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An Introduction By Raymond Anderson

Describing Siglinda is like trying to sew a button on a butterfly in flight or, when it comes to her fierce defense of animal and human rights (in that order), on a hornet. In the first instance, the subject eludes easy categorization; in the second, one is likely to be stung. Butterfly and hornet at the same time--small wonder that we find a body of work, executed over a not always tranquil lifetime in Italy and the United States, that ranges from the delicacy of a petal to a raw beauty wrenched from somewhere deep inside her.

Siglinda is best understood, as a matter of fact, through her seeming contradictions. When we look at the way she has shaped a clay form, feathering the edges, turning them this way and that, like the tops of seas breaking into foam and bending to the whim of the wind, we imagine her long tapered fingers playing over the clay like fingers on a harp. We can only imagine them, though, because her hands are in fact like the paws of a small animal, a raccoon, maybe, or the soft paws of one of her big Maine Coon cats--the claws withdrawn for now. Her voice is like a silver bell, small and true when she sings--but for herself only, remembering some dream of Tuscany or her grandmother--but she also has, when required, the mouth of a stevedore, capable of words (often in Italian, one is relieved to note) that can shame the arrogant and silence the bully. In short, she is a cross between Giulietta Masina--the innocent Gelsomina of La Strada as well as the optimistic Cabiria, always betrayed but always hopeful--and Anna Magnani, the feisty and defiant Magnani of Mamma Roma (“Will you explain to me why I’m a nobody and you’re the king of kings? Whose fault is it that people are born without money?”) riding on the back of a motorcycle.

It may or may not be correct to conclude, as one observer does, that the commedia dell’arte--the art form so closely identified with the Italian character--has its roots in the temperament of the Middle Ages, a time when, in the words of Johan Huizinga, “violent contrasts...lent a tone of excitement to everyday life and tended to produce [a] perpetual oscillation between despair and distracted joy,” but this latter condition does have everything to do with Siglinda’s art. As much passion spent in grief as in joy--and no brooding over the one or reveling in the other--as well as a great capacity for love, but when the object of her love is threatened, an almost equal one for anger that can mount, yes, to hatred--it is this temperament that accounts in large measure for the paradox we sense in her art, some pieces as delicate as a rose or a cloud unfolding, others as threatening as a buzz saw, and still others as blunt as a punch in the nose.

By no means incidentally, the commedia dell’arte was the inspiration for a seminal series of pieces she made soon after she left Italy more than twenty years ago to begin a new life in the United States. While working as the Studio Manager of the Greenwich House Pottery in Manhattan, she undertook a series of pieces in her studio over the kiln room that signaled an entirely new direction for her. Until then, although her forms had clear sculptural elements, they were still vessels, with a traditional foot that said, I’m a pot. In this new series, the foot disappeared--some of them refused to stand up unless she put a spell on them--along with the glaze that she felt hid the clay and smothered them, kept them from breathing. In place of glaze, she used aniline dyes and hot wax that made the pieces glow with an inner light, reminiscent of the gay costumes of Columbine and Arlecchino. With their shell-like shapes, the series was inevitably called La Commedia del Mare, The Sea Comedy.

In the years that followed, she continued to explore the sculptural possibilities of fired clay, including the human figure. She experimented with combining other material with clay--wood, metal, blown glass. She made pieces to hang on the wall or to float magically in the air, suspended on invisible monofilament. Impatient, perhaps, with the indirect process of glazing--brush on a colorless liquid and wait to see what firing reveals--she tried painting on her pieces with acrylics. One result of this latter approach was the Finnegans Wake series that gave shape--in the form of creatures out of Alice in Wonderland or Hieronymous Bosch--to James Joyce’s fantastical words in that strangest of all books. Another series, called Ubu’s Pataphysical Toolbox, for which she abandoned her signature style of working the clay in airy forms in favor of solid blocks of clay, incorporated remnants of old tools. One sculpture, called Meule à arrogance (Arrogance Grinder), made use of rusted saw blades, for example. All nine pieces, with names like Rabot à imbécile (Blockhead Plane) and Grande pinces à merde (Large Crap Tongs) poked fun at the attributes King Ubu shares with ruling classes the world over. (In this regard, Siglinda’s satirical genius is ecumenical!)

In recent years, Siglinda has returned to the vessel and makes pots for cooking that, however sculptural they may be (and some extraordinarily so), are unmistakably functional. Quite apart from these, she has also been creating purely sculptural pieces that mark a return to the delicate forms of the Commedia del Mare period, forms Georgia O’Keefe would understand very well. These pieces, which she calls Clouds, are reminiscent of her Columbines and Pulcinellas, but now, instead of being simply gay, they are richer, denser with meaning, at times even pregnant with vague portent, like the clouds of a summer day building to a gathering storm.

Lest we think it is only our apprehensions, born of these perilous times, that we are projecting onto Siglinda’s Clouds, we should look closely at her latest pieces, which she refers to simply as “my stones.” Large plates to hang on the wall, layered with colored slips, forms that are themselves like old walls, with angry words scratched into them like the ones a kid might inscribe with a nail; large slabs of clay engraved with fine details as if covered with lichen and the delicate tracery of leaves and sticks fallen from a bush or tree, again with words of outrage carved in them here and there disrupting the harmony of nature’s plane geometry; and on all of these plates and slabs, stones have landed--who threw them?--stones that confront the viewer with their unsettling presence. The provenance of these works is no mystery, though. They are unmistakably Siglinda’s, and they remind us that it is with stones that Palestinian children defy tanks--it was with a stone that David slew Goliath. In effect, the sculptures themselves are stones hurled with all her might in solidarity with the oppressed and dispossessed of the earth at the forces that would keep them wretched.

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