Grace DeGennaro, “Snakeskin” and “Bare Attention” Photo courtesy of Zero Station

Grace DeGennaro’s paintings and those of Angolan artist Serafim Yssolo could hardly be more different.

DeGennaro’s are based on control, symmetry and sacred geometry. Yssolo’s explode with spontaneity, painted found objects and heroic portraits of real and imagined personages.

You can see these wildly different results at “Continuum: an installation of paintings by Grace DeGennaro” at Zero Station Gallery in Portland (through April 27) and “Serafim Yssolo: Life on Scraps” at L/A Arts in Lewiston (through May 17).

You can also see (and feel) some connecting threads between them, including the importance and dynamism of color (albeit applied in completely different ways), as well as subtle spiritual content that might not be readily apparent on first viewing.

DeGennaro is acclaimed for her myriad variations of colored dot paintings. The suite of works at Zero Station incorporates the color theory of Josef Albers with rigorous mathematics involving Fibonacci sequencing (where each number is the sum of the two previous numbers) and the golden ratio (1 to 1.618, a cosmic constancy that is perfectly harmonious and repeated throughout nature and the universe).

Lest we deem DeGennaro’s methodology little more than a chilly mathematical exercise, we should remember that this last component, the golden ratio, has deep connections to nature and profound implications throughout the universe. We can find the golden ratio in the patterns of living things – a nautilus shell, pinecones, the human body, ocean waves, spider webs – all the way up to the topology of time-space and the fact that the golden ratio describes the ways constituent parts of whole galaxies relate to one another. Some hypothesize that this ratio determines the way galaxies actually form.


Using all these touchpoints, DeGennaro applies thousands of dots, or pearls, of pigment in geometric patterns to paper and canvas, creating a sense of metronomic rhythm that feels alive and dynamic like the passage of time. The regularity this sort of rhythm creates can feel like a form of visual chanting. Certainly, the further we dive into these works, and contemplate the artist methodically applying dot after dot, the more we can feel transported to a meditative state in a way similar to viewing an Agnes Martin painting.

From Grace DeGennaro’s “Rose Moon Series” Photo courtesy of Zero Station

It is also fascinating to note how the character of the dots changes when they are applied in the same order and color (with occasional slight variation) on different color grounds, as is the case with DeGennaro’s “Rose Moon Series.” They were inspired, as the title implies, by a rose moon, which occurs in June and which she encountered on a hike. During the experience, the artist noted how the various shades of the moon kept fluctuating.

The wall of 10 identical or near-identical color dot compositions on various ground colors creates the sense of this shifting of hues within a single phenomenon. You will swear they are all different in terms of the dot colors. But look closely and you understand that they are not, that it is the color of the grounds – which shift from cream and yellow to bright fuchsia and deepest indigo – that affect how we read the colors of dots, which either pop out at us or fade into the background shade. Extrapolated exponentially to a cosmic scale, this can suggest the infinite variability of things within an eternal constant.

Yet all is also not as regimented and perfect as it seems. We can observe in most works – particularly “Sufficiency,” where the straight grids take on a wavy-edged appearance – the presence of the artist’s hand. In order to conform to her preset geometry, we find DeGennaro making certain rows of dots smaller and smaller so as not to interrupt the overall harmony of the pattern. No matter how exacting and fastidious her calculations, the fallibility of human endeavor is a fact. This has all sorts of allusions to spiritual concepts of vulnerability and surrender.

On a purely aesthetic level, many of these works also recall weaving (a more precise practice) or patterns suggested by their titles, such as “Snakeskin.”



There is no such subtlety and mathematical formulation in Yssolo’s work. In fact, it seems at the exact opposite end of the spectrum. DeGennaro’s colors are variously modulated, where Yssolo’s look mostly dipped and applied right out of the can. DeGennaro’s compositions are repetitive, regimented and void of specific content, while Yssolo’s are figurative works literally formed from junk piled onto board, primed with a coat of white, and painted over with a portrait of a known person (i.e. Bob Marley) or a mythological figure (“The Goddess of Blackness”).

