Lisa Caccioppoli


Lisa Caccioppoli paints owls. Sometimes there’s just one large owl on her smallish white canvases, but more often there’s a large group of them, containing a dozen to forty or more members. The eight untitled paintings shown at ThreeWalls were executed in September and October 2005, while Caccioppoli was in residence at the gallery. She uses a generic silhouette of a perched owl throughout, presenting the bird as sign and rarely articulating individual bodies other than as variously sized patches of solid color, a few of which incorporate slight tonal shifts. Caccioppoli also eschews any spatial or narrative anchor. The owls are scattered about every which way (though they never overlap), cascading in seemingly random patterns. Chromatic variation is understated: Several gray-red owls are accompanied by some that are a gray-blue; a group of dark cranberry ones has chocolate-brown ones in its midst. These slight variations allow just a hint of nuance to creep in.

Owls have a long tradition in art as allegorical figures. Their stoic demeanor, large limpid eyes, and aura of reflective quietude have led them to be reckoned as symbols of wisdom, the companions of Athena. (What could be more existential, at least to English-speaking audiences, than the owl’s call of “who”?) Just as often, though, their forest habitat and brooding, nocturnal nature have led artists and poets to treat the birds as harbingers of death, manifestations of nature’s more apparently sinister processes. Caccioppoli’s exclusive concentration on the motif initially suggests a strong identification with this symbolic tradition, but the idea doesn’t get us very far. Her owls are, in their insistent repetition and apparently arbitrary placement, largely drained of real presence. But while much of Caccioppoli’s interest seems to reside in the familiar dilemma of what-to-paint-after-the-end-of-painting, and, in reflections on the frailties of art as a stable communicative vehicle, her work ends up, curiously, reinforcing the medium’s historical staying power.

Individual owls are rendered in thick, glossy oil paint that, while seductive, acknowledges a certain conceptual fissure. In its ambiguity, its cultural malleability, the owl becomes an emblem for Caccioppoli’s painting itself: It corresponds with the conjunctions of form and content, contemporaneity and history, the literal and metaphoric that the painter attempts to address, while simultaneously representing the ultimate impossibility of their genuine intersection. There’s something vaguely sad about all this, a luxuriating in impasse that might be an especially telling sign of the times.

James Yood