About Face: Cayce Zavaglia

Lyons Wier Gallery (all images courtesy of the gallery)

November 5th to December 12th, 2015

By Kim Power

The portraits created by Cayce Zavaglia are not meant to flatter. There is no idealization, only relentless recording of physiognomic traits. There is nowhere to hide from her methodical analysis of every form and tonality. This sort of microscopic attention to detail might lead one to assume the result to be clinical and cold. In fact it is just the opposite. By making a conscious choice to limit the range of personalities to her own gene pool and friends, Zavaglia has chosen not only the path of the familiar but is also delving into a complex psychological matrix. They are strangers to us, the viewer, but to Zavaglia they are part of a web of relationships and experiences that encapsulate her world.

Leaning heavily on her interest in photorealism, Zavaglia’s embroideries are completely photo reliant, dealing with the portrait in a shallow space defined by a neutral palette of lightly distressed colors inspired by media mogul Martha Stewart. If the backgrounds seem banal they are only in service to the intricate web of threads that create a sculptural low relief of facial topography. Photographic reproductions of the work, no matter how high the resolution, cannot give accurate description to the layers of interlocking fibers, which are, in some places, raised like a thick impasto.

Taken at face value, About Face is about portraiture and the creation of a realistic likeness. However, for the artist, it is inclusive not only of the external reality of characteristics that create an individual but the internal pathos and circumnavigations that create the tapestry of human “being.” This interpretation is manifested in Zavaglia’s exposure of the reverse or “Verso” sides of her embroidered paintings such as Martina (2015). It is a messy, knotted, intertwined raw representation of what lies within, paths taken and abbreviated, bifurcations and loose ends.

2015 Zavaglia Martina
Martina, 2015, Hand embroidery: One ply cotton, silk, and wool thread on Belgian linen with acrylic paint background, 13.5 x 10 in / 34.3 x 25.4 cm
2015 Zavaglia Martina verso
Verso detail: Martina2015, Hand embroidery: One ply cotton, silk, and wool thread on Belgian linen with acrylic paint background
14.5 x 30.5 in / 36.8 x 77.5 cm

The truth is Zavaglia herself has turned about face, twice. Her first incarnation was as an oil painter, focused on the direct gaze and figuration, with a love of pattern. Working in fiber was born out of both the necessity to find an art form that was both nontoxic and fit in with her busy family life. Remembering her early days of crafting and the satisfaction that came as a child when she created an embroidered landscape, she set herself the challenge of learning to paint with thread.

Zavaglia’s early interest in the artist Elizabeth Peyton can be seen in her choice to work within her inner circle, creating intimate portraits directly utilizing photographs she takes herself. Choosing amongst sometimes more than two hundred shots taken of one individual, as she did in the portrait of her daughter Raphaella in Her Winter Coat (After Alex)(2015), Zavaglia zooms in and out, experimenting with different angles until she gets a pose and expression definitive of their personality and the moment. Since there is a familial or friendly relationship between Zavaglia and her sitters, these portraits become not only a recording of one character but their perception of and relationship to her and her own conception of who they are; in effect, an indirect double portrait both of herself and the person in question.

CZ Raphaella HIGH RES
Raphaella in Her Winter Coat (After Alex) 
2015, Hand embroidery: One ply cotton, silk, and wool thread on Belgian linen with acrylic paint background
14.5 x 30.5 in / 36.8 x 77.5 cm (framed)

Turn about being fair play, Zavaglia, taking inspiration from her Verso embroideries, returned to paint in 2013 when she began creating gouache studies, which became the seed for her larger than life acrylic paintings. Taking a page from Chuck Close’s “head” paintings but wanting to carve out something for herself, Zavaglia combines layers of vinyl cut stencil prints with spray painting and splattering that appears to be the polar opposite of the portraits she so realistically renders in thread, yet because of their reference to the reverse side of such perfectionism this dualism is allowed to exist in a relational way. Coming full circle one feeds the other in symbiosis. Chaos and order are one.

What Zavaglia achieves in this relationship of recto and verso is a sort of semiotic magic trick. While the mimesis of the outer form represents the sitter’s likeness it also portrays the expression of inner essence, unifying the signifier and the signified, [as laid out by Ernst van Alphen in his interpretation of the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (The Portrait’s Dispersal: Concepts of Representation and Subjectivity in Contemporary Portraiture, 1997)]. Zavaglia simultaneously challenges this unification by creating an indirect reference to the original form by revealing it’s underlying structure. This connection is ultimately severed however in Zavaglia’s Verso paintings which become not a quotation of the original mimesis but a transformation in which they develop their own sense of identity. Ultimately, they became signifiers of the original organic sympathetic relationship and take on an abstract identity not of something directly human but with human qualities.

Elly Verso (1)
Elly Verso 2013, Gouache on Arches Hot Press Paper, 18 x 18 inches

Our primal brain recognizes that what is there is a reference to humanity but at the same time it takes on more visceral qualities, as if looking underneath the skin, at the raw materials that support it, as in her painting Elly Verso (2013). This revelatory experience of the real is further unraveled in the unfinished portrait Zavaglia has painted of her son, entitled Rocco Verso (2015). In this arrested development, halted in medias res, Zavaglia refers metaphorically to the tabula rasa, or blank slate, on which her son’s life experiences have yet to be inscribed.

2015 ZAVAGLIA Rocco Verso Hi Res
Rocco Verso 2015, Acrylic on Belgian linen over panel
89 x 74 in / 226.1 x 188 cm

The death of an art form is often declared in lieu of recognition of what is in fact evolution. Portraiture is no longer the idealized representation of the higher class. That day is long gone. In fact the ideation of representation is expanding. In her revelation of process and its direct correspondence to recognizable personalities enhanced by her empathetic interpretation of photographic representation, Zavaglia shows us one of the myriad possibilities in defining the human condition.

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