Tuesday, December 7, 2010

An American Master in Rome

[Written in 2010]

Découpage—cutting out diverse paper images and gluing them as a collage onto another form, likely glass—is usually seen as an amateur craft, done with paste and scissors on kitchen tables. The results are rarely art, and often kitsch.

Though upmarket découpage may flourish in decor shops, these are mass-produced objects with nothing original about them, designed to look “handmade” only to an undiscerning eye. They bear no resemblance to the high, subtle artistry achieved centuries ago in lacquered découpage from the Far East, nor to the later incarnations by Matisse, Picasso, and Joseph Cornell. Even the finest practitioners today seem musty, sentimental, Victorian.

Jill Barnes-Dacey (b. 1953), an American living in Rome, has brought about a singlehanded revolution in découpage. Though she studied technique with an elderly Danish master, her style and structural approach are utterly her own. Within the apparently limited terrain of glass forms (bowls, vases, dishes, plates, trays, glasses), she moves from surface to surface with an Escher-like flow, allowing the unity of her colors and images, and her inventive spatial sense, to link discordant artistic cuttings—from Baroque to Romantic to Surreal or even avant-garde, then back again—as the object is picked up or a viewer moves around it.

The idea, as she puts it, is to form a plural design that also tells a complete story.

She is, essentially, a collagist who works on glass. Her forms can be large-scale; one of the more lavish cruise ships recently commissioned a set of fourteen enormous (and expensive) vases for niches lining a majestic staircase. Her most recent show, which sold out, was in Gstaad.

Last year the International Herald Tribune Arts Editor, the famously severe Souren Melikian, profiled her, praising a “movement and rhythm that makes the objects swirl. . . [and her] jeweler’s feel for color harmonics. . . If contemporary art and design should ever strike you as a privilege for millionaires, think twice. . . The traditional art vocabulary has no word that aptly characterizes [her] technical and artistic tour de force, a poetic fantasy of cutouts put together. The idea of collage transferred to three-dimensional art is made doubly complex by the fact that each piece has an inside and an outside on which the visual compositions must correlate without being repetitive. Some have a paradoxical visual logic . . . as intriguing as any Salvador Dali. . . [or] an utterly different composition of seething, glittering Baroque motifs. The American artist’s aesthetic innovation is that she applies her artistic ideas to the world of objects that has barely caught the attention of recognized contemporary artists.”

Barnes-Dacey is the daughter of writer Norman Dacey, (whose bestselling How to Avoid Probate aroused the ire of American lawyers forty years ago). While at an English finishing school she fell in love with Rome and graduated from a design school there. After a degree at a London arts academy—followed by marriage and four children—in France she began to do collages. Back in Italy again, she was driven to fuse her own art with the city’s architectural sensibilities.

Her development, then, follows a classic story: the gifted American artist whose talent was first molded by Rome, then renewed by a mature contact with the city’s eternal inspirations. What’s unusual is how her expertise has come relatively late in life (though after decades as a superb and original collagist), and her evident mastery (for there are many skillful découpeurs worldwide) after less than a decade in her chosen field.

Barnes-Dacey begins with a glass object on whose interior and exterior she meticulously glues her intricate collages and designs. Because the surfaces tend to be curved, and the images flat, there is considerable risk of the papers tearing or sliding out of position. Gold leaf may be used to fill in background areas. After twenty-four coats of very delicate varnish, which each take a day to dry, there’s a final polish and three more varnishings. Thus each object, a unique work of art, takes six weeks.

Barnes-Dacey annually gives a couple of small three- and five-day courses at her workshop in the 16th-century Roman palazzo where she lives with her husband, modern art dealer Stefan Lennert. Her creations, $250-$9,000 each, may be seen at www.jillbarnesdacey.com.

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