(Here, below, I am paraphrasing my thesis, ENCOUNTERING STATUES: OBJECT ORIENTED ONTOLOGY AND THE FIGURE IN A SCULPTURAL PRACTICE, 2018)
Sculptor Antony Gormley says of his own studio that it ‘is in the world, but not of it’. The framing or boundaries set out by the physical materials, tools, equipment, and agreed conventions of my studio, delineate the environment in which my practice takes place. The studio is the centre of my practice and mediates my work primarily with clay and the other materials I employ.
I have conducted an active studio practice since 1988 and continued with clay and the figure. I have had a variety of studios in schools, co-ops, and buildings of my own, and since 1991 my studios have been set up for ceramics. I make my own clay and glazes with dry materials bought through a ceramic supply house and fire my own work. I also have a wheel and a changing number of moulds most of which I made. In addition to ceramics, my current studio also supports small welding, forging, and cutting of steel, as well as moulds and a mixer for concrete, and the capacity for plaster.
My work comes from the studio and, although I made the studio, I am simply a part of my studio when I work in it. For example, my studio is currently in Louisiana. I am not able to arrive in Germany from Louisiana and immediately make my particular work. I could, of course, set up a studio in Germany, which would require organizing tools and space and electricity and kilns and other machinery and would take a month or so. Then I could begin to make work, which would take a few further months. As a further example, I work alone, I do not direct others to make in my studio, therefore my physically ability is a part of the limitation of the studio. While these arrangements are not unusual for any artist, by identifying and articulating the importance of my studio to my practice in particular, I am made aware that the studio, comprised of its various implements, machines, and materials, is the primary tool of my practice and is of corresponding importance. The studio is as important to my practice as I am. I cannot make my work without the studio.
Writer James Lord recounted the following conversation as having taken place between himself and Artist Alberto Giacometti, when Lord sat for Giacometti in 1964.
I said, “It’s difficult for me to imagine how things must appear to you.”
“That’s exactly what I’m trying to do,” he said, “to show how things appear to me.”
“But what,” I asked, “is the relation between your vision, the way things appear to you, and the technique that you have at your disposal to translate that vision into something which is visible to others?”
“That’s the whole drama,” he said. “I don’t have such a technique.”
(Lord, 2015 reprint, p.44) and (Turchi, 2004, p.kl172)
Here, Giacometti confesses to the (well documented) drama he endured through supposing he had no (or not enough) technique with which to show how things appeared to him. Technique (or craft or skills) eases translation of the urge to make into a suitable harvest, and while technique can becomes a dull rut if ill-used, it is significant facet of making.
Phillip Guston said that John Cage said:
“When you start working, everybody is in your studio, the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas all are there. But as you continue painting, they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you are lucky, even you leave.”
(Jones 1998, 11)
Through technique I am able to enter the studio oriented; I am ready to skillfully engage familiar material at a level where we (the materials and I) move beyond what I can think about alone, without the collaboration. Technique is the possibility of moving beyond my vision, to something visible to others. Technique, as it has manifested in my studio, is an important tool for the making I do; specifically, the value of the historical craft of both the figure and clay in my practice, although I adhere to neither as a defining title or practice.
Drawing a parallel between mastering language as a tool to write, embracing the history of the figure as a subject of study, and as an art object, as well as ceramic technique, has given my solitary practice centuries of skills and solutions to call on, limitations to press against, and a medium to express with. When Danto recounts that new definitions for art appeared because, ‘artists pressed against boundary after boundary, and found that the boundaries all gave way’ (Danto, 2014, p.14), I recognize that the techniques I have chosen have historic limits, and that I only need to consider those boundaries differently in order to step over what was once taboo and use that former limit to subtle advantage. Using the figure or statues models employing a boundary that has given way. Statues are –to paraphrase artist Grayson Perry– one of the last truly dangerous thing[s].
There is risk inherent in breaking away from the techniques and constraints of a particular craft or in presenting familiar subjects in a modified way. Aside from the possibility of the artist overwhelmed and rudderless at a crucial moment (exhibited by the professed insecurities of Giacometti), there will be a new vocabulary that artist and viewer alike have not fully assimilated, or traditional inferences and connotations will overshadow the new method of engaging materials or subject.
Grayson Perry, in his third Reith Lecture, points out that ‘contemporary art, is almost synonymous with the idea of novelty’. He contends that contemporary art or art today is usually described as ‘cutting edge,’ and the artists are said to be ‘radical;’ the shows are described as game changers, and the work is spoken about as ‘revolutionary, [while] a new paradigm is always being set’.
