by Erin Goodwin-Guerrero
The first US solo show of Argentine National Prize winning artists, Leo Chiachio and Daniel Giannone is currently on exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles. Their works range from altar-like installations to richly embroidered autobiographical and legendary narratives to small, embroidered domestic objects such as tea towels. The imagery shows the artists themselves, often with Piolín – their dachshund – as role players in biblical tales, international cultural rituals and folk practices, and as protagonists in contemporary political dialectics. Often, as inInquietante Escena (Exciting Scene), it is all mixed together in a scene with elaborate costuming from Japanese Kabuki theatre, the lush color and textural qualities of embroidery, and the comical insertion of two Westerners and a dachshund. On other occasions the message can become sparse, clearly satirical and a bit angry, as in Sebastianos, (The Saints Sebastian). Mostly, the mood of their adventures is one of tenderness and love as seen in Marineritos (The Young Sailors), still at sea, their future as full of possibilities as the great night sky above them.
Chiachio and Giannone are domestic partners in an open relationship that is characteristically full of good humor, a devotion to Piolín, and routine daily work on their labor-intensive collaborative embroidery projects. Like most kids who went to Catholic school in Latin America, Chiachio and Giannone were introduced to embroidery by nuns. When they met at a cocktail party ten years ago, Leo was already having fun with the embroidery of portraits of porn stars from Honcho Magazine onto the exterior of mens business suits. It was at the height of the Argentine financial crisis. Paint, canvas and other typical art supplies were scarce and prohibitively expensive. Daniel had been working in prints, but their romance blossomed and they began to embroider together. Since then, they have established the rules of their personal relationship and a professional art partnership. Two of them are “never work when you are angry,” and “go to work every day.” Their work has caught on internationally, taking them to other Latin American countries where embroidery is a part of the colonial heritage but has also become entrenched in local tribal handcrafts and identities, (In Bolivia most of the embroidery is done by men!), as well as to Europe and the USA.
A recent work, El Nascimiento, (The Birth), is a complex image with themes of camouflage and discovery, which on one level may explore a process of self-discovery and “coming out.” On a fabric of military camouflage, a scene emerges with Chiachio and Giannone, also camouflaged in the ceremonially painted faces of native South American tribal traditions, wading amongst water lilies in the river. Like the parting of reeds to find the baby Moses in a basket, they have discovered Piolín floating on a native raft. The surrounding water, exotic flowers, colorful tropical birds (in a style learned from native textile embroiderers of Guatemala), and the arrival of a prophet signal a washing clean and new beginning in the context of nature or what isnatural. Chachio and Gianone develop the same theme inPombero Pomberito,Yaguaret, a large tapestry not in this show. Here Piolín appears as a guide, leading the jungle travelers to a mystical water source. In spite of the tragic history of colonialism, the Jesuit missions in the Guarani areas and the ultimate decimation of hundreds of thousands of natives, it is an entertaining adventure story, presented in a humorous and more primitive style. Shifting styles, juxtaposition of styles within one work — all appear to be a strategic postmodern challenge to art world values. Fawning over our pets and elevating them to supernatural status is likewise considered too sentimental and corny. Still those of us with pets know that they dictate a great deal to us, teach us and tame us, as opposed to the reverse. In a 2007 interview, published at the time of their exhibitionDesborde de Alegria (Overflowing with Happiness) at La Recoleta in Buenos Aires, Piolín’s adventures in real life are recalled: He reclines his head tenderly and respectfully on their embroidery while they work; he entertains guests by pulling out myriad unrecognizable dog toys that had been touted as indestructible; he has play dates with other dogs and attempts to mount a large German Shepard bitch. Piolín is curiosity, ego, unrestrained energy and sexual drive. He is the trickster of the domestic life of Leo Chiachio and Daniel Giannone. He is Pombero, the Guarani god of mischief.
An installation at the entrance to the San Jose exhibition isPiolín y Sus Jugetes, Piolin and His Toys. A larger than life-sized, relief portrait of Piolín reveals him surrounded by dozens of stuffed dog toys, in this case donated by volunteers at the Museum if Quilts and Textiles. This piece is a small representation of the collection of MUPI (Museum of Piolín), included in the 2007, Desborde de Alegria. Over 120 friends/prominent artists of Buenos Aires, have donated works to the museum that honors Piolín, and support its purpose to“represent humanity at its best, in its capacity to reinvent itself in the face of apparent impossibilities…to create spaces for people to be as they are, to resist barricades….to resist the impermanent fashions of consumerism, to live an aesthetic life…through and in the example of Piolín.” One of the wonderful works in this collection is a video that runs about twenty minutes with very subtle action, as Piolín is sleeping in his bed against a white field throughout. At the end he awakens.
It is interesting to contemplate the difference between the English word pet, and the Spanish mascota. In the Anglo world we like to stroke and pamper our domesticated animals but we tend to dismiss the notion that they are symbolic or serve as mascots for our persona, contests to see who most resembles their dog notwithstanding. Yet the work of Chiachio and Giannone is indeed about dressing up as different characters, trial identities and acting out roles that embody dramatic male/female dichotomies. Piolín is the good luck charm, duende and pilot that models the incarnation between primal, instinctive nature and domesticated refinement, and as such he serves the purpose of the implications of the mascot in English.
The largest installation in the show is the Brujas Protectoras (Protective Witches), in which Chiachio and Gianone appear in kimonos as mythical witches of the waterfall, (again, the Kabuki actors are males playing both male and female roles), shielding the diminutive Piolín from the force of falling water with their own bodies. The foaming water surges out into the gallery in the form of blue through white pom poms floating in the air and cascading to the floor of the gallery. The amount of surface that is embroidered on a work of this scale is daunting alone. “Did they make all those pom poms or can they be purchased commercially?” I ask. Answer: “For this kind of project you have a party with friends along with good food and libations and churn them out.” I think of quilting bees and other traditional women’s work/social activities, and the generally gender-restricted associations with embroidery. Of course, this challenge to gender roles is part of the point. But there is an uber-narrative, the larger point. The witches – socially reviled and probably feared for their exceptional powers – are inherently good and sacrificing for their unconventional family.
The work of Chiachio and Giannone is love, domestic pleasure, adventure and resistance. Their performances and layered narratives are journeys into possibilities, and morality tales. Their art will not be confined to a predetermined life and one style. There is always playful and good-natured poking at social mores and political restrictions. This may be the appropriate place to acknowledge that Argentina is one of a handful of countries that recognizes gay marriage.
The intriguing embroideries of Leo Chiachio and Daniel Giannone can be seen at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles in downtown San Jose up to May 1, 2011.