Man-made mountains, ancient ruins buried in the desert sands, proto-pyramid structures that once dominated the valleys between two great rivers that gave birth to modern civilization, Mesopotamia, or what is now modern day Iraq, The ziggurat, has been a lingering archetypal structure that has been a recurring motif in Roberto Chabet’s expansive body of work made manifest in various forms.
The eponymous exhibit features a new series of ziggurat paintings beside early collages ‘excavated’ from the 70s to the 80s based on the prototypical terraced configuration The contrast provides a chronological overlay from which to behold the earlier works that have acquired a patina of nuances and a sedimentation of contemporary rereading as the work and its components become relics and artifacts in themselves.
Chabet’s lexicon of imagery is a semiotic mother lode where we intuit clues and shards of meanings from the materials and images in this fragmented visual diary- tacked or taped or glued bits of paper and assorted two dimensional planes; a reproduction of Botticelli’s La Prima Vera; a Southern mob lynching ; a Grecian colonnade; Muybridge’s anatomical studies of the running man; a Paleolithic fertility figurine. Dover press paper dolls; torn bits of chipboard party masks strewn like flotsam, a magic slate; torn book pages; an assortment of browning airmail envelopes, and postcards arrayed like long lost scrolls and disintegrating scriptures. These objects seem on the verge of vanishing, steeped in longing, melancholia and nostalgia
The King Kong collages manifest the artist’s lifelong fascination with and immersion in cinema. An avowed movie fan more than a detached critic. the visceral allure of the grotesque hero/villain to a child of the 30s is absolute. The archetypal tale of beauty and the beast; of a primitive god taken forcibly from his realm, to become a mere captive to satiate twentieth century curiosity and fascination for the exotic ‘other’ is mythic in resonance- culminating in iconic primal scene at the top of the Empire state; the ultimate Id unleashed atop the new world ziggurat.
The mutation of meaning is quietly elucidated in one poignant detail of the collage where a picture of a Tasaday child suspended on a forest liana swings in idyllic bliss- a calm portrait of the noble savage before the fall from innocence and the inevitable exile from Eden. From being the greatest, most celebrated anthropological discovery in the latter half of the century to a glaring expose of an attempt to recreate a mythic gentle past, a complicated lie, buried beneath an elaborate hoax reduced to an embarrassing footnote conveniently swept under a carpet of convenient collective amnesia.
In the new series of ziggurat paintings the the narrative aspect is surrendered for more retinal, visually contemplative compositions. The elements are reduced to their primary functions and the tiered platforms like periodic table charts randomly sequenced in red, yellow, blue and black and white glow like LEGO bricks and cater to our atavistic desires.
The ziggurat is the archaeological basis for the tower of Babel a biblical cautionary tale of hubris, anthropocentric pride and arrogance that comes before the fall. A similar vein may be traced in the myth of Icarus and the star of Lucifer and even of the original sin. Only here heavenly aspiration is equated with the devising of a singular language as the platform and as the brute weapon of choice to puncture the celestial divide and endow man with god-like status.
But the leveling factor, be it with Icarus or Kong or the swinging Tasaday child or strange fruit, or even the foundations of a mighty tower, is gravity. Such is the dilemma of art, the rudiments of language always fall short and the stratification of meaning caves in on itself- beautiful yet flawed symbols inevitably lost in translation. These works precariously operate somewhere within these linguistic gaps- in that split second tip-of -the-tongue moment before recognition, or perhaps even enlightenment