In his most recent body of work, Left on Read, Colin J. Radcliffe presents a series of text conversations painted on clay. Some of these captured conversations are snapshots of real exchanges the artist has experienced on queer dating apps like Grindr, while others are imagined messages– the voices of his inner demons projected onto the screen in a never-ending string of reminders and cruel texts.
The ceramic phones are accompanied by several figurative sculptures– grotesque and mythologized bodies who explore their surfaces and crevices in front of a mobile phone for an invisible lover. The inclusion of these works link Left on Read with the somatic sculptures that have been central to Radcliffe’s work over the last few years.
It is this narrative through-line that makes the artist’s work so painfully poignant. As the artist makes the transition from one body of work to the next, he remains rooted in the desire to communicate his reality, from the messages he shares with potential lovers to the words that swim through the murky depths of his own mind. Providing us access to this language makes for very little distance between viewer and artist, and the result is this: we trust him completely. His work is as honest as it is humorous, irreverent, and at times, monstrous.
I sat down with Radcliffe to discuss Left on Read. Over the course of our conversation we delved into the history of ceramics and the representation of queerness in art. We talked about chronic illness, kitsch, and the energy in the art world today. Below are excerpts from our conversation:
Chloe Hyman: How did you first conceive of the idea for the ceramic phones?
Colin J. Radcliffe: I’ve been feeling overly reliant on my phone, especially for dating and making friends. I felt that I had to reflect on that, and realized that my overly dependent relationship to technology, particularly dating apps, stemmed most strongly from being queer, chronically ill, and of the millennial generation. Growing up queer, especially in a smaller and somewhat conservative town, I didn’t really have easy access to a queer community or any relationships with other queers. So, I relied on apps like Grindr and Jack’d to find those connections. When I was about 22 I was diagnosed with a chronic autoimmune disease. It really negatively affected my quality of life and bruised my ability to socialize and date people. Because of this I leaned even more heavily into using social technology to satisfy my social, romantic, and sexual desires.
Technology is also tethered to the experiences of the millennial generation. The internet, chat rooms, dating apps, and social media really shaped my own experiences growing up. With all of my work being so personal and autobiographical, it was very natural for me to start making the ceramic phones.
CH: Dating app messages are, by nature, ephemeral. Some are deleted if the receiver doesn’t respond, and others are buried beneath a mountain of other messages, a symptom of our bewilderment at the possibility of infinite lovers. Your sculptures freeze otherwise ephemeral content, suggesting that there is something of value/importance in a single message, despite the nonchalance encouraged by contemporary dating culture. What do you think about that?
CJR: Digital relationships are wildly ephemeral, so there is some weight to taking conversations I’ve had on dating apps and social media and then archiving them in the form of ceramics. It makes those moments more permanent, similar to the way a photograph or a screenshot makes something transient or sentimental to you more tangible. It is strange to know that my ceramics will long outlive me, but it’s also really fun to wonder what people will think about them far in the future, especially with the ceramic phones being so intrinsic to the time and culture we live in right now.
CH: There is also a fantasy element to the text of each sculpture, in which the actual words typed between prospective lovers are replaced by the words running through your head. The emotional effect is palpable, as these are words we often feel but rarely let ourselves verbalize. Did you find it cathartic to express these feelings in such a stark way?
CJR: They are totally cathartic! Many of the phones are actually verbatim digital conversations I’ve had, but there’s an increasing number of them are more like diary entries for me. It’s been a way for me to vocalize my feelings and traumas that I’d otherwise be too anxious to bring up, and a way to indirectly address people or events in my life. Many of them are things I wish I had the confidence or grace to say to my crushes, my first love, or my past romantic and sexual partners.
CH: You also use that conceit to write ‘reminders’ to yourself and messages from your own body (ex: Chronic Disease). The self-deprecating humor you employ for these is raw and relatable.I like the inclusion of these alongside the dating app-themed works. It is a reminder that anxiety is fueled by both internal and external forces.
As someone who also struggles from chronic illness, I immediately was reminded of how difficult it can be to date while also trying to take care of your body. Is the link between online dating and chronic illness one you intended to highlight by showing these works side by side?
CJR: When you’re chronically ill, even if you’re healthy and feeling well, being diseased is an inescapable part of who you are.
It’s an obstacle that often obstructs my ability to socialize, to date, go to art openings, and even travel to new places. With chronic illness being so present in my daily life, it of course affects how and when I’m able to date, so the phones about chronic disease are, to me, very related to the phones about online dating.
Chronic disease is often invisible—no one would know I’m ill until I tell them. I really appreciate when people viewing my work can see and understand the difficulty in dating with a chronic disease, because frankly most potential lovers/people don’t always understand [how I can appear] well outwardly but be suffering inwardly, [making me] incapable of following through on plans. It can be hard to express over text to a potential lover that I’m just not always physically well enough to meet them at a given time or day.
