DEFINING FORM opens tonight at Untitled Space. The exhibition explores the sculptural works of fifty contemporary artists, all of whom are contributing to a tonal shift in the field of sculpting. These artists recognize the classical associations many viewers have with the medium, and use this as a tool to create unexpected juxtapositions– Overt sexuality takes on a multitude of associations when depicted in fine porcelain. The exhibiting artists also understand that sculpture’s tangibility is tantalizing for the viewer. They take advantage of this, using their proximity to viewers to communicate messages about vital social issues. The works exhibited in DEFINING FORM grab you first physically and visually. Then they ask you to listen.
Indira Cesarine, the curator of DEFINING FORM, is also the founder of Untitled Space. She opened the space in 2014 to fill a gaping hole in the art market: for profit, feminist-centric galleries. The self-funded gallery has presented several large-scale exhibitions centered on the female experience. SECRET GARDEN provided a window into female erotica, while ONE YEAR OF RESISTANCE served as an outlet for female-identifying artists to respond to the political climate.
Cesarine’s exhibitions often feature 30-50 artists. Doing so exposes more artists to potential buyers, increasing the profile of the feminist artists she exhibits. The decision to stage large-scale exhibitions is also intellectual. “It’s about fully investigating the idea to the maximum capacity,” she explains. Having more artists means the theme will be pushed in more directions.
Cesarine was motivated to curate an exhibition of contemporary sculpture because she recognized the prevalence of the medium in feminist art. “I have been seeing a lot of incredible sculpture works being made by artists that really push the boundaries of the art form,” she notes, “and are addressing themes that are highly relevant right now.” Cesarine believes fully in the power of art to motivate social change, which is another reason she is attuned to the mediums in which politically-motivated artists are creating. “Artists are a reflection of contemporary culture, a mirror of society,” she says. “Art that is based on political narratives absolutely ignites conversation on the issues we are facing right now.” Here are six of those artists.
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I encountered Jen Dwyer on Instagram soon after I started focusing on mixed media artists. It feels apt to start with her work because this sort of meeting feeds into Dwyer’s own methodology. She values the discourse that social media allows between artists, and the diversifying effect it has had on the art world. It has also provided fertile ground for creative thought.
“I’m interested in creating a dialogue between this post-internet age and the ancient material, ceramics,” the artist explains. She deals with contemporary questions to do with technology and identity through traditional art-making methods.
In Venus and Computer, Dwyer presents a porcelain statue not unlike the Venus de Milo, complete with perky breasts, supple thighs, and a rounded belly. She represents the western ideal of beauty that has reigned supreme for thousands of years. It is meaningful, then, that she is depicted using a desktop computer with a remote control. Venus is the goddess of love as defined by men. The internet allows every single user to define themselves.
“Platforms like Instagram have given women a kind of agency, dissimilar in many ways to the way women were represented for years in art history,” Dwyer says. “Today we are able to present our bodies in the lens we want, rather than as subject to the male gaze.” The artist illustrates this power by depicting Venus– an antiquated symbol of femininity– taking her appearance into her own hands.
It is even more powerful to see Venus take her agency into her own hands because female nudes are historically passive. An averted gaze and static stance allowed (male) viewers to ogle her body. This Venus has autonomy. She is on the verge of redefining herself. Will she cover her body? Spread her legs? Close them? Will she (gasp!) widen her waistline? Dwyer emphasizes that her work confronts hierarchies. I have always found it very troubling that we are pressured to shrink our bodies. What could we have accomplished as a gender had we not been fainting from our corsets?
Dwyer suggests that the power to dismantle the hierarchies that subjugate us is in our hands. Venus represents all women– until we now, we have been locked in a cage. When she reaches her screen, who knows what she will look like. But she won’t be hungry, or stuffed into a girdle. She will take up space on this earth.
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Rebecca Goyette’s ceramics also pair a traditional medium with unexpected subject matter. Pilgrim Blowjob, from Goyette’s “Ghost Bitch” series, depicts two Puritans engaged in a sexual act. It is yet another departure from traditional ceramic iconography in DEFINING FORM. “Ghost Bitch” is a character invented by Goyette, a vigilante who travels through time, avenging America’s misogynistic wrongdoings. In a series of small but poignant sculptures, Ghost Bitch (through Goyette’s nimble hands) has pulled back the curtain on America’s hypocrisy.
We are a country founded on Puritan principles of morality, abstinence, and dedication to the Christian God. But we are also founded on slavery and the genocide of indigenous people. Our attachment to these principles has come at the cost of women’s freedom and the safety of the LGBTQ+ community. Pilgrim Blowjob is a pointed commentary on this hypocrisy. It depicts characters who are integral to America’s origin story engaged in behavior utterly contrary to what they stand for. It sullies the self-congratulatory image of America painted in history books, and suggests that Americans are no stranger to deception and darkness.
