whitehot | July 2012: Debra Scacco @ Marine Contemporary
Debra Scacco: Birds of Passage
For her debut U.S. solo show at Marine Contemporary, London-based artist Debra Scacco has configured lines of text into meticulously detailed images, in a series that documents her own deeply personal quest for a sense of home and belonging. The exhibit centers on seven large-scale ink drawings on paper, representing symbolic territories derived from Scacco’s background. Raised in New York, the daughter of Italian American parents, she acquired a devotion to family, in tandem with a history not entirely her own. The map-like images reflect the course of the artist’s journey through life -- her literal travels, along with the resulting sense of displacement she has experienced both geographically and in terms of her identity.
Each drawing is composed of a repeated phrase, printed in minute and delicate lettering in concentric lines. The seven phrases, like fragments of a memoir, echo feelings from the artist’s past: “We do not belong, Traces are all I have, All I ask is one more day, I owe everything, Where does it begin, I cannot reach you, and I am trapped in your shadow.” A resounding aura of honesty pervades Scacco’s work. With candor, the artist discloses her innermost feelings in the declarative purity of black and white. From a distance, individual words are absorbed into elegant curved lines, forming conjoining shapes, which meet at a border. Up close, inches from the glass, the words become legible – and poignantly captivating. It is difficult not to be moved by the reiterated emotion embedded in these intimate phrases.
It’s apparent that every detail of these images was considered with particular care. The lines of text are evenly spaced, to the point of mathematical precision. Each territory floats island-like in a sea of white space -- conferring an added gravitas to the overall effect. Positioned in the center of the gallery, Birds of Passage, (2012) is an installation piece made of gold-plated silver beads and head pins set in an acrylic base. A three-dimensional map of the show, the piece ties the entire exhibit together, rendering it indelible. It charts the fictional territories delineated in the surrounding drawings, anchoring them in a quasi-concrete place outside the realm of the artist’s imagination.
Megan Abrahams: Your show, Birds of Passage, is a form of visual memoir, which seems like a quest to find the meaning behind your own identity. Can you tell us about the genesis of the idea behind this series?
Debra Scacco: This body of work is incredibly special to me. For several years now, my work has dealt with “home” in some way; with ideas of displacement, guilt, fear -- issues we have all felt at some time, but are often afraid to admit. I spent several years trying to define a place of security and belonging by redrawing my past, examining furniture, patterns, textures from the home I grew up in; sometimes even the physical home itself. But in all of these explorations, the one element I never really allowed myself to explore is the tangible one: the physicality where this magical place I seek might actually be. This “home” I search for can only exist in my memory, as these feelings of happiness, safety, security are referential of a specific time in my life. As a result, I had to create a fictional geography where this home might be; one that must reflect both my past and my imagined future in order to be complete.
MA: When we spoke the day the show was being hung, you recalled that when you embarked on this series, the initial shapes were full circles. At a certain point, you realized they had to be circle fragments. I gather this was something of an epiphany. How did it come about?
DS: The idea of fragmentation has always been central to my work, but never so much as in the Birds of Passage drawings. The first fictional map I drew is a piece titled There is no place that is mine. The boundaries of this fictional country were determined by allowing paint to flow across a page, the negative space becoming the boundaries of “land.” This is also how the Promise pieces are conceived. I then transferred this boundary to a large white sheet, and began using the circle as a means to create the form.
The circle as a shape was chosen for many reasons, initially for the cartographic vernacular of “You Are Here,” but also because of what it represents philosophically: completion, wholeness. When I finished, There is no place…, I felt that something was missing. After looking at it for six weeks or so, I realized it wasn't what was absent but what was present. The battle I have fought for many many years now is one of incompletion: never fully belonging anywhere, fragments of myself belonging to different places and different times. Once I had this realization, I had no choice but to fragment these territories. Presenting them as a whole would be incredibly misleading.
With this decision made, the conceptual framework for the show fell into place: the seven fragmented territories based on my personal points of origin, the painted work a representation of hope for the future, and the sculptural work bringing the two together to create a world of significant personal value.
MA: Your work is intensely intricate and detailed, each individual small letter delicately printed by hand in ink, with the spacing between the lines just so. It must have been all consuming to render these images with such meticulous care. Can you give us a little insight on the actual process of drawing them?
DS: The process is of course very time consuming, but is also one I enjoy immensely. Due to the large scale of the pieces, they had to be drawn on the vertical. So I worked with rolls of paper pinned directly to my studio wall. As the boundaries need to be exact, each territory along with its fragmenting feature is projected, measured and then outlined on the blank page. The circular shapes are then carefully measured and mapped in pencil using a beam compass. Then the actual drawing process begins, following the mapped circular contours to ensure spacing is exact. All the plan marks are then erased, leaving only the drawn form. The only remaining evidence of the preparation process is the axis hole made by the compass.
MA: You defined very stringent rules, even with mathematical precision, as parameters for these compositions. How did you develop your rules, and why were they important?
DS: Yes, there's a bit of a running joke about me and my rules! These works are effectively trying to make the tangible from the intangible (i.e. a place from a memory). As my work is so personal, significance to my history is vital to its integrity. So, when working with fictional or non-specific shapes, points of origin and rules have an increased importance.
Once I recognized the significance of fragmentation, I developed a relevant strategy to define the form of these fragments. I identified the key locations that contribute to my feelings of displacement -- this is where the fragmenting features in the seven territories originate. The outer boundaries of these territories are derived from the closest thing I have to home -- the place where I was born. If you rotate / align / scale the seven territories in a specific way, they fit together to form the outer boundary of the boroughs of New York City.
Because these territories are effectively nowhere places floating in space, it was important that each was of the same scale -- that one does not appear more significant than the other, or more significant than the space around it for that matter. Each territory was scaled within a square, with its outer limits reaching the edges. This square was then transferred to the page, allowing the same amount of negative space as positive.
MA: The focal point, Birds of Passage, is a three-dimensional map of the show. It brings the entire series together and adds another layer of significance. Was this an afterthought? How did the idea for this piece come about? Do birds have special meaning?
DS: The Birds of Passage piece was conceived in tandem with the rest of the show as a physical manifestation of this place. The drawings and painting create isolated places that lack context. Birds of Passage provides the context and solidifies that everything you are experiencing within the gallery space is a complete and isolated world. This piece charts the territories and its imagined borders, relationships, activities. The term ‘Birds of passage’ was used to refer to early 20th century immigrants who traveled to America in search of migratory labor. The intent was always to return back to their homeland permanently, but only a small percentage of Italian immigrants did so. This term is relevant not just to my family history, but also to my personal history.
MA: Clearly, this show traces a journey, if not a coming of age, then perhaps a coming to terms with your identity, and the literal and emotional travels that have brought you to this point. Was there an element of catharsis in bringing this work to fruition? If so, can you tell us about that?
DS: There was absolutely an element of catharsis here. This body of work is in many ways an attempt to move forward -- to release the past in some way. It's very difficult to say if that has been achieved, but I certainly feel the creation of this work has shifted my perspective in some way.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief