Seriously, how can we not talk about it? Clay is fundamental, truly elemental. And clay really has no abstraction, for if you talk about it, then you have to talk about the very “thingness” of the world. You have to talk about tangible stuff.
Cars comprise a lot of that stuff; the automotive has become a hugely fundamental part of our world’s thingness. So wouldn’t it be interesting if it could somehow be a part of a discussion about clay?
But cars and clay? Really? It’s not often that the two are thought of in the same sentence. Oh sure, there’s a bit of overlap between them in a very general way courtesy the important but culturally little-known realm of industrial ceramics, and in a slightly more direct way because collectable old automotive signage tends to have a ceramic component that lends it its value. But none of this is stuff that really enters our thinking about a possible clay/automotive relationship at any overt level, and certainly not at the aesthetic.
Enter Clint Neufeld. He’s a Canadian artist working with clay who grew up in a rural farming area out in the prairies. A graduate of the University of Saskatchewan, he did post-graduate work at Concordia University in Montreal before returning to his rural roots and to create work that enquired into the thingness of the world. More specifically, he went home to cars. Even more specifically, to engines.
The automotive and the rural go hand in hand. On a farm, the ability to make quick repairs on site to machinery – especially to common but important farm vehicles like trucks and tractors – is crucial, and this, finally, is where clay enters into the story. What Clint Neufeld learned growing up on the farm became the source of his work in ceramics.
It started, perhaps appropriately enough, with tools. As part of his post-graduate work, Neufeld began to make them – to make tools out of clay, I mean. One of his first pieces was Estwing Framing Hammer, from 2005. From a mould of a long-handled framing hammer meant for use in the construction industry, Neufeld made a number of casts using clay slip. The 1:1 scale, monochromatic white ceramic products were accurate in every way to the tool that gave them aesthetic life, except for the fact that they were, of course, utterly stripped of any degree of functionality. Neufeld made them things to look at and contemplatively regard, and not things to handle with unselfconscious skill in the service of some utile end.
What he did with the simple hammer was the origin of a pattern he’s since followed in a literally and metaphorically larger way when he began to work with tools of another scale and level of technological complexity: automotive engines. Two years after the hammer, Neufeld produced the first of his 1:1 scale ceramic engines, Ten Thousands Over (2007-2008). Working with a friend, Neufeld purchased and disassembled an old car engine, scrupulously cleaning it of any grease and oil, then made plaster moulds of its component parts so as to produce casts of clay slip that were, in turn, assembled to sculpturally recreate the original piece of technology. Ten Thousands Over (the title makes reference to the re-boring of engine cylinders by automotive enthusiasts interested in making an engine more powerful) steered away from the pristine monochromatism of his earlier hammer; though the bulk of the engine is ceramic white, some parts – like spark plugs and piston rods – were cast in a purple hue. No matter the color, the evacuation of the technological aim and end – of purpose and utility – was utter.
But there’s way more going on in Neufeld’s work than just aesthetic displacement of purpose. Monochromatism tends to factor through virtually all his work, like Left for George (2011) or Pink 350 (n.d.), but it’s tempered by his employment of important contextualizing installational elements, and also by the subtle use of decorative imagery. Left for George is a 1:1 scale sculpture of an automotive axle – all pristine white ceramic – is exhibited integrally with two beautifully decorative wooden stands that hold and support it, while Pink 350 is a full-size automotive transmission in soft pink ceramic, exhibited mounted upright on an antique wooden side table, displacing, say, a lamp, or maybe a trophy that more logically might have sat there.
Neufeld widely indulges in such jarringly keen juxtapositions between sculptural machinery and found elements like end tables or divans, often exhibiting works as if in repose on furniture. One Yellow Rose (2012) is like that, a full 1:1 scale engine and attached transmission, done in pale green ceramic, stretched out its full length on an old antique love seat.
In a surreal sort of way, it’s as if the machines have risen up against us, have displaced us from the couch to stand about (as we do in the gallery setting in which these pieces find themselves) or sit on the floor. They’ve made themselves utterly at home, put their proverbial feet up on the couch – have, in a nutshell, become us. And it’s a conceit that is backed up through the second contextualizing element in his work: his intriguing use of imagery. In a number of works – One Yellow Rose, Left for George, and Pink 350 amongst them – Neufeld has “tattooed” his sculptures, subtly ornamenting the works with decorative decals of a decidedly floral motif.
The juxtaposition between images of lovely flowers spread across sculptural representations of machinery is brute enough on its own. But it’s the installational context that mixes and compounds a critical level of meaning with the decorative; Neufeld has transposed industrial, manufactured things into personalities – into people, of a sort. These ceramic pieces may be based on artifacts produced at an industrial scale, but each is in fact a one-of-a-kind, a singular and unique individual, sporting its own one-of-a-kind tattoo, sprawled across a divan, lazing in a chair, or, as in Cream Before Tea (2012), a sculptural white carburetor (minus a tattoo) nestled like some pampered cat atop a pillow.
There’s a kind of entitlement being evoked here, here, Neufeld maybe reminding us that the “thingness” of the world that we take for granted gives all that stuff we accumulate a kind of privilege. We may take it for granted, get angry at it when it doesn’t do our bidding, but boy, are we ever dependent upon it. In Clint Neufeld’s work, thingness takes the best seats in the house. And we stand there, watching it.
(Some of Clint Neufeld’s recent workis part of the MASS MoCA-organized exhibition Oh, Canada, currently on tour and showing at four galleries in Eastern Canada until the end of September. See www.mta.ca/owens/exhibitions/index.php. Neufeld maintains his own website at www.clintneufeld.com.)
By Gil McElroy