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Arts Drip ... drip ... drip ...

September 3, 2018

A trio of pieces Joseph Fucigna recently prepared for a solo show at the Housatonic Museum of Art ought to come with a spoiler alert label.

Door-sized panels, they look to be pure fields of color painted in some sort of very thick acrylic so shiny it looks polished. In fact, the material is unadulterated silicone putty, the kind that comes color-coded for hand-therapy exercise or is used for play as Silly Putty.

As much a surprise as the putty paint may be, the bigger one — imperceptible to anyone who doesn’t spend time watching them — is that the pieces are moving very, very slowly. They aren’t mobiles, though. They drip-like cave stalactites. The only visible hint of their fluidity is hanging threads of putty that puddle on plates below the panels.

Fucigna says the panels could be described as low-relief sculptures or paintings that continuously change. In either case, he created them as a site specific installation, one with an uncertain half-life, depending on the rate of putty drip.

A long time art professor at Norwalk Community College who lives in Weston, Fucigna discovered the viscous properties of the putty several years ago after his wife, Barbara, brought some home from a physical therapy session.

“I remember the moment,” he says. “I’m sitting at the kitchen counter, kind of fiddling with it and watching the way it moves. So I go on line and buy some and start to play with it and I would stick it on the wall and let it drip. And I would photograph it and also draw what it was doing. But it was constantly moving.”

Eventually, he began to make paintings (static ones, in acrylic) based on the drawings. Then just this year came the puttied panels. A few of his putty inspired paintings, which have titles like “Pink Lime Green Drip” and “Blue Gray Drip,” also were to be included in the Housatonic exhibit that had to be cancelled just before opening because of water damage to the gallery from a sprinkler system.

Robbin Zella, the museum’s executive director, originally proposed it as a retrospective, one considered so important that a catalog was produced with a career reviewing essay by Richard Klein of the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art.

Klein wrote that Fucigna’s putty works “enact the pull of gravity” and are unique in the sense that they are a “slow-motion performance,” as opposed to works by earlier artists who employed drip. The difference is their drips ended as soon as the material they used hardened.

Much of Klein’s essay is devoted to a series of large colorful sculptures that Fucigna fashioned over the years from various kinds of fencing - thin chicken wire, heavy gauge construction wire and plastic barrier wire - that is flexible enough to create an illusion of fluidity.

From a distance, most look like solid abstract forms that on closer inspection reveal layer upon layer of wiring. To peer inside is like looking into a briar patch. Some suggest recognizable shapes, depending on the viewer. Told one his piece titled “Black + Blue” from 2014 looks vaguely like a rabbit hunched on hind legs, Fucigna shrugs as if to say maybe.

One of the largest pieces, the almost six feet tall and five feet wide “Yellow Black and White Drip” from 2017, descends from a gray serrated top to a yellow ballooning base. Fucigna says he’s often been told the top looks like a city skyline. In his essay, Klein describes the piece as a melted candle, with puddled wax and burnt wick.

“My work is abstract. I don’t want it to be specific. But I like it to be suggestive of something,” Fucigna says. Either way, despite appearances or lack thereof, he says the wire sculptures are highly manipulated and the product of painstaking labor.

The proof is arthritic fingers from years of working with wire and other found materials. In college, at Alfred University known for its ceramic program, he worked in clay. Later he created sculptures from steel and truck tire inner tubes. Then, about 18 years, ago he discovered fencing.

“I find an interesting material and I play around with it. Eventually I figure out what it wants to do,” he says. “A lot of time, I think about craft as being the mastery of material … Rather than working with slabs of clay, I’m using slabs of plastic and metal fencing. It has no shape or form. It’s like a tube of paint. You figure out what to do with it.”

Regarding the fencing series, Klein writes that Fucigna is “like a mad basket weaver” so adept at folding, bending and layering his common industrial material that its original purpose is forgotten.

Fucigna says he sees himself as a mixed media artist, one who can be “antsy.” He speculates that the next phase in his art may involve using putty again but in a more figurative way.

“Suppose I project the image of a tree on a wall and then I filled in the positive areas, the branches, with putty. So you’re basically creating this huge drawing and then you let it drip … so it distorts itself, changes itself, because it’s constantly moving,” he says as if he can almost see it. He already has the grade of putty color in mind. “I’m thinking black,” he says.

Fucigna grew up in Norwalk and says he pretty much knew he wanted to be an artist since winning an art contest in sixth grade. He says he was disappointed that the Housatonic exhibit had to be cancelled (it is now set for 2020) but hardly devastated.

None of the art was damaged and the fencing sculpture is so durable it doesn’t need extra when being transported. As for the putty panels, he says he expected to scrape the putty off and reuse it.

Joel Lang is a frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.

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