Channeling His Father
An exhibition by Steven Guarnaccia, “Fatherland,” opens on May 28 through June 23 at the Yui Gallery, 131 Eldridge Street in New York City (reception on May 28). About this personal exploration he writes, “I was on sabbatical in 2011 trying to write and illustrate a children’s book. But I spent most of my time daydreaming and doodling in my sketchbook. The most important thing I got from my sabbatical was time to daydream . . .
Straight from Steven Guarnaccia…
“What it turned out I was daydreaming about, and doodling a lot of, were saws, pipes, hammers, cigar boxes, playing cards. Everyday objects. But these weren’t the everyday objects of my life. It took me a while to figure out whose life I was borrowing them from.
“Why was I suddenly drawing all of these quintessential “guy” props? Why all of these tools, why this smoking and gambling paraphernalia? I’m not very confident around tools- I’m always afraid they’ll jump up and attack me. I don’t have a do-it-yourself bone in my body. And though I once smoked a pipe and the occasional cigarette, I haven’t done so for about 30 years. And I never really learned to play cards past Crazy Eights.
“Then, like a hammer, it hit me – these were not functional objects, but objects of memory. The more I drew, the more objects I added to this memory storage room: saws, yes, but also canes and gloves and umbrellas and shoes… And they all drew me back to my father. My father, who spoke very little, but in some essential way communicated to me through these dumb objects. Oddly, they were often objects that had figured in the father-son moments we failed to bond over- the mornings spent sawing wood that ended in recriminations, or the afternoons helping put away the cans of food from the supermarket, where I somehow managed to put them away wrong.
“Though I associate my father with the tools he used, he had no particular love for tools or aptitude for do-it-yourself, either. There was a workbench in our basement, with a vice that fascinated me, but I never saw my father work at it. We did all of our painting projects there, and my father had attached a shoe shining stand to the table, and it was there he shined his shoes.
“The basement’s chief item of interest, besides the vice, was a WWII knife with a brass knuckle grip that held my brother and I in its thrall, and scared the bejeesus out of our mother. After my father died I looked everywhere, under and behind the workbench, for the knife, but it was nowhere to be found, probably having been gotten rid of decades before by my mother.
“Running through all of these objects was a connection to my father, and the ways in which he did and didn’t embody an ideal of manliness and fatherhood for me. And because he himself was often emotionally and physically unavailable, these pieces were less about a person than they were about a place. Somewhere I would go to look for my father, long after he was no longer around. A place I thought of as Fatherland.
“He was the tenth of ten children. His oldest sibling was 28 years older than he. My father was largely unknown to me, and I imagine, to himself. He was a man of few words, many of those four-letter ones. I caught glimpses of him, occasionally, through the chinks in the brick wall he’d erected around himself. His skin was thin and easily bruised beneath the bricks, and he was prone to holding long grudges.
“Some years after my father’s death, cleaning out the outdoor shed in the back of my mom’s house, I find a rusty, two-handled cross-cut saw my father and I used to cut down the trees in the back yard. Instead of throwing it away with the rusted rakes and cracked hoses, I hang it over the doorway to my Brooklyn dining room. I imagine it wriggling loose and neatly cutting me in two.”
I asked Steven Guarnaccia if he had anything to add to this intimate portrait. The following are his responses . . .
Holding a Grudge.
This is Not My Father.
Steven, You’ve been working on Fatherland for many years. What is the significance of the title? Is it indeed triggered by memories of your father?
My goal was to make a portrait of my father, who was a difficult person to know. The piece that is on the invitation is called The Absent Father. Because he was an emotionally distant person, I found that it was only through the objects I associate with him that I could get close to him after his death.
Two by John O’Hara.
I am taken by the Letter Sweater with the word GrudGe. Is this a message to your dad?
The hanger actually says, “Holding a” and the sweater says “Grudge”. The hanger is literally “holding a grudge”. Most of the pieces in the show include found objects. I found the letter sweater with the big “G” and then added the other letters to it. I think the phrase to some degree defines my father’s relationship with the world.
Another startling image is the one with the Saw made from pants. You’re a master of the visual pun, but this must have more significance to you than a clever visual trick. What is that?
This is a double portrait of my father and myself, made from saw handles and the “limbs” cut from clothing- in my father’s case it’s the sleeve of a tweed sport jacket (a very characteristic garment for him) and in my case the leg of a pair of “chinos”, what every kid in the 60’s wore. I was struck that the arm and leg were almost the same size and that they both evoked the form of a saw blade.
Father and Son.
Where does this fit into your career as an illustrator/artist? Does it mark a departure or a supplement to your book, editorial and packaging work?
I’ve always dabbled in making 3D objects. Over the years I’ve made wooden block toys, painted old ukeleles, devised word and image combinations made out of iron wire. This is the first sustained project that consists entirely of three dimensional objects. Together they’re meant to create a portrait of my father. I always saw them as an installation of linked pieces, rather than a series of individual objects. The whole feels very much to me like a three dimensional visual narrative. Most of the pieces include hand lettered words, and there is also wall text that accompanies the pieces that is more narrative than descriptive.
My Father’s Books.
You have also long played with a variety of media. These are sculptural, painting, drawing and typographic. In fact, other than the overarching theme, there is not a lot of connective formal tissue. Am I wrong?
I found it liberating and exciting to work with as many different materials and forms as I did here. Some of that was a function of a particular found object suggesting a piece to me. Some of it was trying to find the right form and material to evoke the mood and emotion suggested by an object associated with my father.
Do you plan an delving deeper into Fatherland, or is this the end of this stage?
I’ve been filling a sketchbook with more sketches since I made the last piece of Fatherland. The next series of objects have the working title of Childproof.