return to homepage
about the artist
artist bio
contact information
Despo Magoni's Humanistic Expressions

And of course Scheherazade kept herself alive by telling stories for a thousand and one nights, which is perhaps the way Magoni thinks of her artistic self and her narrative imagery. All these works deal with difficult relationships in which men have physical power over women, but women have emotional power over men. In Pawn No. 7, and No. 8, both 1992 woman in effect turns the table on man. The male figures are in physical as well as emotional agony - the latter two are particularly troubled - implicitly as a result of woman's power over them. Men's Power Talk, which Magoni mocks in a 1997-98 work (part of The Thousand and One Nights series) - one of the strongest group portraits--- is no match for Scheherazade's guises, a very subtle group portrait, suggesting the hidden strength of women, in contrast to men's overt display of power.
Virtually all her portraits, however lifelike, are clearly larger than life and dreamlike --- mythological embodiments of a primordial instincts, involving the unresolvable, enigmatic tension between life and death instincts. Indeed, it is the instinctiveness as well as social conscience of Magoni's portraits that gives them unique mythopoetic presence.

Catalogue essay by Donald Kuspit for the 1999 exhibition at
The John Jay College Gallery

Prometheus Unbound; Pandora Unleashed: The Human Condition

This exhibition was conceived as a survey of key works from Despo Magoni's thirty-five year artistic career. As such, it provides a perspective on the artist that in one sense demonstrates the vastness of her range: from the inventive variety of materials that she has employed to the shifting subject matter and modes of expression that she has pursued, Magoni has attempted to reinvent herself many times over. Despite this fluidity, however, there is a thematic consistency to her work that is revealed when such a broad view is taken.
Prometheus the tragic hero is also in many ways Prometheus the Everyman, subject to forces -- natural and political -- over which he has almost no control. Taken in this context Magoni's Pawns figure this aspect of the human condition, the average citizen set alone against the void, the individual punished by authority.
In her universe hope cannot dispel suffering but somehow the human struggle is not without hope. It is largely from this paradox, clothed in varying characters and narratives, that Magoni's work draws its strength.

Catalogue essay by Thalia Vrachopoulos for the 1999 exhibition at
The John Jay College Gallery

Myth and Memory

In Magoni's hands, Scheherazade is no longer the young virgin who staves off the Sultan's revenge against her countrywomen by spinning a new tale every night. Now she is a mature woman whose promise of continued life is tempered by the knowledge that we must live day by day, or more accurately, night by night.

Magoni expresses this truth with a series of tempera on glassine drawings - 1001 in all - of the night sky. In one set, representations of Scheherazade's face, depicted here as a mature woman with Magoni's own features, float in a band across the starry tapestry. In other sets, the night sky - dotted with pricks of light, flashes of nebulae, shooting stars and clouds illuminated by the moon - stands by itself.

Magoni's The Thousand and One Nights reminds us that the sky is a symbol of eternity. For millennia, humans have gazed upward at night and understand that the stars above have long preceded and will long outlast them.

Catalogue essay by Eleanor Heartney for the 1997 exhibition at
Andre Zarre Gallery

Body Talk , Image Change or Trouble in the Kingdom

Our conversation began with "The Queen's Moves In A Game of Chess." Although the series consists of twenty three paintings involving the players in a chess game, we focused on the major work of the series: fifteen paintings devoted to the subject of the queen. Together these paintings can be read as an essay on reversals and a female role, body and identity in art and life.They are also deeply autobiographical.

If you are familiar with chess, you know that the queen has more freedom to move than the king, and that her moves serve to secure the king's dominant position in the kingdom. After all, chess was probably invented by men. Through various reversals, Despo inverts the activity of the queen, permitting her to keep the crown, at the expense of the king . Her portrayal of Elizabeth I of England, a queen who never shared her crown, delineates just how far the queen has come.

Catalogue essay by Mary Donahue for the 1994 exhibition at
The Art Gallery at Brooklyn College

Old Game, New Rules:
Despo Magoni's The Queen's Moves in a Game of Chess

In some ways the very choice of chess as the stage for this allegory already says a lot: a game in which the pieces are sexed and only one on each side is female, surrounded by fifteen male pieces; a game that is an allegory for that other male-dominated scene, the battlefield; a game that in modern art immediately brings to mind Marcel Duchamp, whose idea of provocative wit was to have himself photographed playing chess with a woman, who was, needless to say, naked and years younger than the artist.

The game of chess is also still dominated by male champions. Magoni seems to be issuing the challenge: "I'll beat you at your own game." Among the various reasons for Magoni's choice of the chess metaphor, one of the most important is surely that the gueen's isolation in the game of chess mirrors the female artist's sense of isolation in male dominated art history. In the first canvas, the queen is not even present. What we see are two men huddled at the base of a towering yellow castle. In the parlance of chess , two pawns and a rook. It is only in the second painting of this twenty-three part series that the queen appears , but this first canvas announces that the central theme will be power, symbolized by the dominating castle.

Catalogue essay by Raphael Rubinstein for the 1994 exhibition at
The Art Gallery at Brooklyn College