Catherine Bertulli in Dressed at Danforth Art Museum at Framingham State University
by J. Fatima Martins
“Dressed,” featuring artists Catherine Bertulli, Jodi Collella, Merril Comeau, Mia Cross, Nancy Grace Horton, and Marky Kauffmann, at the Danforth Art Museum at Framingham State University through December 29, is another must see exhibition created by curator Jessica Roscio Ploetz. From the curatorial statement, “Dressed broadly addresses materials, imagery, iconography and memory, each artist experimenting with the fluidity of form while acknowledging gendered constrictions placed on the body. To be “dressed” implies a range of situations and experiences. Dressed is about adornment and identity.”
Of all the artists on view, it is Bertulli, whose work offers the most engagement with the complex maximalist/minimalist dichotomy. In Bertulli’s sculptures, there is heavy conceptual content hidden by minimalist material composition. She is subtle. Her sculptures come off as obvious in that they are in material form, dresses in design. But the dramatic obviousness and clean design is a trick that obscures poignant creative influences, and important architectural considerations.
From the exhibition statement: “Catherine Bertulli’s monumental works explore how materials occupy space. She uses aluminum as if it were fabric — folding, cutting, piecing and fastening her materials into over-life-size garments.” It is space as idea and material that is important with Bertulli. With her sculptures, she is asking the viewer to consider the power of object size and how size sets emotive reactions. Looking at her dresses, a question is suggested: how would we feel if the dresses were smaller?
CATHERINE BERTULLI: Q & A
JFM: YOU ARE A RUG DESIGNER, BUT YOUR SCULPTURES IN DRESSED ARE MADE OF METALLIC MATERIALS, HAVE YOU ALWAYS WORKED WITH SOFT AND HARD MATERIALS SIMULTANEOUSLY? WHEN DID YOU BEGIN THE HARDER EDGE 2017-2019 SERIES, AND HOW DID IT EVOLVE IN YOUR MIND?
CB: In the 1980s, I did some sculptures based on paper and foam-core. The work with aluminum came at a time around 2012 when I couldn’t afford any materials, so I started painting on aluminum foil from my kitchen. As I found this work getting interesting, in particular because of the way the aluminum remembers how it has been handled and formed, I began preparing a mixture of aniline dye and polyurethane, which allowed the brilliance of the aluminum to shine through. I started making 2D pieces, having the work of Eva Hesse and El Anatsui in mind.
I soon moved to using industrial strength aluminum foil. By 2015 I had moved to painting abstract images with the same mixture on paper, but the dyes did not maintain their color over time, and I wanted to return to working on aluminum. In 2016, I read the biography of Agnes Martin and started to experiment with inscribing lines and grids on the aluminum, and that led to my first 3D sculptures. After that, on a residency in Vermont, I made the first dress, “The Red Dress,” which was followed by “Blue Wedding Dress.” Both of those, and some of the earlier works, were on display at an aluminum industry conference in Verona, Italy in 2017.
THE SCULPTURES IN ‘DRESSED’ HOLD AND VIBRATE POWERFUL ENERGY. DID YOU SKETCH OUT THE DESIGN BEFORE BUILDING THEM, OR DID YOU WORK SPONTANEOUSLY, EXPERIMENTING WITH THE DESIGN IN PROCESS?
I had a roommate a few years ago who made museum-quality historical costumes, and in helping her a learned a lot about fashion, patterns and fitting. When I began to create these works, I looked at historical fashions. I was thinking about silhouettes and how to abstract the key elements of the historical silhouettes, so I didn’t do the kind of detailed realistic sketches I would do for a large painting. But I did a lot of thinking about the elements that I wanted to use; in particular, with the work of Yinka Shonibare in mind, I wanted to eliminate such realistic elements as heads and hands to create the level of abstraction that I was trying to achieve.
CAN YOU SHARE SOME SUBJECT BACKGROUND ON THE 4 SCULPTURES IN ‘DRESSED’ – BLUE WEDDING DRESS, VEIL, EMPRESS, AND RED DRESS? IS THERE A CONNECTION BETWEEN THEM, OR DO THEY STAND ALONE AS INDIVIDUAL SUBJECTS?
Having completed “Blue Wedding Dress,” I wanted to do a roomful of different pieces that hung together and had a powerful presence. There were a few specific influences that led to the more recent work. The Japanese armor show at the MFA in 2013 had mannequins in armor on charging horses, which was very strong and compelling. I also had in mind “Burghers of Calais” and how, as you walk around the piece, each figure leads naturally to the next, how a symphony creates a cohesive whole from separate movements.
For the earlier pieces, “The Red Dress” and “Blue Wedding Dress,” the influences were partly personal. Red, I believe, is traditionally associated with female Catholic martyrs, and in particular with Mary, Queen of Scots, who wore a red petticoat to her beheading. For this piece, I began with a brown paper pattern. When I moved to the aluminum. I wanted the piece to look as though it were trying to float away, which is why the train does not actually touch the floor. I was in my attic one day and came across my wedding gown, which I won for free at a drawing at Filene’s. I had such high hopes for my second marriage, which ended in divorce, in I became sad thinking about this loss. I made a blue wedding dress, thinking in part of Elizabethan leg-of-mutton sleeves and bodice. The skirt is pleated like a fan, but the back lifts up from the ground giving an illusion of motion.
For the later works, I wanted to move from generic women’s clothing to what I thought of as female power suits. I looked to historical garments worn by women in power, either temporal or spiritual. I had in mind a group of related sculptures that I tentatively called Queen. The first of these to be made was “Empress,” which is in “Dressed,” and is based on the Byzantine Empress Theodora. You will see in this sculpture allusions to the Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna. When I made “Veil,” I was thinking about Saint Rose of Lima, who wore a crown of flowers covering a crown of thorns, so, there are nails through the copper flowers that I made for her crown. I was always as a child entranced by Saint Theresa, the Little Flower, and this sculpture also reflects the white veil that she wore at her Profession. The veil itself also alludes to mourning veils, such as we see in Forest Hills cemetery.
YOU MENTIONED YOUR CATHOLIC FAITH AND HOW IT HAS INFLUENCED THE CONTENT OR IS THE INSPIRATION OF SOME OF THE SCULPTURES. IS YOUR OTHER WORK, PAINTING AND WALL SCULPTURES ALSO ALLUSIONS TO YOUR FAITH?When I was a child, I was deeply involved in being Catholic, and in fact aspired to be a saint. While the religion is no longer a direct influence, my memories of the things that interested me then are still active. The recent show “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” at the Metropolitan Museum provided some inspiration for the newer works shown at the Danforth.
(“Dressed” remains on view through December 30 at the Danforth Art Museum at Framingham State University, 14 Vernon St., Framingham Centre Common, Framingham, Massachusetts. For more information, call (508) 215-5110 or visit Danforth.framingham.edu.)