Harbor of Alchemy:
Juanita Guccione at the Weinstein Gallery in the City of Fog
By Giorgia Pavlidou
I’m a climate hypochondriac. It’s the heat that drives me crazy. To escape the scorching hot summer of Los Angeles, I decided last July (2021) to spend some days in definitely much cooler San Francisco, the city of fog. Obviously, I wouldn’t be sitting in double-decker busses, tasting wine in Napa valley or exploring Alcatraz. Nothing wrong with all that, but it’s not my thing. Addicted to frequenting contemporary and modern art museums, I had planned to explore the American Abstraction exhibit at the MoMa. In spite of declaring myself a surrealist, I constantly have extramarital affairs with other traditions, in particular with Abstract Expressionism (think Grace Hartigan, Adolph Gottlieb, Jay DeFeo and William Baziotes) and other forms of abstract art (think V. Kandinsky, H.F. Klint, Agnes Martin and Elisworth Kelly). Coming back to my SF trip, I also wanted to hang out at City Lights bookstore, circumambulate the North Beach sanctuaries of Bob Kaufman such as the Vesuvio and Caffe Trieste, and stare at the apartment where Philip Lamantia lived and died. Yes, all that happened.
Pictures of the Weinstein Gallery :
Additionally, being a landmark of surrealist painting, exploring the Weinstein gallery was also on my bucket list. I have to admit that art galleries intimidate me. However much I’d love to buy paintings of, let’s say, Leonor Fini or Kay Sage, though not exactly poor, I do live from paycheck to paycheck. So, I emailed the Weinstein first and explained that I’m a practitioner and not a buyer, but nevertheless interested in seeing, in particular, the paintings of women surrealists. To my surprise their reaction was positive and inviting, and thus I gave in to doing the most un-American thing imaginable: walk there. Being a natural-born flâneuse but sadly living in car country (Southern California), I was greatly looking forward to strolling around the city. I had been to San Francisco before, and, of course, I remembered very well the many homeless. Was it all “in my head,” as they say or was it due to the pandemic, I’m not sure, but I have to admit that seeing decrepit human beings stumbling about all the way through Mission and Market shook me up a bit. I have lived in India for three years and saw abject poverty from close by, so I’m not that easily shocked – but I wasn’t mentally prepared to see it, I think, in what’s supposedly a first world country. I wouldn’t be mentioning this if I hadn’t had to pass Market and confront the whereabouts of its Hades-like inhabitants to reach the Weinstein.
When I had finally reached Clementina street, a young gentleman, Simon, Weinstein’s logistics director, opened the door. I couldn’t have imagined that behind a modest façade with no sign or billboard, a gorgeous and spacious loft-like gallery would pop up. Kendy Genovese, Weinstein’s curator and director, had told me that such marvelous poets as Will Alexander, Garrett Caples and Andrew Joron had all read in this space.
Pictures of Juanita’s pictures taken at the Weinstein gallery:
Simon knew I was interested in the women of Surrealism and went over and beyond to walk me through hundreds and hundreds of paintings pulling them in and out of a multitude of shelves. He first showed me Leonor Fini’s daring and sensual work and disclosed that some of her paintings could easily go up into the six digits. I felt deeply honored to appreciate other splendid works by Varo, Carrington and Snead. However impressed I felt by those, the radically gynocentric works of Juanita Guccione with its depiction of powerful women and otherworldly landscapes seized my attention. I have to admit that at the time I knew of Guccione only by name. Kendy later graciously sent me a book the Weinstein did on her. What follows is a fusion of my impressions of Guccione’s paintings at the Weinstein itself, and what I learned about her character and trajectory reading the elegantly curated publication.
Interestingly, Juanita Guccione wasn’t born Juanita but Anita Rice in Chelsea, Massachusetts and changed name not once but twice. In her early adulthood she studied painting in New York City, and instead of sojourning in Europe as so many American artists (women as well) of the 1930’s often did, she lived for a few years with the tribal Ouled Naïl people in Eastern Algeria. The Ouled Naïl are a gynocentric semi-nomadic people. It was evident from the many paintings I was privileged to admire at the Weinstein that these Algerian years had profoundly shaped Guccione’s worldview and painting practice. Because, however, so many critics and admirers have already given her non-orientalist depictions of the Algerian scenery ample attention, I will focus on Guccione’s depictions of women, and what appears to me to be the (metonymic) intertwinement of body and landscape in her Partos paintings. I think questions regarding gender and the relationship postmodern humans have with their umwelt or landscape are particularly relevant at this juncture in time.
Concerning the former, the 1946-painting Masquerade is an interesting point of departure. In the first essay in Guccione’s book, Otherwhere, Orenstein describes the four women characters of the painting as “Amazons.” What immediately strikes me here is that the real-life photos of Guccione herself don’t at all show an Amazonian woman. On the contrary, using contemporary urban lingo, Guccione looks rather “femme.” I wonder in this context, should we take the meaning of the broad-shouldered, muscled and tall Masquerade ladies literally? Or are Masquerade’s rather androgynous women to be understood symbolically? Like Leonora Carrington, I think it’s safe to assume that Guccione was an esoteric feminist. Both Carrington and Guccione painted a radically gynocentric and spiritual world. When observing their works, you’ll immediately notice the scarcity of male characters. This is fascinating, especially for me as a woman artist. I too paint mainly female or androgynous characters, and often I wonder why I rarely paint males. This brings me to the question: if “woman” traditionally has been the male artists’ muse, then why isn’t “man” (heterosexual) women artists’ muse in return? I’ll try to touch upon this question later on.