CH: Thank-you for your honesty, both in your words and in your work. Do you feel that the trauma of chronic illness has contributed to your art-making in general? Perhaps in subject matter, medium, or the sensation of art-making itself?
CJR: Usually I treat chronic illness in my work as the subject of an individual piece, and occasionally as the context or impetus for the making of a piece. It is entirely traumatic to be healthy and well and then have the freedom of wellness be stolen from you by your own body. It feels like you’ve been betrayed by yourself, totally against your own will, with no substantial way to make amends and heal. Making work about that has allowed me to process my own grief and self-repulsion of my body and my disease, and to find avenues for healing and growth. Spinning straw into gold, so to speak.
CH: The way you speak about your relationship with your body makes me think of your figurative work. Is this series in any way an extension of your figurative ceramic work?
CJR: They are an extension of the figures in that many of the figures are lovers I’ve met through using dating apps and social media, so there’s a strong connection between the two.
CH: I’d like to learn more about two specific figurative works that really spoke to me emotionally: Demon Lover and Sultry Demon. You’re not showing these two specifically, but they come from the same series as the figurative works you’re exhibiting at Equity Gallery, and they’re what prompted this interview in the first place! What can you tell me about these sculptures?
CJR: [At the time I was conceptualizing Demon Lover], I had actually been looking at a lot of odalisque paintings, and how the paintings of these concubine women were posed in ways intended to seduce and sexualize. I had just started coming into my own as a queer lover, and had only just begun to realize that I had sexual agency, but lacked the experience to feel confident in action. I felt desirable to potential lovers, and I was also very desiring of a lover, but I felt weaker or more vulnerable because of my naivety and lack of real sexual and romantic experience. So, I would court my potential partners by presenting myself almost like a desirable or corruptible innocent—but I was also fully aware that I was using my charm or my cuteness as a trap to attract a lover.
There were also these invisible pressures of what I thought was expected of me as a lover; the conditioning of heteronormative relationships throughout my life had shaped my perceived ideals [for behavior]. Ultimately, the piece is a self-portrait of a time when I was exploring my identity as a lover, a queer, and a sexual body while being aware of my limitations and the dynamics of power, especially as they related to beauty, youth, and sexual innocence.
I made [Sultry Demon], also as a self-portrait, almost 2 years after making Demon Lover. I had just begun to feel like I was blossoming sexually, I had more experience and more confidence in my identity as a queer person and as a lover, and I no longer felt as innocent or complicit in love and sex as I had when I was younger.
After a string of failed romantic and sexual interests I felt like I had to seriously evaluate how I courted my love interests, and how I performed to keep them or even leave them/have them leave me. I started to research love theory and realized that more often than not my pursuits of love and how I engage with potential partners is through ludus. Ludus in Latin translates to “game”, and is oft used to describe lovers who enjoy the pursuit of love as much as, or if not more than, Love itself.
Generally, ludic lovers aim to have as much fun as possible in love, indulging in their partners with the acquisition of love and attention being the prize or the reward for loving well, so to speak. I, myself, am a very sweet and playful lover and have had to acknowledge my own role in the power dynamics of coupling and courting. My own sexual coyness and playful disposition are tools I’ve used, maybe without always being conscious of it, to pursue and be pursued.
CH: I love the historical references you make in your work, from the odalisques that partially inspired Demon Lover to the notion of a ludic lover. Another association I made was to hieroglyphics and other early languages carved into stone. These associations and mutated themes suggest to me that your work draws on the history of sexuality while simultaneously presenting new symbols and themes that speak to what sexuality means today. What do you think about that understanding of your work? Would you agree with that?
CJR: When I was completing my undergrad at Bard, I took many history classes on the Medieval period and Classical Antiquity. I was especially taken by the multitude of acceptable relationships people could have in Ancient Greece and Rome—it was an incredibly progressive time for sexuality and gender. Pedastery was considered unremarkable, the Amazons were a feared tribe of women warriors, Sappho was writing poetry to her lover, men could have sex with other men as long as their partner was anyone but a free Roman male, etc. Even the depiction of certain Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes blurred the lines of gender and sexuality—most notably Athena, Tiresias, and Dionysus. There’s also some Ancient Egyptian murals that suggest same-sex relationships were acceptable, at least among the higher social classes.
CH: How do you situate your work within the paradigm of sexual history? What does it do differently?
CJR: The 21st Century is historically the most progressive time in terms of gender and sexuality since the collapse of the Roman Empire. Ancient Greco-Roman ceramic vessels were often erotic, depicting sexual scenes between all kinds of people both real and mythological. Unfortunately, countless erotic and queer works were either not preserved or outright destroyed during the rise of Christian dominance in Europe. My ceramic work is similarly very erotic and sexually charged and sometimes dips into mythological symbolism like Ancient Greco-Roman work, so that’s an association related to sexual history in art that I think about.
