Upon entering Angelina Gualdoni’s recent solo show, “The Physic Garden,” at the Asya Geisberg Gallery in Chelsea, I was immediately transported through the paintings on view into, what felt like, an esoteric alchemical cellar in medieval Europe. A woodblock-like painted plant-contemplating figure, The Herbalist, greets the gallery visitor, like a curandera or healer hosting the space. Later I learned that the white cross-hatched marks that give the figure a wizened feel, were made with a painting tool created from urban debris foraged from the streets of New York City. This mash-up of different times and places is a common theme throughout the show. Even the works themselves flutter between presence and absence.
Particularly dazzling is the standout and the namesake painting of the show, The Physic Garden. Its long horizontal format commands the viewer’s peripheral space of experience. The vivid and saturated colors that form the nature scene are set in a fantastical and whimsical landscape. There are elements fleeting in and out of perception by being at times rendered in full color, form, and volume, and at other times only wisps of the white hatched line. It appears like a visual glitch where the past, present, and future vacillate before the viewer’s eyes. This ethereal quality is shown in other ways too. The paintings are bathed in paint from behind so that the surfaces hum with soft-focus visual colors. There are several different painterly moves and techniques that provide a strong contemporary juxtaposition to the subject matter of medicinal herbs, alchemy, and ancient nature wisdom.
At times, the paintings are reminiscent of historical, hand-drawn, illuminated manuscripts. Gualdoni’s “Confections” series is a series of smaller paintings that isolate individual plant specimens such as nutmeg and coriander and frame them within the frame.
There’s a surprising amount of movement for this otherwise still-life content; the plants appear to emanate a life-force as if animated, and dance across the picture plane, as in the floating space backgrounds of the “Confections” series and, more overtly, in “The Root Kingdom” where the flat colorful shapes remind of me Henri Matisse’s jubilant cut-outs.
The exhibition shows Gualdoni’s strength as much as a painter, as a researcher. She chose specific traditional herbs that are used in medicinal healing. The light touch of loose paint stains that seep into the paintings’ surfaces help strike an overall balance between a heavy sense of depth and vivacious lightness. The paint is applied in luscious thick strokes keeping the viewer and their expectations on their toes. The whole show feels magical, as if one has wandered into hidden catacombs or an ancient museum where one might find wisdom and a lost alchemy of herbal remedies.
The lexicon that is Gualdoni’s “Confections” series, which is presented mainly in a grid, comes across as something akin to a herbarium identification guide and teaching tool. The fresco-like merger of the paint and surface combined with a dominance of earth tones that bring a feel of a rustic Italy that was an inspiration for the artist. With the paintings hung low and high in the gallery, the viewer is encouraged to meander, similar to a forager, in a physical way, looking up and down, through the gallery space. There is a freshness and robustness that comes from the mix of thin and thick, watery and dry brush work. In all, it made me feel like I was tearing into the kitchen of an alchemist and getting a sneak peak at the ancient tools and techniques of a forgotten but now exhumed trade – in time for the current cultural renaissance of interest in nature-based remedies.
Top image: The Herbalist, 2021. Oil and acrylic on canvas 70 x 50.5” (Flanked by Confections: Cherry Kernels, 2021. Oil and acrylic on canvas 20 x 16” on the left and Lovers Root, 2021. Oil and acrylic on canvas 18 x 14” on the right.)
The Physic Garden February 27 – April 3, 2021.
Written by Katerina Lanfranco who is a painter based in NYC. She writes for POVarts and was a contributing writer for The Art Blog based in Philadelphia. Lanfranco teaches studio art and design at Parsons School of Design and Hunter College. She is also fascinated by the mystical and healing power of nature. You can follow her work on Instagram @katerinalanfranco and her curatorial work @rhombusspace