Goyette has a personal connection to this history and to Puritan imagery. Her great-times-eight grandmother was Rebecca Nurse, a landowner who was hanged in the Salem Witch Trials. “My sculptures are charged with energy,” Goyette says. “They are vessels for my human story.”
Goyette’s connection to this story resonates strongly through the careful attention to her subjects’ eyes. The male figure glares down menacingly at both the viewer and his sexual partner, his black pupils glimmering. The female figure gazes up at him from her submissive position. The dynamic between the two is a physical manifestation of gender hierarchies in the United States.
Goyette’s is not a delicate commentary. “I have a passion for making,” the artist writes, “in a… feminine yet raging, at times grotesque, manner.” Her male subject’s genitalia is extremely detailed. Her female subject’s contorted body forms a 90 degree angle while her arms are tied behind her back. It’s painful to look at, perhaps in part because Goyette’s sculpture is not purely historical. The Ghost Bitch is very much at work in 2018, using strategic discomfort to ask viewers why we uphold these violent hierarchies today.
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Sophia Wallace’s work takes aim at the same oppressive systems as Rebecca Goyette’s Pilgrim Blowjob. However, its tone is peaceful rather than biting. The untitled clitoris forms she exhibits in DEFINING FORM are soft in hue and smooth in texture. But do not confuse peaceful with passive. The only reason these forms exude tranquility is because Wallace recognizes the symbolic power of the clitoris. “If the phallus can function symbolically, so can the clitoris,” the artist explains. “The clitoris expresses a right to human thriving and those pursuits beyond the mere survival: the arts, intellect, and pleasure.” Wallace’s clitoris forms feel tranquil because they embody life’s joys, rather than man’s carnal instincts for survival and procreation.
In a way, Wallace’s attack on the gender hierarchy feels less like a gunshot and more like a slow and steady pressure. Her clitoral forms are too aesthetically pleasing to shock the viewer with a start. But their presence as beautiful organs is profound. “Everyday, women hear language that dishonors their genitals and humiliates their sexuality,” Wallace says. “Common profanity, rife with gendered metaphors, makes it nearly impossible to curse without attacking the feminized body.” The artist goes on to describe the way the virgin/slut paradox traps women in an impossible bind.
“The idealized woman must exist in a perpetual state of reproductive virginity… female worth only depreciates over time while masculinity gains currency with each sexual adventure and each year of experience.” Wallace also mentions rape as the ultimate violence against women, enacted through the genitals.
Because of these phenomenon, it is a revelation to allow the clitoris to be beautiful. In doing so, we also assume that the female body is safe and respected. The more we see positive images of female genitalia in art and other media, the more its beauty will be normalized. And perhaps, this beauty will carry some authority, and with this authority will come safety. If we refuse to accept a hierarchy that tells us we are worthless, then that structure crumbles. What will be left are our bodies; our beautiful clitoral forms.
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Colin Radcliffe’s sculpture Kinky Ouroboros Demon is more autobiographical than other works in DEFINING FORM, though its significance is also societal. “I make pieces to heal and to memorialize a sentiment or individual,” Radcliffe explains. “Clay binds the spirit readily, taking my sentiments and traumas from me and [imparting] them in a vessel reminiscent of the person or moment they are about.”
The individual immortalized in Kinky Ouroboros Demon was a partner of Radcliffe’s, one who was “not only well-endowed but addicted to sex.” The physical and emotional toll of this relationship is clear in the work, which depicts a monstrous cannibal with a penchant for its own flesh. This multi-eyed, devil-horned demon shares something with Radcliffe’s ex– an appendage of considerable size. Its scaly, phallic tail stretches all the way to his mouth, resting between two rows of jagged teeth.
If Kinky Ouroboros Demon is not a direct representation of Radcliffe’s ex-partner, then it is a symbol of who he became in relation to Radcliffe. His physical and emotional needs transformed his spirit into that of a monster. By depicting him as such, Radcliffe claims and legitimizes his own story.
Situating the monster’s phallus in its own mouth is a brilliantly coy artistic choice. It degrades the monster, revealing the intensity of its urges and the depths it will go to satisfy them. In doing so, Radcliffe shifts any blame he may have absorbed away from himself. He re-asserts his autonomy after trauma.
The artist’s detailed depiction of the monster’s autonomy also contributes to the transfer of blame. Every possible appendage is sharp, from the demon’s talons to his horns, his teeth, and his overgrown toenails. The scales that line his phallus and his arms are serrated. These details emphasize the demon’s capacity to inflict harm, further demonizing the ex-partner for his emotional and physical abuse.
Though his reasons for creative production are cathartic, Radcliffe hopes viewers will resonate with his story. “I’d be really excited if it spurred conversation about sex and intimacy, particularly amongst the queer community,” he says. Radcliffe completed his BFA at Bard in 2016– I look forward to following his career and listening to the conversations his work spurs.
