J Susan Isaacs - Serena Bocchino
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By J. Susan Isaacs
essay for the catalog, The Romance Series
Exhibit A, New York
April 2003

Much has been written about the nature of the improvisational structure of Serena Bocchino’s work and its close relationship with musical construction. All of this is true, but what also becomes clear in looking at her more recent body of work is its relationship, not just to the abstract composition of music, but to contemporary visual culture. Her current paintings demonstrate a complex layering of forms and meanings, some of which connect her to classical modes of abstract paining, and some of which connect her to the contemporary visual world and other types of expression, most notably that of cartooning. There is the quality of the simple, straightforward, whimsical, and even outrageously funny aspects of contemporary visual culture that have begun to invade Bocchino’s imagery. The balance between classical abstraction in the mode of Wassily Kandinsky and Jackson Pollock and contemporary cartoons, a la Lilo and Stitch, provides a dynamic energy to her work, especially her paintings.

Bocchino is a mature artist whose imagery has been developed over time by working out ideas through creating series connected to a single theme or image. This method of examining an idea, taking it to its fullest extent through an in depth study in a series, links her very much to Modernism, to the work of such artists as Kandinsky and Mark Rothko. It is a way of thinking that is quite separate from the conceptual approach of Post-Modernism where artists explore an idea not through a series of formally related works, but through a series of conceptually related, but formally disconnected works. Not surprisingly, Bocchino’s paintings share a lyrical elegance of form with the work of the Modernist painters. Her improvisational use of dripped enamels links her most closely with Abstract Expressionism and the dynamic compositions of Pollock. And, certainly, she understands well the principles of abstraction, the possibilities that dripped and poured paint provide as well as the richness of a well organized, complexly designed composition. But, one of the key elements that separates Bocchino’s work from these modern masters is the way in which her individual series can be quite different from each other. In this, she is definitely a product of Post-Modernist thought.

She works simultaneously on connected, but quite different bodies of work. Clearly the underlying hand of the artist is visible in all of the groupings, but superficially, each series can appear quite distinct from the other. Upon first glance, Forever After (2002), with its outrageously wonderful polka-dots, appears extremely different from Tunnel Love (2002), a work that depends upon the interconnection of rectangular forms. Each work represents a series of related compositions. Yet, these two paintings share a kind of organizational resonance, an implied musicality of structure, whether it is in dots or rectangles. In this way, Bocchino’s internalization of musical structure emerges, bringing together seemingly unrelated bodies of work with visibly separate colors and forms.

Another important aspect of Bocchino’s painting that is key to understanding her work is its craftsmanship. This term can be problematic in a world of Duchampian found objects, but there are many contemporary artists who continue to be interested in the vocabulary of design and paint quality, and Bocchino can be included among them. Her attention to compositional unity, application of paint, and color harmony demonstrates her commitment to the physical and intellectual elements of art making and places her within a venerable history of twentieth century artists who share this fascination with the formal devices of painting. A work like The Garden Inside (2003) exemplifies the artist’s commitment to the fundamental elements of two–dimensional design. She balances negative and positive space, large elements and small elements, and broad but separate areas of brightly colored canvas. The arrival of the new century has not diminished the desire on the part of a great many artists to continue to explore the rich vocabulary of painting.

What is most interesting about Bocchino’s work is the marriage that she makes between the elegant craftsmanship of modernist abstraction and the bold language of contemporary visual culture. This close relationship appears to have evolved over time and emerged out of a natural and organic development in a career devoted to serious painting. Her style is not forced nor contrived, nor a self-aware cynical act. Her embrace of so many of modernism’s tenets, the most significant here being the importance of making art, and the seriousness of the artist, disallows any kind of prosaic appropriation from visual culture. Nonetheless, finding out that in her childhood the artist wanted to be a cartoonist, makes perfect sense when examining a work like A Change in the Atmosphere (2003).

Here, wonderfully bright flower forms, cartoonishly simplified, float across the surface. An intense yellow color dominates the background while the simplified pink and white flowers recall the earlier pink polka-dots of Forever After (2002). The polka-dots evoke fabric patterns as well as something so current as Target’s logo, though certainly inspired by it, not a duplication of it. The flowers also seem connected to textile patterns; those 60’s designs that have become popular again in contemporary fashion. It is this kind of intuitive appropriation that works well with the more classical abstraction. Bocchino does not consciously borrow from contemporary culture. Rather, it is an intuitive kind of empowerment that emerges through her openness to the world around her. She has moved beyond the four walls of the studio.

Some discussion too must address the lyricism of Bocchino’s drawing, which plays a dominant role in many of the paintings. How does this seemingly elegant aspect of her work fasten to the more outlandish, cartoon sensibility? Rather well actually. Her lines become whimsical characters in themselves, providing a kind or narrative element within the composition bridging the two seemingly disparate approaches of high and low art. The lines seem alive, a sensibility that reinforces the organic nature of the larger forms. It is in this kind of balancing of the whole where we see again the musicality of Bocchino’s structure, a complex organization of classical abstraction, contemporary visual culture, and organic form.

J. Susan Isaacs, Ph.D. is Adjunct Curator, The Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts and Associate Professor of Art History, Towson University.