My work is reflective of contemporary queer relationships today especially in the context of technology. It’s a continuation of, or at least related to, the larger dialogues of sexuality in art history, but my work is explicitly queer both in its content and subject matter and focuses heavily on the dynamics of technology in relation to queer relationships today.
CH: It’s interesting that you mention the queer, erotic content of Ancient Greco-Roman decorative art. Since antiquity, ceramics have continued to have quite the gendered history.
CJR: Ceramics are generally considered a feminine medium in the way that wood or steel are considered masculine. Ceramics also have a history as a children’s medium, especially since the 80’s with pottery studios being a staple for children’s birthday parties, [and] toys like play-doh and sculpey.
With ceramics having a long history as functional objects and more recently children’s toys, [the medium was] at least partially denigrated from art to craft. Fortunately, that attitude has been changing pretty rapidly over the last several years. Despite the social and cultural associations of ceramics in history, queer and women ceramic artists have really only recently been given more serious representation in the larger narrative of ceramics and art. The history and perception of ceramics in the mainstream canon as largely heterosexual, and more craft than art, is a motivator for me. It’s empowering to be a young artist queering ceramics and contributing to both the larger queer and ceramic narratives.
CH: The history of ceramics is also intertwined with the notion of ‘kitsch,’ as it emerged in the first half of the twentieth century to diminish the status of ceramic figurines. Does this element of ceramic history come into play in your work?
CJR: I love the idea of kitsch, and of camp! Queer artists have a long history of using kitsch and camp in their work. It’s often very subversive and disruptive, but always tinged with humor and playful critique. I use humor in my work—often in the form of kitsch—because it’s a way to talk about difficult and painful things and because it opens the door to healing and personal growth. Kitsch and camp are one of the identifiers of what makes an artwork visually queer, and I feel comfortable saying that my work usually reads as explicitly queer because of its campiness or kitschiness.
I agree that ceramics [have been] delegated as kitsch in the past… and not classified as serious art. That’s definitely shifted especially in the last 5 years, with ceramic sculpture now being a hot trend in the art world.
CH: Speaking of which, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the energy in the art world right now. Do you think there is space for what you want to communicate? Have collectors caught on yet that ceramics are (in my opinion) one of the most emotionally and politically charged mediums contemporary artists are working with today?
CJR: I do! I’ve felt that many galleries, publications, and curatorial platforms have embraced and represented the type of work I’m making. Queer art is respected and has a place within the larger contemporary art world. This is thanks to the history and work of queer artists and activists. Without their legacy there wouldn’t be space for me to even be making the kind of work I’m making. It’s hard for me to say what the individual motivations of specific collectors are, but I do have a few collectors who regularly buy my work, so my hunch is that yes, the art world is conscious of the role and impact ceramics are having right now.
CH: In NYC, I often felt very strong borders between different ‘art scenes,’ which were designated by neighborhood, and sometimes, the distinction between political and not-so-political. Is that something you’ve also felt? How do you feel navigating the NYC art world ecosystem?
CJR: There are definitely delineations in the art world in NYC. Each neighborhood has its own community, tastes, and reputation. Bushwick, for example, is very artist and community-focused. With there being so many artists living and working in Bushwick, there is a strong emphasis on artists supporting other artists. It’s much less commercial than many of the art neighborhoods in Manhattan like Chelsea, Soho, or the Lower East Side.
Really there’s no true singular art world, just lots of smaller ones rubbing up against one another and each with their own language, ideals, and motivations. It’s not too difficult to find or even create a space for yourself within the greater art world(s) as long as you know what you want and can advocate for your own work. Many artists today even use social media as a way to carve out their space or blur the lines between different art worlds.
CH: I fully agree. And I’m very pleased you’re showing on the Lower East Side, as that’s one of my favorite neighborhoods within the NYC art ecosystem.
Before we go, I’d like to just ask you one more thing.What draws you to the medium of ceramics, and how might this choice of material contribute to the effect you are trying to achieve with your phones and figural work?
CJR: I’ve always been a very tactile person, so the gravitation towards working with clay was just satisfying and felt natural to me. I hand-build every piece which feels very immediate both physically and emotionally. Working my hands into wet clay—the very same hands that held and caressed a particular lover or that exchanged intimate text messages—I feel adds a lot to each piece and makes the personal and intimate connections come through more directly.
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Left on Read is on at Equity Gallery, 245 Broome Street, through May 25. Gallery hours are Wednesday to Friday, 1-7, Saturday 12-6, and Sunday by apt.
Special thanks to Michael Gormley—Equity Gallery Director and Co-Curator, Cami Ledy—Co-Curator, and Gina Mischianti—Gallery Assistant. And be sure to follow Radcliffe on Instagram for more ceramic art that is unabashedly intimate, honest, and queer.
Until next time!