Rhonda Zwillinger

Galleria Murnik

To embellish means to make something more beautiful, and Rhonda Zwillinger embellishes the panorama of everyday life, with its furniture and mass-produced household goods. The way she embellishes ordinary objects is so extreme that it cannot be defined as “decoration,” but rather constitutes an esthetic statement per se. Above all, Zwillinger deals with the issues of low versus high art and the separation of domestic objects from art objects. Furthermore, she questions other esthetic stereotypes, particularly sexual ones, and contrasts female archetypes with the male archetypes that have been the historically accepted references of Western art.

The show consisted of 20 objects and was installed on two levels of this new Milan gallery, the walls of which were painted pink and stenciled with blue flowers and geometric designs. These objects, all overloaded with highly colored ornamentation, were presented in a way that showed their profound connections to one another and could be grouped according to certain themes. The first and most flamboyant related to the use of visual cliches of art history and architecture and also to the history of cinema and literature. This category contained Michelangelo’s David, obelisks, architectural elements from 19th-century Paris and London, Don Quixote’s windmills, and, finally, Zwillinger’s own Impossible Dreamers, 1986. In the latter work the faces of two movie goddesses, Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe, are painted on bathroom shelves; the portraits are placed next to a small statue of David, framed by bunches of glass grapes, gold leaves, and small cameos. Zwillinger seems to imply that for these two idealized modern beauties, joined by a common tragic destiny, the desperate search for love was an impossible dream.

The second theme is visually more subtle, although symbolically more meaningful: the representation of the male and female. Obelisks, trees, and rising fountains represent the erect phallus, while the bunches of grapes adorning many frames also refer to male sexual attributes. Zwillinger shows Michelangelo’s David as an emblem of heroic beauty, perfect and intangible, and he is juxtaposed to the body of Venus, which, in the work Venus Reborn, 1986, appears surrounded by a waterfall, protected by the screen of falling drops as by a veil that preserves her purity. The works that incorporate a vessel or basin containing water allude to the uterus, where the sperm fertilizes the egg. In Ne’er the twain shall meet, 1986, two basins at varying levels hold two live turtles, a male and a female, which remain separated and will never succeed in coupling. Here the juxtaposition between the sexes is pushed to the limits of desire, dramatically revealing the impossibility of a real union and declaring that the joining of opposites—sex, soul, and body—is another unrealizable dream. Water also appears in Cleanliness is Next to Godliness, 1986, represented by a washbasin stand with a basin, a carafe, and a mirror. Here, water implies the necessity for bodily and spiritual cleansing, while the abundance of decoration on the objects ironically underlines the futility of esthetic cures, also referred to by the mirror.

The last theme is time, shown as an element in suspension between the past and future. The present is represented by the object, celebrated in its moment of existence. Ora di punta, 1986 (the title, meaning “rush hour,” is intentionally in Italian), is a table clock decorated by, among other things, a cameo with the figure of a woman and a baby. The clock is a machine for measuring time, as is also the body of the woman; it contains the potential for projecting into the future by means of creation. The woman is, therefore, she who makes time; she is the great sculptor of time. All the objects tied to the world of childhood—like music boxes—introduce the past into the flow of vision, pushing recollections and memories of sounds toward the plane of the present.

The interpolation between the past and the present is also evident in the painted landscapes and panoramas, cut out like silhouettes against the phantasmagoric light of sunset. Taken from postcards, they don’t refer to places actually seen by the artist, because Zwillinger intends to present them as images that “recall” reality but that don’t necessarily reflect reality. And so they are an instrument of memory, only a shadow of life, enriched by decoration which makes them even more beautiful than they really are. The rich frame of bugle beads, paillettes, and sequins surrounds the scene with light—an idealized, immaterial light, like the aureole surrounding saints in Renaissance paintings. The sense of reality here is pushed to the point of unreality in an attempt to twist the meanings that we commonly attribute to images and objects.

A videotape made by Tessa Hughes-Freeland, entitled Rhonda Goes to Hollywood, 1986, was also part of the show. Zwillinger, playing herself, and surrounded by her objects in her overdecorated bedroom, assumes poses that are ostentatious and melodramatic but always strongly ironic. The video is interspersed with clips from famous films where the stars are always gorgeous, glamorous, and sexy, and is accompanied by the music of George Gershwin. The message is strong and clear: woman is one among many objects, a pretty, luxurious doll who decorates the dream chambers of her male partner. And here Zwillinger reaches her most polemical point. What she exhibits are attributes, superfluities, excessive decoration, bordering on kitsch. It is that brilliant and seductive surface behind which too many women’s lives have been hidden. Her works, accessible to both an educated art public and to one that is not, tend to deanesthetize one’s perception of the art object, by now situated within the sphere of consumer goods. Zwillinger never abandons her basic, solid optimism, but by denouncing appearances and exaggerating glitz and glitter, she knows how to pose difficult and unsettling questions to her audience—not merely esthetic questions, but questions about sexual roles and women’s liberation. And if her objects seem to spring from that same small world of fragile things that has always been attributed to women, one has only to look a bit beyond the surface to discover that the contents are anything but fragile.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.