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Sculpture Magazine, New York, NY; 2002

Irene Gennaro

55 Mercer Gallery

Irene Gennaro offers a stunning synthesis of roughened haptic gesture and clear resonant color in painted wood sculptures of rare clarity and intelligence. Contemplating her own Sicilian heritage, as well the religious traditions of Byzantine Greece, India, and Tibet, Gennaro employs the motif of the votive, a symbolic object or body part used in many world religions. The artist has sculpted various body members-eyes, hands, uteri, brains, lungs, and ears-into disembodied and isolated cross-sections capable of mediating illness or communicating with the deity. Their essence as symbol asserts so-called "primitivist" concepts of homeopathic magic as it slyly undermines enlightenment and psychoanalytic concepts of psychic unity and integration. Like Gogol's short story, "The Nose," or Guston's painting of glaring eyeballs, Cabal(1977), the isolated part in effect thinks for itself.

A giant eyeball as plump as a planet greeted viewers as they entered the gallery. Eighteen boxes lined the wall forming a relief, each containing a votive related to the body. There were several freestanding sculptures as well. A heart grows like a tree. A brain lounges on a tongue like an Egyptian boat of the dead. The effect was heightened by Gennaro's use of aluminum leaf, which reads as silver, and a cobalt blue as celestially cold as a Ravenna mosaic. The exhibition climaxed with a grand altarpiece, Sanctuary (2002), an elaborate integration of structure and narrative in which all the votive symbols are deployed against the pointed shapes of densely carved tropical foliage. These shapes form a universal narrative of death and dismemberment redeemed through suffering and reintegration.

In many ways, Gennaro evokes a pre-modern psychology as she sculpts wood. Her work points to a time when the mimetic quality of sculpture and painting was based on socio-historical and religious worth, not aesthetics in the modern sense. Furthermore, the pre-modern individual was defined by a different relationship to the social group, one not based on intrinsic ideas of uniqueness, individuality, or personality per se, but on a theocratic group authority vested in the Church, which mediated social and historical definitions of self. If I am ill, it is a manifestation of a spiritual disease creating a physical symptom. This is to be arbitrated and cured by my direct appeal to the Godhead, a reflection of a relational identity as opposed to modern individuated (or isolated) one. In direct contrast, the modern world offers the personal narrative of the artist, the projection of a fragmented contemporary psyche commenting on a body of literature and artistic practice with a long history.

The contrast of Modernist and medieval readings etches a sharp almost satirical edge to these sculptures and renders them electric rather than merely reassuring. Rather than the easy New Age formulations of a Joseph Campbell, Gennaro offers us the possibility of transcendence against the intransigent. Whether these votives stand as sentinels to a universal iconographic claim or as fragmentary isomorphs in a disconnected matrix is the question. Gennaro's artistic inquiry, which successfully pits an artistic sensibility against the great traditions of religion, psychology, and iconography is a prescription for vivid emotional experience not easily forgotten.

-Joel Silverstein