An exhibit of works from a large series of paintings, watercolors and prints by Cianne Fragione is on view at Gallery Neptune & Brown in Washington DC. The work is inspired by a residency the artist had at Monasterace (Reggio Calabria) on the southernmost coast of Italy facing toward the Ionian Sea. It is a wild place still untouched by the mobs of tourists found in the urban centers of Florence or Rome, or even the countrysides around them. Its history is also different. In the 6th century BC it was a part of Magna Grecia, the extended Greek colonial expansion into the southern Italian peninsula and Sicily. The Greek town established on the coast was called Caulonia, with temples and houses all along the coastal plain. The place was destroyed and rebuilt a number of times until the Romans completely destroyed it in 200 BC. At this point, the people moved up inland where Monasterace, or “the little monastery” is now located. Ancient Caulonia is now an archaeological site that is reached through an iron gate and a flight of 50 or 60 steps down to the sea. Hence the title of Fragione’s current exhibit. For her, the place was magical; a combination of amazing views out toward the sea, verdant vegetation, and ancient ruins right under one’s feet. This was a place made for an artist who feels so connected to the past of her ancestral home in Sicily; to its rhythms, its spirituality, and its history.
Fragione works with gesture, usually bold at first, and then continues as the particular memory that sparked that painting unfolds in her mind. She tries to work as blindly as possible—that is, without lots of control—even to the point of drawing with her back to the easel. She works with multiple media including rich oil colors that she mixes herself from pure minerals, as well as various graphic media including charcoal and graphite. The latter are often added on top of layers of paint that form large areas of overlapping color. She also scratches into her surfaces, sometimes making swirling patterns, and at others a network of lines. Most of these works also include collaged elements such as bits of paper, wood, leather or lace. The collage is not only on the surface, but actually underneath the painted layers. The artist collects bits of published poetry, prayers, and her own poetry that she writes out by hand and then tears up into little fragments that she uses as a sort of first hidden layer. In my interview with her, she said that she “likes fragments of language,” words pulled out of their original context and recombined. She also likes “fragmented spaces,” finding ways to do the same with the landscape view that becomes more than merely a record of one moment, but rather a collection of small vistas. Her surfaces are often crusty, like wonderful Italian bread, or scraped like the ancient walls that are so often recombined into newer architecture in Italy. The layering is also a response to the excavations she watched at Caulonia. Fragione is fascinated by what’s “buried underneath” being found again.
The residency was between April and July, a time of year when the south of Italy is full of flowers at first, and when everything gradually turns golden. In the area around Monasterace, the farmers let the grass grow very tall for the sheep to eat. Once it turns hot and dry, and the grass takes on a golden coloration, they clear cut it revealing the traces of ruins of the ancient town and early medieval monastery. This manifestation of “what’s under your feet” to quote Fragione, seemed a miracle, something that she could only express in her painting, in fragmented poetry, or in physical movement. Fragione was a dancer before she was a visual artist, and that kind of physical sensitivity is evident in these paintings. When she talks about her work, she is almost dancing, which is how she was moving while making it.
By later June and July, the sun is so bright that looking out to the sea, the glare blurs the horizon. It was in this brilliant sunlight and heat that the archaeologists were busy working with their little hammers and chisels, and the artist was standing on the coast peering out. The light is so pervasive in this location, Fragione told me, that “things almost disappear.” Her watercolor Sea Gate tries to capture this phenomenon, where horizon and sky mix together.
Fragione’s interest in poetry is very strong, and she is able to read it in both English and Italian. The great early 20th century Italian poet Eugenio Montale was from Genoa (Liguria) and his work reflects his love of the Mediterranean Sea, seeing in it the life of nature and escape from the terrors of his times. From the mid-1920’s, Mediterraneo, addressed to the sea, is among his best known poems. The title of one of Fragione’s paintings in this exhibit comes from this very poem:
La casa delle mie estate lontane
[The house of my long ago summers]
For the artist this line from an extremely evocative poem brought back memories of her own youth, growing up in a multi-generational house, and while painting this work, of the time she spent with the Ionian and Mediterranean seas.
I asked Fragione what she believed her artistic relation was to Cy Twombly to whose work hers seems to bear some kinship. I reminded her that Twombly was so deeply impressed by his first trip to Italy with Robert Rauschenberg in 1952 that he ended up moving there permanently in 1961. Acknowledging a similar source of inspiration, Fragione insisted that while there are clear similarities in their use of graphic additions to the paint surface and the fragmented formations of gestural color, that they both were inspired by lessons in cursive writing in school and, finally, that they both love words, that she had arrived at her practice quite independently, mostly through her dance practice, and in response the emotional intensity of the Italian family home in which she grew up. “He’s older than me,” she added, “but I came to this by another path.”
The painting that was chosen to be in the window of the gallery has a poetic title that seems to embody the idea of fragmented memories of a past that mixes with the present in a place like Caulonia. Sea and sky, family and long gone people, all swept by time; what is left is a tiny fragment of a lace collar, a scent of perfume, a dried flower. All these can be connoted by the pinks and blues, the dark red smudge, the clouds and the house form drawn above.
Taken together, this is a remarkable body of work from every aspect, both in form and content, and perhaps most of all, from the expression of treasured memories and deeply felt emotions.
Cianne Fragione: Gate to the Sea, through November 16, 2019. Gallery Neptune & Brown, 1530 14th Street NW, Washington DC 20005. Wed-Sat. 12-7; Sunday by appointment. Info@galleryneptunebrown.com. www.galleryneptunebrown.com