In contrast Perry speaks about two similar drawings found on a cave wall in France (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog, 2010). When the two drawings were carbon dated, it was discovered that they were separated by five thousand years. Perry quotes the archaeologist as saying; “You know, these look like they could have been done by the same person on the same day”. I suggest that my work occupies a small portion of the space between a ‘new paradigm‘ and five thousand similar years. There has been very little alteration in the material or in the subject I have chosen, and often the histories of both the material and the form overshadow the minute shifts with which each might be addressed.
Materiality addresses the medium through which the sculptor produces the art object. The statue is a negotiation of material and form through to a third object of, in my work for example, clay and figure as unified art object. The figure is, again specifically in my work, rarely fully representational. It is recognizable, and my goal as artist is to use an understanding of anatomy as a tool and not as a template.
Bernini’s Pluto and Proserpina, or The Rape of Proserpina, 1622, exhibits representational anatomy and the illusion of soft flesh, but it is not real anatomy or flesh. In this same way, Pluto and Proserpina are represented and not real. Bernini, as Waldermar Januszczak says of Giotto in The Renaissance Unchained, ‘has found a way to imagine the unimaginable. In the real world, it can’t happen but in art, it can’.
Pluto and Proserpina are not real in the real world, but there they are as sculpture, the lord of the Underworld grasps the soft thigh of the daughter of the earth-goddess Ceres. The material, or in this case the stone, is the medium through which the figure is expressed. Art historian David Getsy posits that a ‘sculptor must negotiate to some degree the integration of or interference between figuration and materiality when creating a representational sculpture’. He goes on to suggest that the viewer must also ‘see the statue as a combination of matter and figure’. The negotiation of statues includes an important merging of material and figure, to understand both, simultaneously. The encounter with statues holds the dual nature of material and figure but contained in a unified object.
Sculptor Henry Moore has often been quoted about truth to materials. The Oxford University Press Reference Web site provides the typical Moore quote: ‘Each material has its own individual qualities . . . Stone, for example, is hard and concentrated and should not be falsified to look like soft flesh . . . It should keep its hard, tense stoniness.’ (Oxford, 2017) This implies that Moore believed stone should always look like stone and never appear to be flesh. The OUP Reference goes on to suggest Moore eventually rescinded his hard-line stance.
Moore later admitted that the idea of truth to materials had become a fetish and in 1951 he conceded that it should not be made into a criterion of value, ‘otherwise a snowman made by a child would have to be praised at the expense of a Rodin or a Bernini’ (Oxford, 2017).
Reading the first quote in full from Unit One, I interpret Moore as suggesting something slightly different about truth to materials and doing that very much in the language of a sculptor. The full quote reads as follows:
“Each sculptor through his past experience, through observation of natural laws, through criticism of his own work and other sculpture, through his character and psychological makeup, and according to his stage of development, finds that certain qualities in sculpture become of fundamental importance to him. For me these qualities are:
Truth to material: Every material has its own individual qualities. It is only when the sculptor works direct, when there is an active relationship with his material that the material can take its part in the shaping of an idea. Stone, for example, is hard and concentrated and should not be falsified to look like soft flesh – it should not be forced beyond its constructive build to a point of weakness. It should keep its hard, tense stoniness.”
(Moore, 1934, p.29)
Two points stand out here: The first is that Moore is speaking about the sculptor’s experience and that this is what he has found to be of primary importance to himself, as an artist. That important thing is this: an active, engaged relationship with the material, so ‘that the material can take its part in the shaping of an idea’, which, I contend has more to do with Moore’s relationship to stone than stone and the softness of flesh. His work, I suggest, was altered by his studio experiences with stone. Moore was not tasked with, for example, a portrait of Louis XIV as Bernini was, he was making something that more resembled his feelings about the figure, or how figures feel, or how a reclining woman made of stone feels to him, rather than indicating a particular figure.
