Essay by Betty Brown, art writer, curator, and critic, Los Angeles, January 2015
In 1964, Arthur C. Danto proposed that something is a work of art if and only if it employs a “rhetorical ellipsis,” that is, a conceptual or visual gap, in order to project a point of view. The audience must fill that gap in order to complete the artworks’s meaning.
Grilli’s deft portrayals of figures in space employ two aesthetic devices to create such ellipses. The first is narrative. For example, her “Passages” is a long horizontal composition of people in an ambiguous interior. The viewer is not “told” precisely how many rooms are portrayed. Is it three, four, or more? Further, the viewer can’t be sure about the number of figures. Are there eight? Or are some of the “figures”–perhaps two of them–actually reflections in a mirror? The thickness of the atmosphere and heavy stillness of the rooms add to the mysterious tone. The viewer is invited to contemplate what it could all mean. Engaged by the conceptual challenge of the ellipses-riddled content, “Passages” is the kind of artwork that invites viewers to return again and again to grapple with the co-creation of aesthetic meaning.
The second aesthetic device has to do with technique. Grilli does not create smooth, photographic surfaces built on hyper-real detail in the manner of, say, J.A.D. Ingres. Instead, she builds expressive painterly textures by layering pigment with loaded brushes. Masketeers is oil on aluminum. The paint is loosely slathered over the metal surface like frosting. As with the narrative ellipses, the expressive brushstrokes demand close inspection. Sensual and seductive, the thickly encrusted strokes take on their own meaning rather than simply describing in an illustrative manner.
Early twenty-first century culture is dominated by realistic, photographically-based images on screens. As important and content-laden as our television and computer images may be, they rarely employ ellipses. As such, their meaning is given; they do not allow co-creation. Cynthia Grilli’s powerful and beautiful paintings offer important anecdotes to the fixed and frozen screen images of our digital culture.