Marchesani’s art boldly breaks boundaries
Deborah Minsky

To spend a day with artist Abbi Marchesani visiting her barn-studio and touring Wellfleet’s galleries is akin to trying to follow the path of a brilliant butterfly. She discusses her work in bold, flamboyant surges of energy and shares details of her peripatetic life with disarming candor, mixed with undeniable optimism. She skips lightly from thought to thought, circling back on ideas that need details. It is clear that she loves life, loves art and loves the fluidity of her future.

In building towards the main subject of the day, her show at the Robyn Watson Gallery in Provincetown, through Aug. 8, Marchesani offers insight into her formative years as an artist, starting with a creative childhood nurtured by her mother. She benefited from an unusual high school program in Bloomfield, N.J., which provided an accelerated college-preparatory, studio art curriculum. To this day, she credits one teacher, Dorothea Fisher, as the most influential art instructor in her life. After high school, she studied English at Douglass College, before drifting into the corporate world of Arthur Anderson as a systems analyst. Sensing that this was not her true calling, she started taking night classes at New York’s School of Visual Arts and, at the invitation of a friend, found her way to Provincetown in 1971. Virtually upon arrival, she realized she had found her niche. "I stayed here [on the Cape] because I knew I was really ready to get into [my art]." The ‘70s was a highly charged time for the Lower Cape, replete with social turmoil, political change and a constant influx of creative newcomers who added to the established art community.

The economics of a year-round life in Provincetown was not easy, but there were kindred souls with whom to share the struggle as well as the joy. In describing her experience Marchesani says," There have been many times of discouragement and many times of wonderful breakthroughs, but I’ve always managed to be creative, ... it’s in my heart. I’ve always had this notion of Cape Cod as my home base, and I don’t see that really changing. I have more of the vagabond soul, the itinerant artist in me. I always think of the tides coming in and out." It has been a number of years since she has enjoyed the security and comfort of that rare commodity, affordable 12-month housing and workspace, but clearly she is not daunted by frequent location shifts.

Marchesani delights in taking the techniques of her watercolor painting beyond traditional boundaries, and she credits Charles Burchfield, at least in part, with inspiring her independent impulses: "I take my cue from [him], who often unframed his watercolors decades later, adding sheets of paper or cropping them, sanding away and/or repainting them – signing them with dates spanning 30 years. I am fascinated that he dared to play with time in this way! I rarely date my artwork, always circling – back? forward? – to the essence of particular places, ideas and things." She does not want to be pigeonholed by a time or artistic era.

Serendipity suffuses the paintings Marchesani has selected for her show at the Watson Gallery. She exults in what she calls "the element of oops" or the "irregularity within strict order" which determines the true beauty and identity of a piece. She says, "Watercolor has always been somewhat pure – line, brush, color, paper. Now materials blend: watercolor, metal leaf, caron d’ache, pencil, gouache. I tear away at the paper. Repetitive design becomes a Zen-like effort. ... I remember the women at the looms in Guatemala telling me that in order for spirit to enter and exit the fabric at will, the pattern must contain an imperfection."

It is difficult to discern any true imperfection in her paintings. Rather, one views brash, inventive gold metal leaf borders, pocked by the indentations of staples used in the process of drying precious, exquisite French paper. These borders serve to enclose as well as release the energy of lilies, lemon geraniums and various fruits selected for their lush, sensuous qualities. Marchesani is fascinated by the "extraordinary nature of ordinary things." Her connection to the natural world is a central theme in her paintings. She celebrates the bend of a leaf, the twist of a flower petal, the exuberance of lush foliage. In a "portrait" of a rangy spider plant she uses white the way Cezanne did. Patches of brilliant, uncolored paper add luminescence as well as unchannelled energy to a sharply focused subject. Beyond white, Marchesani favors colors ranging from subtle mauve, sharp blue-purple and crisp orange-tinted reds.

She enjoys playing with materials while keeping the essence of the transparency, glazing water colors to achieve saturation and then stepping back, sometimes with the thought that less is more, often with the thought that she can always return to a piece. The process is circular and constantly self-renewing. In discussing her technique for her current work, Marchesani says: "I went to this folder in the corner [of her studio], pulled out a picture, went back into it, reworked it, and then it became more of a multi-media event. I started to really lay on some gouache pretty thickly, caron d’ache, pencil ... then I went in and added some gold metal leaf, reminiscent of icon art. I took one painting and started tearing away at one part of it, then went at the edges. I thought, what’s going on here? I’m allowing my pieces to have history and age."

Her training in Tai Chi Chuan, the study of meditation and action is brought to bear in her artwork. In her mind the essence (chi) of each subject is there in a good painting regardless of what it is, how she did it, or what media used. The making and viewing of art is a restorative process. When you visit Abbi Marchesani’s show, expect to be entranced by vivid images, expansive gesture and subtle line. Expect, also, to be surprised and shaken up by new interpretations of timeless subjects and fresh manifestations of familiar images. This exquisite work shares space with white line prints by Joseph Vorgity and abstract oils by Andre Van der Wende at Robyn Watson Gallery, 432 Commercial St., Provincetown, (508) 487-3511.