First I’d like to return to the esoteric dimension of Guccione’s work. In this context, Algerian ambassador to the US, Mr. Idriss Jazairy, uses compelling language to speak about this dimension. He calls Juanita’s paintings “Sufism-on-the-canvas.” I’m not familiar with the nuts and bolts (or even the basics) of Sufism, but perhaps it’s sufficient to note that Mr. Jazairy experiences Guccione’s work as intrinsically mystical. I didn’t encounter, however, in Otherwhere’s essays that Guccione had been particularly religious during her lifetime. Like many of her contemporaries, she had, though, a strong and sustained interest in various esoteric traditions. My hunch is that Guccione’s so-called Sufism-on-the-canvas has more to do with inner transformation in the Jungian sense, rather than with religiosity per se. There are other female artists that speak about how their practice influences the ebb and flow of their inner life. Second-generation Abstract Expressionist Grace Hartigan, for instance, relates in her private journals that by painting she tried to make sense of the chaos of the outside world. Painting here becomes inner alchemy and the outer world the alchemist’s massa confusa. Ithel Colquhoun is another surrealist woman artist and contemporary to Guccione and Carrington who engaged with alchemical themes and practices. Did these women artists, since they were all surrealists of a certain era and worldview, fall prey to what we would now call a fad: alchemy as fashion? Or is there something else going on here, something more profound? Since this isn’t an academic essay, I’m allowing myself to associate freely:
Circling back to the initial question of muse in the case of women, my intuition is that the alchemical qualities of Guccione’s paintings are related to how women artists approach and try to massage their internalized concept of woman as muse. Take for instance the work of contemporary US sculptor Alison Saar. She creates impressive life-sized sculptures of powerful African-American women. These, by the way, look uncannily similar to Guccione’s women. How I see it is that artists like Guccione, while painting, engage simultaneously in a process of re-authoring the inner body. In that context, calling her paintings “Alchemy-on-canvas” is perhaps more a propos? Even such macho painters as Bill De Kooning admitted that the painter’s inner world is the only reality one can change.
Interestingly, Guccione’s so-called Amazons look rather hermaphroditic. This is another important aspect of alchemy: the fusion of opposites, in particular male and female. While typing up this essay, I wonder if these Amazons truly are women or are they, perhaps, something else altogether: not male nor female but third? If these painted figures are indeed alchemical hermaphroditic characters, symbols rather than depictions, then Guccione goes even a step further. She enters the field of what Tabitha Morgan in her Otherwhere essay calls Posthuman feminism. Guccione transgresses gender altogether by molding and bringing to life a utopian posthuman character for which gender or sex plays little or no role.
Having reached the topic of utopia, perhaps now is a good moment to shift to the Partos paintings. Guccione left no records or journals about what this series meant to her, though we observe in these a fully abstract and androgynous world. Here the humanoid figures, interestingly and tellingly, aren’t more foregrounded than their setting. They seem to be woven into their overall environment. In Four gods, the characters appear to be engaged in producing religious or esoteric circle-like symbols. Perhaps, as Partos means delivery or birthing, are these beings “bearing” symbols? Guccione named these characters “gods.” I wonder if we may assume that another alchemical operation is taking place in this series: the fusion of the divine and the human similar to how, for instance, George Bataille talks about the soul being the place where humans and god meet. Also, is it a coincidence that one of her most well known and evocative paintings of the Partos series is titled Harbor of Alchemy (1973)?
Its shapes, humanlike or otherwise, are minimalist: no more than hazy silhouettes. In Harbor of Alchemy one seems to be completely liberated from identity markers or cultural oppressors. Here Guccione, I think, realizes a shift from utopian to mythological. In Partos Guccione is not only counter-charming the debilitating spells of gender, but also reinvents the body as interwoven with its environment: body becomes environment and vice versa. The figures aren’t passengers in a meaningless void or subjects that happen to dwell in a functionalist environment, but, as in many aboriginal worldviews, they are a metonymy to their physical life-world. In Partos, I’m experiencing metonymy in its fullest sense: the body is becoming (again) a pars pro toto extension of the natural world and not separated from it.
link to the weinstein gallery’s section of Juanita:
Continuing my Freudian-style free-associating, could it be that by reweaving the human body back into its rightful place as part of a whole and not isolated, Guccione’s journey of initiation as an artist-alchemist is coming to full fruition? Echoing Joseph Campbell, what else can the task of the alchemist, urban shaman, poet, artist or psychotherapist be in postmodernity other than assisting individuals in their voyage to completion? Edward Munch speaks in that respect that he wished his paintings would guide people in their quest for sanity. Even uberfamous Keith Haring talked about drawing as being a (sacred) way of connecting humanity to the world.
To conclude, as a painter, writer and former clinical psychotherapist, and while making a sustained effort not to sound syrupy, I think I can say that wellbeing and health cannot be achieved without connection. In Bantu cosmology, for instance, the individual is seen as a “knot,” the meeting point of the social, the body-mind and the life-world. Since antiquity, Western cosmologies have pursued anthropologies of separateness. In the Western worldview the environment is perceived as either functional or hostile and in need of domestication. Western cultures offer many great things but not a great many ways to connect to the natural environment. I think present day ecological devastation and massive extinction of species are symptoms of an impoverished and one-sided concept of the world. Ingenious artists such as Juanita Guccione have a deep innate understanding of the natural state of individuals as symbolically and conceptually embedded in their life-world. In this sense, Juanita’s ladies are restorative to the female mind and her work not only crafty and unique, but also medicinal. And, maybe, just maybe, if we’d listen more to such splendid and sensitive souls as Vincent Van Gogh, Antonin Artaud and Juanita, I wouldn’t have needed to escape the scourging hot Los Angeles summer.