In her series showcasing and spotlighting artists living and working in Valencia, this week Tina McCallan meets Francesca Ricci, who has created a complex body of work inspired by an invented alphabet of signs created from marks found on the pavements of London…
This month I head to the RW project space in Calle Cuba, Ruzafa to see a fascinating exhibition entitled Tabula Impressa, an installation of mixed media work by Italian artist Francesca Ricci who, with her collaborator Kiril Bozhinov, has created a complex body of work based on an invented alphabet of signs created from marks found on the pavements of London. Walking into the space, run by writer Kristin Gracie, I’m immediately impressed by the diversity of the work on show from collages to photos, paintings to video.
I asked Francesca to start at the beginning and tell me the origins of the work. What does the title refer to?
Tabula Impressa is inspired by what Jung described as the “collective unconscious”, a concept that sees man born carrying in his subconscious elements from a communal, ancestral background. This is opposed to the Aristotelian idea that we are tabula rasa, a blank canvas which is then imprinted with ideas and experiences as we go through life.
Which works are the first ones and when did you start?
It started about ten years ago, it is a collaboration with artist and writer Kiril Bozhinov. I had been working with him for a while and one day he showed me photos of weird symbols in London that he was coming across on the pavements; he’s a compulsive collector of images, words, and sounds. My first reaction was wow, they are striking, I asked him if I could use them to make some art from.
Tell me about this installation piece, it is the first thing you see as you come into the exhibition, they look like strips of paint swatches.
Yes, at this point we had 300 or more signs, so we decided to classify them. We saw there were patterns with dots and lines, we imagined they were telling us the story of humanity. It all starts with a dot, which is the beginning of the universe and from then the signs start to evolve, get more complicated. So a dot changes into a comma and then morphs into an arrow or two lines. We attached a word/quality to each sign, and gave the ten categories of classification names derived from or imitating ancient Greek, such as Cosmos, Harmos, Feidos, Philos… Filo means friendship; Eros, your life crosses some else’s life; Pathos, conflict, arrows mean having a direction, intellect.
The result was that we created our own alphabet and vocabulary in the work entitled Cache, which we displayed like paint strips. The signs are arranged in an inventory of ten categories according to the level of the development of the signs, which can then be used as a playful new way to interpret reality. A variation on that theme is Rosa, a circular piece, which you can interact with by turning it, thus creating the possibility of the signs from the different categories falling into various combinations.
It’s interesting that Kiril noticed these signs and did something with them. For me, that’s what makes someone a true artist, to take something ordinary and turn it into something extraordinary. Many people may not have even noticed these marks. I wonder why you particularly responded to them.
Why did we respond to these signs? As I mentioned before, Aristotle says we are born tabula rasa, but I don’t agree. I think we are born tabula impressa, we already have some imprints in us which reawaken when we meet certain people, see certain images, or have certain experiences. So something in me responded to these signs strongly, probably, as I said because I was studying Jung and the tarot.
As you said, Jung’s main theory was that we have a collective unconscious, one of my favourite books is Man and His Symbols. I’m curious to see what you did next with your invented alphabet. Tell me about these small paintings.
We decided to look more closely at the photographic compositions and there was often more than one symbol, so we tried to decipher the meaning according to our alphabet of signs, to see if the compositions were trying to tell us something. The starting point was a picture taken at night-time, it was flooded by yellow light, in this photo the word DIO appeared which we interpreted as God so then I thought “I have to paint an icon”, so I hand-painted it with a process inspired by traditional icon-painting, using egg tempera and pigment and the monotype hand transfer process I discussed earlier. Some of the supports didn’t “accept” the image well, the transfer paper got stuck to it which I had to painstakingly remove and in some cases the compositions resulted in being quite different from the original images, missing some parts. For me these “incidents” were an integral part of the creation of the artwork.
This series is called Apocriphisms, a made-up word based on the root of “apocryphal”, which means “of doubtful truth” and references the gospels which are not officially recognised by the church, they are said to show a more human side of Jesus or Mary and so we use this title here to suggest the subjectivity of truth. In a way, they are the reverse of religious painting where stories from the bible were illustrated in art for the illiterate. Kiril interprets the signs in the image with an accompanying text, in a way translating the visual to words. I also wanted to make a constellation of transportable objects for meditation.
Let’s look at this piece, Anarca. The meaning of “Arcana” is 1. a deep secret; a mystery, 2. specialised knowledge or details unknown to or misunderstood by the average person. 3. a secret essence or remedy; an elixir. This to me, seems to come full circle back to the mysterious found signs. Why did you choose the Tarot of Marseille in particular?
I preferred the Tarot of Marseille to other decks, because they presented, at the same time, simplicity and depth, without all the extra layers applied in the later centuries by the different contexts in which the Tarot was used. It is said that the Tarot was first seen in Milan in the 15th century and then it spread to France, but no one really knows.
I thought the images on the cards were the most striking, there are a lot of references, religious and pagan, even if it was just originally invented as a card game. I got interested in the tarot as I was doing a lot of work on myself and a friend read me the cards. I wanted to find out more. In the series, I tried to find symbols from our invented urban semiology which resembled the original arcana to make my own version of the tarot cards.
That’s impressive! In one of them, La Roue De Fortune (the wheel of fortune) it actually looks like a spinning wheel and it’s interesting that when you read the title on the card, your mind projects onto the image so that you see what you are told to see.
You also have some more traditional pieces on canvas, some with a layer of voile over the top, and other larger striking pieces that are tacked to the wall, tell me about them…
I started working with the idea of fondale, which means both seabed and backdrop in Italian. They have two layers, a canvas and then a voile, this is a bit of a homage to background as I studied stage design and I’m referencing the gauze, which, when lit a certain way, can reveal, or hide elements of the play. Then I started developing what I call Annuari (yearbooks), a more personal approach, where I illustrate my year using the alphabet we have created in an attempt to process my experiences, both good and bad. Many signs have a particular meaning so they can be interpreted using the key but others are more intuitive without specific reference to the signs.
Conceptually, that’s fascinating and the colours in these are sumptuous, and they make me think of the expressions “a picture is worth 1,000 words” or “you can read me like a book”. In these “Yearbooks”, you have the highs and lows of your year on display like a visual diary. Both you and Kiril seem to have a fascination for language and word play.
Yes, we wanted to take this new vocabulary to other spheres of knowledge such as literature so we took a story, in this case by Jorge Luis Borges, which was already dreamlike and so it lent itself to interpretation, taking some key words from the story we created some compositions to illustrate the story.
The most recent piece in the show is a video work, how did that come about?
It’s an abstract video-piece, Glossary of Implications, a visual poem that questions the ever-changing meaning of words and images regarding their belonging to a specific narrative or visual vocabulary. Kiril gave me three sets of words: represent, harmos and self, and the video is a reflection on these topics of self, identity, and representation. How we receive words, how words represent reality and how we interpret it. The imagery is from the icons, I wanted to zoom in and look at the details, the soundtrack is by musician Gaston Gorga.
It’s been fascinating to hear about your work; thanks for telling me all about it.
• ‘Tabula Impressa’, 10 September to 30 October’; Fridays 17:30-21.00, Saturdays 12.00-14.30 / 17.30-21.00; RW Project Space, Calle Cuba, 5, Russafa, Valencia; firstname.lastname@example.org; https://francesca-ricci.com/; Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/francesca_ricci_art/; The RW Project: https://kristingracie.com/the-rw-project/art-exhibitions/