Collages catch a fire


Computer software has revived the term “cut and paste.” We execute the commands when writing documents, treating images, or slipping stuff into an e-mail. Cutting and pasting is so simple that it’s easy to forget that the actions were originally performed not in a flash with a cursor and a mouse — but over long hours, with scissors and glue. Remember that? Francesca Gabbiani does.

Gabbiani, 40, was born in Montreal, grew up in Geneva, and is currently based in Los Angeles — you could say she’s lived something of a cut-and-paste life. Now, cut and paste is how she makes her art.

Gabbiani’s medium of expression is through colored paper collages. Her large-scale pieces can consist of hundreds of strips of paper meticulously arranged on airbrushed or patterned backgrounds. She does this with such technical excellence that at first glance the works can appear to be photographs or realist paintings.

Of course, perfection of a kindergartner’s creative technique is of limited interest per se, but Gabbiani’s careful choice of subject matter has taken her work to a higher level. Strongly influenced by the foreboding aura of classic horror-suspense films, some of her best pieces draw on these — in particular, director Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” The elegant, uninhabited lobbies, bathrooms and hallways of the Overlook Hotel, which brought such tension to Kubrick’s masterpiece, translated well in Gabbiani’s early efforts with colored paper collages. She framed them as the film had — detached and symmetrical — to suggest that something frightful was due to appear, at any minute, to disjoint the severe geometric normalcy. Spooky.

More recently, Gabbiani has experimented with the totally different, dynamic element of fire. Her series of flame-engulfed landscapes, or “firescapes” as she calls them, seem to dance with carefully constructed overlays of orange and red paper. No longer are we waiting for something to happen, now we are watching something in progress.

The new collages unite these two earlier bodies of work. A selection are now showing at Gallery Side 2, in Gabbiani’s first solo exhibition in Japan, titled “Scare Me Up.”

There are a couple of figure studies of a silhouetted man in a fedora, lurking as if he were a character in an old detective movie. Better, I think, are the pieces that bring fire inside. One portrays flames licking at wallpaper and a bed, in what could be a hotel room; in another, an upright piano is engulfed by an inferno.

“I saw a piano on fire in a movie once,” explains Gabbiani, “and so I made this piece, the first time that I’ve use flames in interior settings. I have been influenced by a number of movies, images and other sources in making these new pieces — the movies ‘Bad Lands’ by Terence Malik, and Brian de Palma’s ‘Carrie’ in particular.”

Along with films, Gabbiani credits her time in Los Angeles as inspiration for her interest in fire.

“Fires are also very common in southern California, they are part of our lives. They are scary and incredibly destructive. But they have a grandiose quality as well. I want to bring the beauty out of them, and I see them as spectacles. I was also attracted to making fires from cut-out paper, because the paper is the complete opposite of fire in its materiality. Fire, like water, is fluid and moving, whereas paper is opaque and flat.”

Asked if the process is painstaking, Gabbiani simply says she enjoys what she’s doing — and after all, isn’t making art usually time consuming?

There is something engaging and rather likable about Gabbiani’s art — yes, the layers of cut-out paper can suggest arts-and-crafts class, yet the constructed representations also communicate an uncommon intimacy between artist and artwork, and the fire-based pieces come alive on the wall.