire to the other side, creating a subliminal verso that Scaccia regularly elaborates upon to produce a “phantom” image behind the image.
“Is there an Outside?” presents examples from four distinct series that embody Scaccia’s visual poetics as it navigates between large- and small-scale mixed media works, animation, and immersive installation. It also highlights the artist’s penchant for crafting silent narratives through variations on a theme, as well as her connection to theater and intertextuality. The exhibition includes an untitled trio of vertical works (30” x 11”) picturing tall, slithering forms; a hotchpotch of anthropomorphic parts heaped and bundled in a variety of garments. Their whimsical ascent, which seems in danger of toppling out of the narrow framework at any moment, culminates in a figure hugging a pillow, one pushing an umbrella up a ladder, and another wearing one like a cap. Also included is a series titled “Can Goddesses Pray?” whose circular format produces the illusion of spotlights set on performers interacting with chairs and other props. Costume here is paramount, for as much as Scaccia dwells on the human condition, she is elusive when it comes to corporeality—indicating its existence only with the things that cover it. Bodies are coats and cloaks, heads are hats, hair is a wig, hands are gloves, feet are socks, faces (seldom seen) are masks; there’s plenty of bulk but no flesh and bone.
The specificity of clothing and other visual motifs, including Baroque hair ringlets and drooping grape-like forms resembling those worn by Louise Bourgeois (by way of the goddess Artemis as Lady of Ephesus) afford Scaccia’s images an initial, perhaps devious, storybook veneer. Her characters are given the freedom to behave in awkward, playful, and open-ended ways, but they seem to be trapped in the compulsion to “act.” This is where all the puppetry and hyperbole suggest oppressive ennui, a great emptiness behind everything. “Can Goddesses Pray?” expresses a paradox that reminds us of waiting for Godot, the sense of oblivion and frustrated desire; the willow tree (counterpart of Scaccia’s recurring props) fluctuating between symbolic significance and hollowness. This junction of sacred and secular is also in the phrase “sta in cielo e in fondo al pozzo,” which appears regularly across Scaccia’s work and comes from a poem by an obscure Italian author named Antonio Delfini (1907-1963). “La luna è come la libertà: sta in cielo e in fondo al pozzo” it says: “freedom is like the moon, it’s in the sky and down a well.”
This exhibition is also the introduction of a new collection of small works—which provided its title—as well as a series of large text-heavy vertical panels, conceived specifically to be suspended from the ceiling throughout the gallery. For both, Scaccia drew inspiration from “Los Ensacados” (ca. 1816), an etching by Francisco de Goya that describes a group of men clad in large full-body sacks with no openings for arms or feet and secured like candy wrappers around their necks—as we can see in the five figures in the foreground and their heads poking out comically. Other similar silhouettes extend into the background bound into an anonymous mass, like an apparition or a secret sect involved in some unknowable rite. In Scaccia’s vision, the sacks become utilitarian shopping bags that adjust to the movements of a group of fidgety characters in whom we recognize the fierce momentum that pushes life forward and the instances when it plummets into nihilism, inertia, and melancholy. The artist also explores this subject in a 300-plus-frame animation that follows a figure coming in and out of a bag like a jack-in-the-box (wearing a different hat or wig every time) and ends with its feet topsy-turvy in the air.
The text frequently embedded in Scaccia’s work comes from a repository of quotes and thoughts that she’s kept in notebooks over the years. In this exhibition, the viewer will come across the words: “Is there an outside?” several times. It’s a multilayered question that speaks, on one level, of the absence of exterior spaces in the artist’s work; her view of experience as a theatrum mundi where there’s no celestial seat in the auditorium, no omniscience, only an unbroken loop of art imitating life and life imitating art. Furthermore, it echoes a philosophical conundrum: “The world is in my head. My body is in the world.” Finally, it represents the imaginary gap between so-called insiders and outsiders, shifting the focus onto persuasion and authenticity; the courage to lift the veil from everyone’s reality to confront one’s own truth.
 Auster, Paul. Report from the Interior. Henry Holt and Co, 2013, p. 192.