Ellen Burchenal: Sorrento Again at MICA by Cara Ober

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Studio Visit with Alyssa Dennis by Matthew Kern

MICA Faculty Ellen Burchenal serves as coordinator of the Sorrento, Italy Summer program and has spent the last seventeen summers on the Bay of Naples. According to Burchenal, “I experience the extravagance of baby blue and gold ballrooms, pink sports newspapers, giant lemons, Pompeian floor mosiacs, the Neapolitan language, and an active volcano. All of this is very real in southern Italy – the comedy/tragedy, the illusion, and the violence of unseen forces. It is this hilarity of form, the illusion of it, and the forces that act upon it that interest me.”

Most of the exhibit in MICA’s Bunting Center Pinkard Gallery consists of Burchenal’s Hotel Drawings, a series of large and small prints featuring bold colors and patterns. The Hotel Drawings examine the role of decorative framing elements, sketched from elaborate mirrors and Italian architectural ornaments, and transform them into iconic fetishes. The frames, rendered in a cartoony black line, are paired with decorative wallpaper patterns and reverse the usual relationship between background and foreground, leaving the frames empty except for the designs. Like the wonky and over-embellished Italian pensiones they reference, the prints are charming and oddly clever, but could benefit from a deeper thought or message. Or, perhaps, the larger ones are just too big?

In contrast, Burchenal’s small column of vertical pattern paintings and site specific installation in clumpy charcoal dust come off as more solid and less cute. The exhibit also includes The Volcano Lover drawing series, which are sparing in their use of black and red on white background, and feature mysterious symbols and loose, expressive drawing. These drawings are my favorite of the show. They manage to address the odd binaries inherent in southern Italian life, simultaneously passionate and restrained, silly and tragic.

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