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MMOCA explores Claire Stigliani’s complexities

Look behind Claire Stigliani's colored pencil drawings and you'll find a most complex process at work.

More of those complexities than ever before can be seen at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, where the new exhibition Half-Sick of Shadows will present new drawings and paintings by Stigliani alongside video and miniaturized sets used to help create those works. The show opens May 28.

Stigliani’s colored pencil sketches depict images and characteristics of the artist herself and elements of her world, with fantastical embellishments.

“My drawings, paintings, puppet theatres and videos tell stories about wide-eyed women who transgress and draw parallels between these fictional women and the artist’s own experience of indulging in fantasy,” says Stigliani, who received her MFA from UW-Madison in 2010 and has exhibited work in the state frequently since. “Like the fictional women, the artist begins her journey alone, unashamed and full of wonder.”

Stigliani began her own artistic journey while still a youth, thanks largely to the failure of two Eastern European countries’ currencies to cooperate.

Stigliani was born in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1983, but spent many of her early childhood years in Vienna with her parents. Her father’s business travels back and forth to what is now the Czech Republic went smoothly with one small exception. Her father was required to convert his Austrian currency for Czech korunas when he crossed the border, but was unable to convert the Czech currency back upon return, which meant he had to spend all his converted cash before he came home.

“He once brought this beautiful Czech puppet theater with painted backdrops and puppets to tell the stories,” Stigliani says. The miniature theater became integral to staging the scenes and telling the stories that eventually comprised her paintings.

Today, Stigliani creates her own puppet theater “sets” from which her subsequent art evolves. In order to focus her thoughts for a sketch or series of sketches, Stigliani first makes a miniature set of whatever the context is for her work, along with puppets to populate that set. The set could represent a fantasy setting, or even her own cluttered apartment depending on the images she wants to create.

Stigliani then acts out the story behind the prospective painting on the set with her puppets, taking videos of the impromptu play. It is from the frames of the video that the artist then begins to create her drawings, careful to capture the action as much as possible in the drawings while recreating the complex details of the sets themselves.

The European fairy tales Stigliani learned in Austria also became a profound influence on the artist’s life. In addition to the often brutal narratives, the role of women in these tales tended toward the damsel-in-distress model. As she grew older, Stigliani began questioning the docility and subservience of the women in these tales and started to see a sort cultural “bondage” under which the characters existed.

This imagery, too, crept into Stigliani’s art, and not necessarily in a good way. In fact, she compares herself to a visual Angela Carter, the English writer who exposed the violence inherent in fairy tales and their objectification of women.

“Women in fairy tales are pretty submissive, and the biggest problem seems to be the happily-ever-after aspect in which the princess is saved by the prince,” Stigliani says. “It teaches women to be competitive with each other because we all know there can only one be one princess and the rest of us are mere subjects.”

The very name of her exhibit, Half-Sick of Shadows, is a verse taken from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shallot,” which tells the story of a young woman trapped in a tower who can only weave and wait for Lancelot to rescue her. Unfortunately, the noble knight doesn’t show and the woman dies.

Such fantasies inform much of Stigliani’s work, which reinterprets society’s views of women, both past and present.

Stigliani does some work with paint and canvases, but always feels she needs to produce something “important” when she invests in those more expensive supplies. The paper-and-pencil drawings, she says, give her the freedom to fail.

“I am an artist that has a lot of failures,” she explains. “I make about 300 drawings per year and I had to figure out how not to be afraid while I was working.”

The MMOCA exhibit will include 15 paintings, 5 drawings, 5 miniature theater sets and 5 videos, giving viewers a broad spectrum of her artistic process.

Stigliani says all the imagery used refers back to her life, acting almost as a sort of personal therapy. The fact that she has constructed tiny sets modeled after her cluttered apartment indicates an ongoing effort to find ways to better handle her own challenges.

“All of my work is a way to better understand myself,” Stigliani says. “I know that my work has really helped shape me as a person, and I think it always has been that way.”

Half-Sick of Shadows, an exhibit of Claire Stigliani’s work, runs from May 28 through September 4 at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Arts, 227 State St., Madison. Stigliani herself will be on hand to discuss her art on June 3 from 6 to 9 p.m. as part of the exhibit’s opening festivities. Visit mmoca.org for more details.

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