Dina Recanati’s spacious downtown Manhattan studio is stocked, at the moment, with objects the size and shape of soccer, beach and large exercise balls. Gel-soaked fabrics such as linen, Italian canvas, cotton or velvet (Recanati likes to experiment with different weaves and their effects) have been molded snugly around the balls, coaxed into ridges and crevices that might also be thought of as mountains, valleys and rivers and resemble three-dimensional globes, miniature worlds, some collapsed into themselves. Painted afterwards, they are often white although some are a caramel shade somewhere between sand and mud, some are black or darkest blue with flickers of red, other shades of blue, yellow, even green, referring to the colors of the natural world, to sea, sky, earth, clouds. Recanati prefers a more or less monochromatic palette in order to focus on the complexity of the patterns. Walking around them — they are randomly placed on the floor–it is as if you had stumbled into a workshop for a planetarium, or more magically, into another dimension, a cosmos in the making — or unmaking.
Jostling for space in the studio are also a cluster of squared columns, varying in height, wrapped in fabric painted black, also streaked with other colors, suggesting both ancient monuments and urban skyscrapers, memorials to civilization and its cycles of construction and destruction. They inevitably suggest the towers of the World Trade Center and other landmarks built by human ingenuity, desire and sometimes folly, valiant but shrouded as if in mourning. Recanati thinks of columns as the actual and symbolic basis of culture, of building components, on the one hand, and as trees on the other, a source of human sustenance since time out of mind and highly valued. Trees are oases, places for meditation, metaphors for the stages of life–for growth, death and renewal–rooted in the land but reaching toward the heavens, connecting one to the other.
Recanati, a sculptor and painter, has been making art for decades and is a hands-on artist for the most part, her objects created out of the directness of touch, her works evolving through decisions made as she proceeds, the final results not predetermined. The spheres are new to her repertory — she began experimenting with them in 2008 — although she has used draperies and fabrics for quite some time, formatting them as wall reliefs and freestanding, vibrantly colored sculptures and installations, both small and monumental.
The Winds of the spirit and the matter meet at the heart of the Work
The more traditional rectilinear formats that she uses produce
works somewhere between painting and relief, and again depend upon manipulating fabrics. In some, the painted surfaces glow like dull bronze, aluminum or silver and fool you into thinking they are cast metal objects. A time-sensitive process, Recanati has about a two-day grace period to shape the gel-impregnated cloth into the intricate patterns she wants. Usually, she works with a single piece of fabric but has used up to three drapes to see how tonalities might vary, how light might play across the textures of the different materials, how folds might change in appearance due to the juxtaposition. At variance to earlier work in which the folded fabric is a discrete image
attached to th e ground, the entire field in these recent works has been activated into an all-over composition and the discrete image detached from the canvas. That in turn spurred a series of irregularly shaped, free-standing works that might also be mounted as wall sculptures. She associates the rectangular formulation with portals; some are nearly the same dimensions as standard doors and oriented vertically. To Recanati, they represent sites of transition from one space to another, and more emblematically, as transitions from one stage of existence to another, from beginnings to ends to beginnings again. These reliefs, however, most forcibly evoke alluvial plains such as the Nile delta, sand-swept deserts, a drift of dark waters or night skies, the swirled, sensuous elaborations seemingly cross-sections of phenomena excerpted from nature, enriched by imagined artifacts and histories.
She is also working on a series of books. Recanati has made books all her life, drawn to them not only for their content but also for what they represent. Books are an invention unique to human beings, she said, distinguishing us as rational creatures capable of abstracting, of developing systems of thought. Recanati’s project is an ongoing homage to the ability, to the urge, to do so. They recall, on a much smaller, concentrated scale, the weighty, elemental tomes of Anselm Kiefer. Hers look as if they had been dipped in rivers, buried in mud and excavated, their stiffened cloth veneered and colored by time, as if they were diaries inscribed by nature. They are usually six or seven pages in length (otherwise they would be too bulky to close), updated versions of the medieval book of hours, with their emphasis on time, place and ritual.
Inspired by Yves Klein’s International Klein Blue table, Recanati has made her own table. It consists of an approximately 3 1⁄2 x 4 1⁄2 foot rectangle of gathered fabric painted a striking regal blue–although not a Klein blue–again crumpled and crinkled, crevassed and ridged, the color modulated by the patterns. The panel is supported by four rectangular legs that are about 1 foot high and enclosed in Plexiglas, the top overlaid with clear glass. The transparency permits a view from above, as if looking down upon an expanse of water, the blue table another microcosm.
An appreciation of the nomadic sensibility has informed and excited Recanati’s imagination from the beginning, explicitly depicted in her soft sculptures of bundles and tent-like structures and more abstractly in her present work. I see references, directly and obliquely, to the parched landscapes of deserts and the vastness of seas traversed by migrating populations, scattered by natural, political, social and economic forces — by the propulsion of history. Above all, Recanati is influenced by her own experience, her own emigration from one part of the world to another. Looking at her work, turbulence, chaos and destruction is contrasted and balanced by stability and recuperation, by resolution. You gather what you can to take with you in the form of portable physical objects, in the form of memories. It is like gathering the wind, she said.
* Lilly Wei is a New York-based independent curator, essayist and critic who writes for Art in America and is a contributing editor at ARTnews.