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Natural Expressions

During 1941, artist Henri Matisse (1869 –1954) underwent a complicated surgery and spent the rest of his life, the period he named “a second life,” battling limited mobility, weakness, and old age, with inconceivable levels of energy that produced intellectually driven works of art. Matisse believed that he had reached a stage of renewal that allowed him to create bold and strong expressions. After the year 1948, Matisse was no longer able to paint, and confined to a bed and a wheel chair, he began to create “gouaches découpées,” by cutting or tearing shapes from paper painted with gouache (opaque water color,) while showing his assistants where to place and paste the colorful paper cut-outs. The young assistants remembered the rapid and precise manner in which Matisse had cut his colored paper. He worked for long hours, into the nights, and created large-scale, meticulous, collages of shapes and colors that moved beyond the canvas to engage in sculptural and conceptual dimensions. 
In 1953, Matisse completed “The Snail” (L’Escargot,) a large-scale work that in the 1960s had joined London’s Tate Gallery’s collection. In a letter to the Tate Gallery, Matisse’s secretary Mme Lydia Delectorskaya described the making of “The Snail”. She explained that the work was made in the Hôtel Régina in Nice, and the artist indicated to his assistant where and how to pin the colored pieces on a large background of white paper. After pinning, the piece was sent to Paris for final pasting, and the technique included a precise tracing to ensure that no changes were made in the composition, not even by one millimeter. Matisse's own daughter recalled that her father had made several drawings of snails at the time, and in the process, the idea for the work evolved. Matisse told his friend, writer and artist André Verdet: “I first of all drew the snail from nature, holding it. I became aware of an unrolling, I found an image in my mind purified of the shell, then I took the scissors”. (Quote is taken from the Tate Gallery website citing the book André Verdet, Prestiges de Matisse, Paris 1952, pp.64-5). In the abstract work, pairs of complementary colors—red and green, orange and blue, yellow and mauve—orchestrated a fantasy and in addition Matisse extended his picture the alternative title “The Chromatic Composition” (La Composition Chromatique).
In 2002, Chicago artist Sandra Binion (b. 1949) filmed video footage of a snail eating a leaf in Bellagio on Lake Como, Italy. She set the camera on a path, zoomed in, and captured the quiet beauty created inside the sensory kingdom of nature. A decade later, during the spring of 2012, in Tuscany, Binion employed her snail footage together with a canopy and an unmade bed for her one-person show entitled “Rough Beauty.” She named the video installation “Lumaca” (snail). The show was exhibited in La Fagiana, a guesthouse located in the historical palazzo in the village Tereglio, 1800 ft. above sea level in a wide valley between the Apennine mountains and the Apuan Alps. In a recent interview for Chicago Life Binion explained that the snail installation began as a comic idea, “to create a beautiful ‘nightmare’ for Massimo, the proprietor of the site, who had an aversion to snails that were eating his lettuce patch. The effect however was mesmerizing and captivated viewers. Everyone brought a different reading into the multi media work, particularly the relationship of the screened film of a slowly feeding snail, and the sculptural unmade bed…The use of the unmade bed was confirmed when the installation was presented for the second time in Miami. My two art friends, known as Guerra de la Paz, had insisted that I would keep the unmade bed as an essential element and a counterpoint to the snail projection. And for the third time, when I installed “Lumaca” for the present show at the Illinois State Museum Chicago Gallery, I was greatly assisted by artist and master draper Joel Klaff, and Lou Mallozzi, sound and technical designer.” (Sandra Binion, interview for Chicago Life, January 2014).
Currently on the second floor of Chicago’s Thompson Center, the Illinois State Museum Chicago Gallery is exhibiting “The Art of Description”, a group show that addresses how artists report the sensory phenomena of the world and evoke a sense of presence or atmosphere beyond information. The exhibition focuses on still life, landscape and portrait works, with an emphasis on the quiet meditation of its subjects. Participating Illinois artists include Sandra Binion, Peter Butterfield, Steven Carrelli, Richard Deutsch, Laura Letinsky, Tim Lowly, Michael Mahoney, Karen Perl, and Zach Sabin. The subject of exhibition was inspired by poet Mark Doty’s book titled “The Art of Description: World Into Word.” In his essay, exhibition curator Doug Stapelton writes: “Reading Doty brought to my mind visual artists whose works are centered in the palpable and tangible world… These artists have located a sustained pulse on the sensory world that startles our own inner witness into a strange and new familiarity with the clamoring world.” The exhibition runs through March 21, 2014.

Published: February 22, 2014
Issue: Winter 2014 Issue