There is a raw, visceral energy to Yssolo’s works. This is his first U.S. gallery show. He still lives in Angola and is applying to come to the U.S., where his partner lives and works. At the opening, an interpreter was hired to facilitate conversations he conducted in his native Portuguese. Unfortunately, a language barrier affects the exhibition materials, which suffer from a lack of intelligibility. It’s clear they were translated from Portuguese (wall texts appear in both English and Portuguese) and rather awkwardly at that. Sentences in many cases don’t actually make sense.

Serafim Yssolo, “O manto da Sabedoria (The Mantle of Wisdom)” Photo by Harold Strout

What we can discern, however, is Yssolo’s thematic concerns are also spiritual. He sees the title of the show, “Life on Scraps,” through a many-faceted metaphorical lens. It is obviously a life condition he has experienced on one level. On another, it is about the mounds of scraps and garbage that humans toss out, polluting our environment. On still another level, the flotsam and jetsam are a metaphor for the stuff of life that overwhelms and blocks us from our innate spiritual nature.

Each painting is accompanied by a poetic text, which, again, is at times completely opaque because of translations that don’t understand the cadence of English. (I suspect the Portuguese ones are quite easy to read and grasp.) These texts expound upon the abstract intangibles of the figures. “The Goddess of Blackness,” for instance, proclaims:

“Yes, I am the Goddess of your blackness and the Goddess of your eternal humanity ‘without color.’ The poetry that my eyes distill is to reclaim the value that each beat of the heart’s traits of our excellence as human beings deserves, not a battle fought in an invisible field of insensitivity by those who also feel the same pain if a stone falls on their foot or bleeds if a knife cuts their finger.”

OK. I vaguely got what this was about – a world without racial concepts, just valued human lives – but a lot is lost, I suspect, in translation. What is more immediate is the assemblage of objects on the board and the skill of translating a face onto a surface with so many depths and planes that could destroy its legibility.


Among the detritus Yssolo mounds onto, screws into and otherwise affixes to his substrate are: a radiator, a whole bank of piano hammers, ice skates and skate parts, vacuum tubes, egg cartons, tools, circuit boards and computer parts, hub caps, a pitchfork, takeout food containers, manufacturing garbage from the mills, shoe trees and flip flops, tin cans, bike tires, a shovel, a soccer ball, parts of skateboards, a mannequin arm, vent covers, a lamp … and on and on.

There is something direct and unvarnished about the humble materials that feels very real, very street and very resourceful. The faces are not all interesting, particularly those that look like makeup-heavy beauties. The contemporariness of how they are rendered, with their luxuriously mascaraed eyelashes and lipstick (“The Face of Pleasure,” “Queen of the Wrappings of the Winds”) look commercial in the manner of a magazine ad, which feels flashy and slick in a way that injects an aspect of commercial graphic art that is at odds with the deeper spiritual dimensions Yssolo is trying to articulate.

Serafim Yssolo, “Um jet simples de see… (A Simple Way of Being…)” Photo by Harold Strout

The best are “A Simple Way of Being…” and “The Mantle of Wisdom.” The woman in the former doesn’t look like a supermodel (as in the subjects of “The Face of Pleasure” and “Queen of the Wrappings of the Winds”). Instead, somehow she embodies her title – relaxed, without self-consciousness or pretension, smiling genuinely and openly, and exuding a no-frills, simple life. Several tresses of her hair (made from rolled up window screen and tied at intervals) cascade out in front of the canvas, giving her an intriguing dimensionality.

Like “Simple Way,” “Wisdom” feels closer not only to its title, but also to the underlying sense of dignity with which Yssolo is trying to imbue these figures, a dignity that goes beyond their carriage and extends to their essential, more intangible value as beings beyond human constructs.

Not everyone will like this work. Honestly, I’m not sure I do. But I can certainly appreciate its rawness and the way it monumentalizes (these are very large) common human figures. It is precisely their too-muchness – their size, their teeming surfaces, their garish colors – that forces you to stop and consider Yssolo’s larger aims. If these assemblage paintings are not as subtle and cerebral as DeGennaro’s works, they certainly have a tremendous amount of energy and heart, and a certain dynamism that seems worth our contemplation.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: 

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