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Another artist whose work I am interested in following further is Whitney Vangrin. Her work for DEFINING FORM combines two subjects that keep me up at night: the uncanny, and religious reliquaries. I almost focused on medieval art in school because I was so fascinated by the worship of relics. I’ve since turned by gaze towards the 20th and 21st centuries, but I love when artists take from the canon to make a statement about the present.
Relics are remnants of dead saints, or items they encountered during their years on earth. Churches also claim to have pieces of Christ’s shroud, or the True Cross. These slivers of wood and shards of bone were encased in elaborate sculptures to emphasize their sacrality to viewers (and motivate them to empty their pockets). Called reliquaries, these sculptures are among the most conceptually fascinating works of medieval art.
In Dupuytren’s Contracture, Vangrin immortalizes her father’s hand, which has been encased in synthetics due to a paralyzing disease. Isolating and displaying the hand within a box emphasizes its significance– and the significance of the man it was once attached to. “The disembodied hand is capable of acting as a portrait,” Vangrin explains.
But dismemberment also invites the uncanny. There is something deeply unnerving about seeing a severed body part. It is a reminder of disease and death, and the proximity of the two. Vangrin’s practice strives to move past this discomfort, towards feelings of “recognition and empathy.” The artist notes that every part of the body bears its own story, complete with violence and pain. Isolating these stories can help viewers come to terms with their own losses. “Conversely,” Vangrin says, playing devil’s advocate with herself, “the body fragmented is a source of recovery. The body emerges in forms of wax, plastic, and rubber, and becomes an entity that is ever shifting and evolving.”
The shadow boxes help illustrate Vangrin’s rather conceptual ideas about bodily fragmentation. A severed hand encased in an orange lucite box, emerging from an amorphous blob of yellow plastic, is not like a severed hand on the ground. It is elevated to something that is felt rather than seen. One cannot see the sacrality of St. George’s arm, but its ornate silver reliquary, embossed with gems, allows the pious to feel the spirit of the saint. Likewise, in a glowing orange case, Vangrin’s father’s hand becomes a symbol of identity and recovery. It bears the memory of her father’s illness, and the suggestion of a bright future.
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Last but not least, I’d like to discuss the whimsical work of Hazy Mae. I first met Mae at Superfine! New York this May, where she exhibited her ceramic cookie jars in an immersive space. One could step inside a larger than life replica of Mae’s cookie jars, or peer into the cabinets of Mae’s life size kitchen to find more jars lined up in a row. Her work is a way of life, in addition to a sculptural practice. Like German Expressionist Kurt Schwitters, whose Merz collages became an entire lifestyle, complete with two Merz apartment buildings, Mae’s sculptures hint at an entire world of Hazy Mae.
Mae’s world is inhabited by twelve distinct characters, based on the signs of the Zodiac. The artist has studied astrology since she was eleven, so it is fitting that her dreamworld is governed by the stars. Exhibited at DEFINING FORM is The High Seas/Pisces, a character who recalls the open seas outside any country’s jurisdiction. Mae chose this concept to represent Pisces because “we can’t fathom the depth and and vastness of their vision and understanding.”
This is also why the artist chose to cover The High Seas/Pisces with eyes. “[Pisces] see things most of us cannot,” explains Mae, “and most of them are so busy fretting about another problem they’ve created that…they don’t even see this about themselves. But I can tell you for certain that every one of them is magical.”
I am drawn to Mae’s cookie jars for their uncanny human-ness. They are cookie jars– inanimate objects– but living characters as well. Mae has bestowed upon them at least one set of eyes, and in this case, many more. Their ability to see renders them alive in some capacity. But they are motionless, without arms or legs. What is it like to live in Hazy Mae’s world? Do these characters sing to each other when the kitchen door is closed? Do they have relationships with one another? Or do they exist only in relation to their human owners, the cookie eaters who greet them when they’re in a mood for a snack? What is it like to exist in such a co-dependent relationship?
These are the questions that keep me coming back to Hazy Mae. Now that I’ve met her cookie jars, I want to know what’s inside them.
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I hope you enjoyed this sneak peek! As you can see, contemporary sculpture has taken on a role as a tool for activism, and as a new medium for conceptual art. I can’t wait to see these works in 3-D! It is vital to experience sculpture in person.
DEFINING FORM opens tonight at Untitled Space. The reception starts at 6pm– email email@example.com to attend. If you can’t make it this evening, the exhibition will be up through August 1.
And while you’re at it, take a look at the work Shamona Stokes is exhibiting. I reviewed Stokes’ work for Superfine! New York in May. I then became so obsessed with the sculpture I reviewed that I bought it. Being an art critic is a very dangerous business. I’m over the moon that Stokes is showing at DEFINING FORM.
Stop by and see these incredible artists! If you see me (I’ll be brightly dressed) say hi!
Until next time,