Written for the Summer 2015 issue of Varoom! magazine. The theme of this issue was Play.
My normal beat at Varoom! is cartoons and comic strips, but sometimes you come across projects that, while being informed by comic drawing, are a step aside or beyond. On leaving Fatherland, Steven Guarnaccia’s exhibition of possessions re-purposed into an amazing portrait of both father & son, I knew that I had to write about it. Actually, the first thing I had to do was email Steven – who I’d recently worked with – and tell him just how fantastic it was.
This vivid picto-biography, using his father’s possessions (saws, pipes, shirts, dice) turned on their heads by colour, wit and wordplay – in order to portray facets the character of the man – is brilliantly realized. Giant paper ties hang from floor to ceiling, and plaid shirts are painted on blocks of wood in a space created by white cardboard cartons. Of course, the acts of the son – whether by filtering or emphasis – give the show another dimension. At certain ages he’s in awe, at others puzzled or in opposition, and so it becomes a story of both men, playful in approach, but with the sharp edge of honesty.
Amusing and moving in turn, Fatherland has a coherence and satisfaction that exhibitions often lack. It may be that if you’re a certain age and have had your own issues or struggles with your father that it resonates in a particular way, but actually it’s hard to think that anyone could fail to enjoy or take something from it. And moving and amusing is an unbeatable combination – if you have the skill to pull it off. Which Steven does.
[See below for a Q&A with Steven].
The Varoom! Q&A with Steven Guarnaccia
Brief: Brief to self – write a children’s book during sabbatical from Parsons. Instead, I drew saws and pipes and shoes incessantly, until I gave up on the book and decided to give in to the saws, etc and build a world of objects that all deal in some way with my pretty broken relationship with my father.
Materials: The aforementioned saws, pipes and shoes, plus scraps of wood, acrylic paint, canes, shirts, various boxes, a mannequin leg and a duckpin bowling pin.
Research: More than 10 years of therapy, endless poring over the family photo albums and scrapbooks (I’m the keeper of the archives), delving into sign painters’ manuals, and the Oxford English Dictionary always at my side.
Process: Haunting flea markets and yard sales on two continents and drawing in my sketchbooks for two years, then one year of cutting and painting and hammering and gluing.
Resistances: The difficulty of finding a voice to depict a relationship that alternated between silence and roaring, fear of exposing that relationship to the world, and finding a way to represent it fairly honestly and unsentimentally through objects, rather than through my usual humorous drawings.
Insight: I really like making three- dimensional objects!
Distractions: Haunting flea markets, buying way more saws than I’ll ever be able to do anything with.
Numbers: 16 pipes, 14 saws, one bowling pin, one artificial leg.
Play: I often felt like I was playing some surrealist’s game of pin the tail on the fur-lined teacup, combining objects in ways that were illogical but emotionally resonant.