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Heaven, Hell, And What Lies Between

Susan Rand Brown | September 8th, 2021

Heaven, Hell, And What Lies Between

Hartford  |  Arts & Culture  |  Visual Arts  |  Real Art Ways

Maybe Here_ 72

Lydia Viscardi, Maybe Here. Photos Courtesy of the Artist. 

On a recent afternoon, a couple entered the main gallery at Real Art Ways, drawn to 11 pieces of art in a white-walled room. They stopped before an almost six-foot multimedia painting and collage titled Maybe Here, pointing to variegated shapes and mysterious, story-telling symbols. Sitting on a palm tree was a collaged fiddle-player with a red bandanna, bow pointing upwards. Pairs of cutouts, including girls in flouncy dresses, hurried through shrubbery resembling household plants on steroids.

That’s the way it is with artwork by Lydia Viscardi. The more you find, the deeper you want to look.

Her work is currently on display at Real Art Ways in Then the Morning Comes, curated by David Borowski and running at the Hartford gallery and creative space through Oct. 29. More information on the exhibition is available here.

Her exhibition is divided into two series. Here and Hereafter, the larger of the two, alludes to Medieval altarpieces, 17th-century vanitas paintings with their symbols of human mortality, such as hourglasses and skulls, and the contemporary triptych, where three side-by-side images reference one another.

Starting from the top and reading vertically, pieces in Here and Hereafter begin with imaginary views of heaven. Then comes the middle space, referencing earth and animated with complex imagery from various sources. The lowest level represents hell. Viscardi juggles dueling visions of what the afterlife might feel or look like. What do her symbols mean? Which realm has the upper hand? Viewers get to decide.

Viscardi described her parochial schooling as well as years of visits to museums and cathedrals as instilling images of the afterlife.

“My beliefs have evolved beyond my early religious indoctrination, but the imagined euphoria of heaven and the torments of hell remain indelibly lodged in my psyche,” she said, speaking from her studio in Newtown, Conn.

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Lydia Viscardi, Till Hell Freezes Over. Photos Courtesy of the Artist. 

Each unique artwork is a tribute to this artist’s imagination, and also to her studio practice. Viscardi will dedicate as much time as she needs to to complete each piece, working by hand and using objects such as papers, fabrics, textiles, collaged elements that include photographic imagery, and acrylic paints.

In addition to advanced degrees in art and years teaching in the field—she has taught studio art at Quinnipiac University and Housatonic Community College—formative inspiration and instruction also came from the women she grew up with.

Her mother was a cartographer and worked for a custom hatmaker in Manhattan before becoming a homemaker, avid knitter, and rug hooker. Her French grandmother, who lived with her, was a seamstress and made custom corsets. Her great aunt did tailoring for special clients.

“I was exposed to couture stitchery at a very young age,” Viscardi said.

Her father was also an influence. “You’ll have to imagine this muscular Italian man, who traveled a lot for his occupation, and would have a needlepoint with him on the plane,” Viscardi said with a laugh. “When my parents traveled, they would bring back textiles and hand-carved toys. I was exposed to all this tactile stuff made by people’s hands,” including folk art.

That influence is apparent in pieces such as Till Hell Freezes Over, whose center image begins with a handcrafted textile. Originally, the textile promoted Avon products, which would have come with embroidery thread (most of the stitching was done when Viscardi found it). The vintage kit was called Winter in the Country.

Inspired to transform this kitschy ready-made, Viscardi added collaged elements of her own. These include a seated lady carrying a rifle, a woman warming her feet by a fire, and airplanes leading the eye to a circle of skaters. The piece suggests viewers' own endless repetition, similar to a circular wheel associated with caged hamsters.

“I like the highbrow and the lowbrow mixed together,” she said.

In the piece, heaven is represented by a rainbow-colored star. Originally part of a Chinese checker game, it seems to pop three dimensionally, radiating around a central cloud shape cut from a keep-sake wedding dress box.

Winged angels holding flowers complete the idea of a wedding scene, linked to the gold cloud which reads “Your happiness forever.” Viscardi leaves it to viewers to ponder the message. For the lowest level, she cut aluminum sheets into small tiles and attached them to the wood panel. Red and yellow flames signal hell-fires.

“There’s so much control, yet a lot of serendipity,” Viscardi said of this almost seven-foot piece. “I like working small, but a larger piece commands your attention.”

Let Go And Let Be

Lydia Viscardi, Let Go And Let Be. Photos Courtesy of the Artist. 

The series Trial and Ruse begins with discarded photographic images used in auto accident trials. Viscardi drew old-fashioned lace doilies in white and layered these over the photographs, referencing innocence as well as her own family heritage, of hand-crafted stitchery and needlepoint.

“I use car crashes to embody tribulation, or any painful past or present event embedded in the psyche,” Viscardi wrote in her artist's statement. “The photos are altered with ink, paint, drawing medium, collage, and carved lines to make the original image more obscure but never fully obliterated, much the way emotional wounds heal but the scars remain buried below the surface.”

“How do people survive after experiencing catastrophe,” she asked. At this time in world and national history, the question gains additional power and gives her artwork the patina of prophecy. 

Lydia Viscardi’s Then the Morning Comes, curated by David Borawski, runs through October 29, at Real Art Ways in Hartford. The space is located at 56 Arbor St. in Hartford. Its programs include visual arts, public art projects and artistic presentations; cinema; music performance; and literary events. Find out more at its website.