Q+Art: Sculptor Regi Donadio Rewrites the History of the Female Nude
The Western art canon is in no small part a history of the female body, as seen through the eyes of clothed men. Italian-Brazilian artist Regi Donadio’s strident sculptures reimagine the classical female nude with fresh eyes and a distinctly feminist sense of autonomy.
Working with terra cotta and stone, the Sao Paulo-born artist embraces the tension between the soft, fleshy curves of her subjects and the rigid realities of the material. Now based in New York, Donadio departs from the timid nudes of the past in favor of figures who announce themselves with bold, expressive gestures. “I am deeply invested in depicting the female figure…with a reinvigorated sense of its commanding existence, in full stride, strength, poise, and attitude,” she writes in her artist statement.
Donadio reinterprets her subjects’ physicality in part by giving them a new environment. Sinuous vines and writhing tree roots envelop her women in protective appendages that seem to sprout directly from flesh. In Donadio’s work, the natural world offers shelter from the dangers of the material world. “My sculptures explore the nuances and ambiguities of humanity’s relationship to nature with the understanding that humans are subject to nature,” she writes. Her fusion of bark, branches, and naked limbs recalls the mythological story of Daphne and Apollo, made famous by Italian sculptor Bernini and his Baroque masterpiece of the same name.
Bernini used motion and thinly veiled eroticism to illustrate Daphne’s flight from Greek god Apollo and his carnal desires. At the last minute, Daphne, a disciple of the virginal goddess Artemis, sacrifices her human body and assumes the form of a laurel tree to escape. Donadio’s work reframes the story through female eyes, imagining a safe space for women to flourish within the arms of Mother Nature. Her sculptures suggest a symbiotic relationship between women and their natural environment, one which lets them withdraw, in solitude, to forge their own creative acts.
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Regi Donadio discusses the limitations of material, the gestural nature of the female body, and the role of women in contemporary art.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Regi Donadio: As a figurative artist, I would have to say that artistic anatomy books are a must, and my favorites are by Gottfried Bammes and by Eliot Goldfinger. Other than that, I enjoy reading biographical books, especially of female sculptors. The latest one was Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman by Jeffreen M. Hayes.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
RD: If I didn't have to pick just one artist, I would love to sit at Judy Chicago's "Dinner Party" with all the mentioned women at the table. But if I must choose one, I would have dinner with Barbara Hepworth.
What are you trying to express with your art?
RD: I'm always searching for ways to express the embodied experience that we share with nature and the material world of vibrant matters. I hope to convey tenacity, strength, and poise on the gestures of the female body in my sculptures, and share my personal beliefs of my relationship to nature and to the natural materials I work with.
What person has most influenced your work?
RD: My identical twin sister has been an incredibly important influence in developing my own sense of individuality, identity, and awareness of my physical presence. From an early age we always shared an affinity for the arts and bonded over creative activities. Although comparisons were unavoidable, we both always supported each other's creative paths. She went on to become an interior designer and architect, and I became a sculptor, although it took me a few extra years to figure that out.
What is your favorite guilty pleasure?
RD: Drinking wine is my go to guilty pleasure after long days of work in the studio.
What do you consider your greatest artistic achievement?
RD: I believe that earning my MFA degree amidst a global pandemic has been the biggest challenge I've completed so far. Although it has been extremely difficult, it was an invaluable opportunity for self-reflection and redirection of my work.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
RD: The best advice I've ever received was not to be too precious about the artwork I'm making. Clay can crack, collapse, explode in the kiln, break, and mistakes can be made in stone as well, but it is part of the process and of the cycle of transformation. Broken things can either be fixed or can become something new and just as interesting. The whole process of understanding the limits of the materials, starting over, adapting and transforming have a profound impact on how I'm learning to see life. It gradually teaches you to let go of expectations and accept how these external forces are also transforming the work.
What is one thing you would like to change about the art world?
RD: I would like it to be more inclusive and accessible. I also find that there is very little representation for women sculptors, especially in stone carving, and I would love to see that change.
Would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist?
RD: I would rather be historically significant. Women have been left out, excluded, and unrecognized in art for far too long. It is important that the experiences and points of view of women artists are being shared and represented in the arts, and the more they are, the more women will have the chance to make a real difference in the current culture of gender inequality.
What are you listening to in the studio right now?
RD: I enjoy listening to podcasts and audiobooks while working in the studio. My favorite podcasts are The Sculptor's Funeral, Ologies, Art Grind and Hyperallergic. The latest two audiobooks that I really enjoyed were The Master Plan by Chris Wilson and Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear…and Why by Sady Doyle.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your practice?
RD: The pandemic hit in the middle of my first year in my graduate program, so all the studio-based classes had to adapt and go remote, which is even more challenging for sculpture classes. From a makeshift studio space in the corner of my living room, I started working in the small scale figures of my Head Space series that are imbued with the emotional heaviness and introspection that we were forced into by the lockdowns and isolation. It was a time of deep reflection and anxiety for me, and being able to continue working on my art gave me purpose. Thankfully I was able to resume in-person learning at the end of lockdown in NYC, which allowed me to focus on stone carving and my series of torsos.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
RD: I am working on a near life-size torso that I am carving in an absolutely gorgeous Smeralda Onyx stone. The striations of the stone vary from beiges, browns to greens and blues in a mesmerizing pattern. As I'm carving away layers of the stone to get to the surface of the sculpture, I'm finding new patterns, new colors, faults, and holes where microcrystals were growing. And that is just as exciting as seeing the form emerge from the block. It has been challenging and an incredible learning journey. I cannot wait for it to be completed.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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