Arlene Shechet’s packed 2013 calendar began with four group shows and closes with October and December solo shows respectively at Sikkema Jenkins, New York and the Rhode Island School of Design Museum. This follows four 2012 solo shows, a six-month residency at Meissen Porcelain near Dresden, and being the January cover story artist for Art in America. As an earlier review points out, her “effect is that of a three-dimensional Guston, austere and antic at the same time.”[i] Shechet’s sculpture is more self-conscious than Jackson Pollock’s and her investigations of glazes, clay, molds, and processes are more subversive than his gestural drippings on canvas.
For this studio visit, I joined about a dozen adults from the ICA, Boston (on March 2) to see a 20-year range of Shechet’s oldest to newest work. Here are highlights from the artist’s remarks in her modest-sized yet fully-loaded studio space:
Shechet: “I have many bodies of work here. For me, it’s surprising to see how my work relates to Eastern thought, philosophy, and Buddhism, which is part of my studio practice. I consider being in the studio more important than the finished piece. I want my practice to be alive on a daily basis. Using Hydrocal, I accidentally made a Buddha that harnessed a way I want to be present. Normally, plaster and Hydrocal need an armature, but as I worked with the wet material, which hardens in minutes, it became a performative thing. Before that, I was working with paint skins, making things with light and color without backing. “
We are at the entrance/back of the studio — a couple of desks, flat files with Buddha forms on top, and storage shelves. We next move to Was Still, a sculpture with a globe-like head on top of brick-built bottoms.
Jenelle Porter (ICA leader): “Arlene took these bricks from inside the kiln and made them an outside material – all of your work has inside-out thinking.”
Arlene: “That’s what made me want to work with ceramics – I wanted to have a body to body experience, mostly without tools. I’m a geek enough to like the challenge of making something different. This also shows that air can be structural and that clay, a time-based material, requires attention to make it work. For example, working on the globes, I might be able to add an inch a day. And with glazes, you don’t get what you see – the idea of transferring the information is close to being an experience of call and response – I make the thing and it talks back to me – it’s a real relationship if I pay attention to it. After firing for days, the skin, the color, and the material become one thing. One of my self-imposed rules is that this material becomes its own armature.”
We now move on to Reclining Incline, a green lung-like piece on a blue-painted rectangular wooden base.
Arlene: “When I started with this body of work six or seven year ago, I wanted to show the possibilities of inhaling/exhaling and hollowness; there is also a sexual reference to Indian classical sculpture. It has a crazy glaze. Most pieces take months to dry. I live with each piece for a long time, looking for hints about which way to push the color.”
We move to a ceramic work with purple-black-orange on its squarish top and a metal bottom.
Arlene: “My job is to pull pieces together and apart at the same time. The planes go in different directions. It’s hard to make ceramic boxes.”
Jenelle: “Arlene is always pushing harder”
Arlene: ”to make the vocabulary bigger.”
We move to End of Story, a porcelain from Meissen.
Arlene:” I’ve been going to Meissen since last April. During the first two-month trip, I brought an assistant who is a mold-maker. The factory has 640 people and is known for its secrecy. I slowly infiltrated every inch there. One day I saw blocks with an open grid at a place to recycle porcelain. There was an extruder and people were wearing white lab coats. Meissen is state-run, in the German Democratic Republic, in Meissen, a 16th Century town – I had a flat up at the castle. We made molds of the molds. Sometimes a lid mold would become a bowl. I also used the backs of molds. We took these plaster things and cast them in porcelain. This Asian vase dates from 1710 and is hand-painted in an onion pattern. They were copying pomegranates and peaches from China.
“This is a gangster girl figurine with twenty parts painted with a single-hair brush over two days. This is a mold of a mold from a bear figurine with a 24-karat gold glaze. I’m working within given lines; everywhere you see a line is another mold. I want to use their language and my language and do something else.
“I made some big pieces that are firing for two weeks; RISD just bought one piece. Starting December 6, they are showing my Meissen stuff with their Meissen collection. That’s completely exciting for me. I feel my job is to present what’s in their collection in a way that will make people look again.”
We are now at the end of the studio furthest away from the entrance. Some Meissen pieces are on tables and a back wall. A series of crystal ropes, knots, lines, and loops from a residency at Pilchuck, in Seattle, is on a side wall. The artist tells me the ropes were technically hard to make and that with glass blowing, “nobody takes their breath for granted.” The glass has bluish casts due to different colors in the mold. “I think of these as rivers moving through space,” Shechet adds.
Shechet is not afraid of her 25% failure rate either, just hoping that the 3 ½-foot high works at Meissen, firing at temperatures up to 2000 degrees, make it through. See http://arleneshechet.net/ for more news.
[i] Review of Arlene Shechet at Jack Shainman by Stephen Mueller on 1/5/11.