Clarifying what Moore finally considered truth to materials to evoke, reveals more of an issue of craft and training, than material. In a typewritten set of notes that Moore gave to editor Myfanwy Piper in 1970, now in the archives of the Tate, is a section called Extracts From Various Notes Written In 1951 (Moore, 2015). It is from the writing here that Moore has been characterized as changing his mind about truth to materials. When Moore began to make work that broke away from the constraints of craft and tradition, it was essential to create a framing for the new kind of work he was embarking on. Thirty years later he recounts, ‘many of us tended to make a fetish of [truth to materials]’ (Moore, 2015, p.4). As his style of working became more broadly accepted and understood, Moore clarifies his position writing that ‘rigid adherence to the doctrine results in domination of the sculptor by the material. The sculptor ought to be the master of his material. Only, not a cruel master’ (Moore, 2015). From this understanding of Moore’s truth to materials, I return to technique and the boundaries that were falling beneath artists like Moore, (as per Arthur Danto). There is the suggestion here that Moore came to see technique as the etiquette with which a sculptor approaches material and develops familiarity, and not as an imposed veil or limit. It is in the framing of an expanded vision to be something visible to others (as per Giacometti) that presents the constraining issue, rather than the material.
Moore, H., 2015. Henry Moore Some Notes of Space and Form in Sculpture 1970. [Online] Tate Research Publication Available at: “http://www.tate.org.uk/art/research%5Bpublications/henry%5Bmoore/henry%5B moore[some[notes[of[space[and[form[in[sculpture[r1145426”
The primary and vital material of my work is Clay. I studied ceramics, and earned a certificate in the context of a craft school, and have therefore been schooled not only in the skills, but also in the language and traditions of ceramics and pottery which come as an integral part of that kind of education. I function peripherally in the context of ceramic tradition, although my skills with clay came through this tradition. Acquisition of those traditions along with the skills is often so well integrated that we are markedly unaware we inhabit them.
For example, in a 2014 Art News article declaring that, ‘American ceramic art has finally come out of the closet, kicking and disentangling itself from domestic servitude and minor arts status—perhaps for good’ (Wei, 2014) Artist Arlene Shechet, is quoted saying: ‘I’m not a ceramic artist, […]. I’m an artist who works in clay’ (Shechet cited in Wei, 2014). Her work however specifically references clay practices and forms, and these conventions are seldom obvious to viewers not familiar with ceramic tradition. Her work speaks to vessels and to ceramic tradition however dysfunctional her objects would be in a domestic setting. In the same article, artist Nicole Cherubini states that, ‘As far as clay being a craft material, it blows me away that it is even part of the conversation anymore’ (Cherubini cited in Wei, 2014). Cherubini’s work also references vessels, pots, and shards. Artists working in other mediums are rarely as consistently drawn to the subtleties of functional vessel forms. These forms may be vestigial, but they do speak loudly about a particular tradition and not specifically to what is potential or possible through the material.
(Nota Bene): (The assimilation of ceramics into the fine art world has been heralded for decades. In the Journal American Ceramics, Vol. 13, Number 2, 1999, former Sculpture Magazine editor Suzanne Ramljak interviews the New York (now Santa Fe) Art dealer Garth Clark. Ramljak quotes Clark as saying, in an earlier issue, “I believe the 1980s will witness that true integration of ceramics into the fabric of American fine art we have so long anticipated.” Speaking in 1999, Clark observed that to his surprise very few ceramic artists ‘would make the cut once the standards of fine arts were applied.’ He went on to say– some twenty years ago now–that ‘few individuals in our field had the strength to gain such acceptance.’)
My work and practice also has much of the traditions of clay still clinging to both. Again, my studio is essentially a pottery, although without the tidiness craft requires. My construction process is descended from large vessel hand building, but these references are mostly hidden in the work, unless specifically displayed.59 I am informed by, aware of, and have greatly benefitted from ceramic tradition. I have learned how to conduct productive and satisfactory relations with a material in a structured and tradition-based context. The clay informs me as much as the clay is informed by me. I make use of clay in service to the figure and make use of ceramics, as a discipline and tradition to that end. But I do not specifically ask the clay to pretend that it is skin or hair or fingernails. The figures I make are not real people, they are not specific portraits or meant to fool or trick the eye. They are ideas about people made using the statue as a vehicle.
Louise Bourgeois speaking about materials said in an interview that:
“I transfer the energy into sculpture. This applies to everything I do. It has nothing to do with the craft. It has nothing to do with the skills. It has nothing to do with the how to manage materials. Materials are materials, nothing more. Materials are not the subject of the artist. The subject of the artist is emotions and ideas – both.”
(Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, The Mistress And The Tangerine , 2008, @1:31:04).
That materials are not the subject of the artist is, for me, a given, but what allows me to expand and explore in the studio is how the materials I use function as tools to think with and to materialize emotions and ideas.