Annette Marsland has done a difficult thing: In her suite of prints, Straightening the Tower, focusing on one of architecture’s most iconic buildings, she has successfully appropriated images from art history and popular culture, and interwoven high-art theory with European civic history to create a body of work both serious and playful. A few of these etchings are a little labored, but most of them make their allusions without being snooty, and gently mock their subjects without being cruel.
One group in the series of prints looks at how other artists might have set about straightening up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. This marvelous confection–actually the freestanding bell tower for the Pisan cathedral– began to lean shortly after it was begun in 1173, and some of the greatest engineering minds of several centuries have studied it. Various attempts have been made to return it to verticality, but it continued to angle its way toward the ground. In 1990, the tower became so unstable–it leaned 15 feet away from true vertical–that it had to be closed to the public, and heroic measures recommended by an international team were undertaken to encourage the tower to lean back the other way. These measures appear to have worked, at least for the time being–the tower reopened in June. Marsland, in designing the imaginary work of other artists, had no need to understand soil mechanics, or loads and stresses, or to be pragmatic at all in her engineering solutions, and some of her “solutions” are laugh-out-loud amusing.
“Oldenburg Straightens the Tower” morphs the elegant arcaded column into one of Claes Oldenburg’s gigantic clothespins. It’s quite startling to see how similar the proportions of the sculpture and the building are. Mechanical sculptor Jean Tinguely was famous for his irreverent constructions, and in “Jean Tinguely Straightens the Tower,” the tower itself is almost obscured by fantastical scribbles in primary colors. Marsland imagines Louise Nevelson, on the other hand, in her most severe mode: She has the tower clamped firmly into a complicated device with an angle calibrator attached. Da Vinci fills the tower with an ingenious mechanism, tantalizingly visible through the tower’s windows. Two of this group of prints are less than satisfactory however: Botticelli’s angels appear more likely to blow the tower over than to straighten it; and we do not need any more pictures making use of images from Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling.
For local gallery-goers, the funniest of Marsland’s prints may be “Nancy Baker Straightens the Tower.” Marsland has made an etching that looks just like a miniature of one of Baker’s computer-manipulated images. It shows the Tower, with the Field of Miracles littered with allusive, decontextualized figures from other paintings, and if it were any more saturated with color, it would drip. Baker’s trademark elf/Gumby/devil figures appear, of course. One hovers in the air like Tinkerbell, and it is not clear whether she’ll make the tower stand up and behave, or cause it to fall down just for the pure hellish pleasure of it.
Another group in the series imagines the Tower as a sentient being. Marsland notes in her wall text that “the Tower stands silent, serene, enduring the politics and thrusts of many committees throughout the centuries. Its silence tells us nothing, not even the name of the architect. Historically, what has it observed?” For these pictures, Marsland uses the Tower as a base for imagery illustrating fragments of Pisan history. There’s the mournful wreckage of ships in “The Battle of Meloria 1284”–the decisive battle that gave Genoa naval dominance over Pisa. There’s a glowing skull symbolizing the thousands who died in the terrible plague year of 1348. In another piece Marsland distorts the Tower into an illustration of the Golden Mean of Pisan mathematician Fibonacci. And here’s the Tower overlaid with both fragments of the ancient fresco from the nearby cemetery, and with some of the antic figures Keith Haring painted on his visit to Pisa in the 1980s.
The image of the Leaning Tower of Pisa is so well-known that it has become a cliché, but in actuality it is a beautiful, wondrous achievement. Marsland’s own achievement is to have, through her playful repetition of an image already too often repeated, removed from it the pall of triteness, so that we may enjoy it again.
Marsland’s is only one of the four shows at the Art Guild. Also of note is a group of wood sculptures by Andrew Fullwood. Fullwood hasn’t completely settled into a style yet, but he is clearly interested in life forms–human, animal and plant. Everything is covered here, from an entwined couple in “Embrace,” to a very large and fully detailed “Crustacean,” to the inner workings of flowers in “Pollinate.” Some of the pieces are more abstract, and in the best of these Fullwood shows a sympathetic awareness of the hidden forms waiting within the logs he carves. The most graceful one here is “Living Totem,” a pale, hollow maple trunk rising to a tusk-like point and studded with a decorative ridge of smaller tusks in dark padauk wood. Fullwood has the potential to be a very rewarding sculptor when he settles into a mature style.