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CORPOREAL IMPULSE: Contemporary Artists Working in Clay

Tactile experience […] adheres to the surface of our body; we cannot unfold it before us, and it never quite becomes an object. Correspondingly, as the subject of touch, I cannot flatter myself that I am everywhere and nowhere; I cannot forget in this case that it is through my body that I go to the world, and tactile experience occurs ‘ahead’ of me, and is not centred in me.”

—Maurice Merleau-Ponty,
Phenomenology of Perception, 1945

In an age where technology tends to form more physical detachments than connections, there is a cultural longing to experience something tangible and handmade. It is this reason that a medium such as clay continues to appeal today. Touch is absorbed into clay, leaving a record of the artist’s presence on its surface. In recognizing these imprints as the mark of its maker, the viewer becomes conscious of his or her own hands and body. In examining ceramics through a phenomenological lens, we are challenged to consider the role our bodies play in perceiving the world around us.

Kathleen Ryan, “Block Wall,” 2012. Glazed ceramic, steel, 72 x 140 x 24 in. Courtesy of the artist.

In Phenomenology of Perception, written in 1945, Maurice Merleau-Ponty helped to re-conceptualize the way in which we look at the world, not just with our mind but with our bodies, which is to say, beyond the visual world alone. Instead, he postulated an embodied perception, an idea that positions our body as a medium, through which we gain consciousness of our world. A blow to long-held dualistic theories of consciousness—ones that separate the mind from the body—Merleau-Ponty’s theories afford an active and expansive means of understanding ourselves and viewing art. Through his corporeal lens, we begin to understand how our entire body, not just our sight, is fundamental to experiencing artwork.

By applying Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological assessments to clay, we can begin to comprehend the role that the body plays in viewing and creating art as an experiential practice. Through our bodily awareness, we can appreciate the affective quality of clay, the impulse to touch with our eyes and to see with our hands. It is through this aesthetic empathy that we are able to perceive the sensation of touch to our own bodies. Corporeal Impulse, at the Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College, references this relation in clay through hand-built sculptures. The works discussed in this essay can be seen as remnants of bodily sensations, as the residue of clay on one’s fingers.

Influenced by biological systems, Julia Haft-Candell’s sinuous sculptures are a reflection of what shapes the organic body inside and out. Created by layering multiple materials including clay, fabric, paper, and wood, tight patterns are often meticulously etched onto their surfaces, while string is often used to bind the winding repetition evoked in her linear clay forms. Their structure is a play between plant and human life, in which undulating shapes become intestinal in appearance. As seen in her work “Toupee” (2013), the resemblance to an infinity symbol is a cue to internal bodily functions. The smeared texture of its surface is scatological; its fecal membrane creates an endless intestinal system. “Toupee”operates as an infinite spiral reflecting ingestion and digestion; the constant flow of matter into and out of the body. The unending curvilinear object creates a constant rhythm, interrupted by a piece of linen placed atop its “head” that anthropomorphizes the sculpture’s abstraction. Haft-Candell’s three-dimensional collages reveal both the simplicity and complexity of the systems in and around us. Through their repetition, rough yet smooth textures, and intuitive yet careful formations, Haft-Candell’s forms postulate an awareness of how the organic body is both a medium and an inspiration to the production of her work.

Bari Ziperstein, “Bust,” 2013. Terracotta, custom decals, concrete, leather, 36 x 24 x 36 ̋. Courtesy of the artist.

Julia Haft-Candell, “Toupee,” 2013. Terracotta, wood, linen. Approx. 18 x 20 x 6 ̋. Courtesy of the artist.

Using his own body to measure the connection between body and material, Matt Merkel Hess’s installation consists of a shelving unit that displays a series of hand-built ceramic sculptures. The shelving unit reflects the exact measurement of Merkel Hess’s height and wingspan, with the height of each individual shelf corresponding to his body parts including his feet, legs, hand, arms, and mouth. The shelves function as a temporary archive, recording Merkel Hess’s bodily presence through clay. The works presented in this installation are a wry experimentation with simplistic modes of artistic production. For instance, “Knee Bowl,” “Shin Bowl,” and “Palm Bowl” (all 2011),are all made by simply pressing clay onto his body to create an indentation. “Right Hand Sculpted By My Left Hand” is a sculpted version of Merkel Hess’s right hand using only his left hand. The object’s awkward construction is the result of the artist’s attempt to sculpt solely with his non-dominant hand. In their archival display, the sculptures become memory objects of his artistic practice.

The top shelf displays “Every Spoon In My House” (2013), an homage to a piece in Mike Kelley’s 1993 exhibition, Mike Kelley: The Uncanny,in which Kelley collected and displayed almost every spoon he owned. Kelley stated that, “the uncontrollable impulse to collect and order is itself, uncanny.”1 By re-creating every spoon in his own house in clay, Merkel Hess’s piece functions as a stand-in for the original. These spoons, holding no sentimental value, represent the accumulation of arbitrary household objects over time. Yet, their handmade quality serves to index a moment in his personal life and artistic practice. Through the mundane act of collecting everyday objects, the artist’s identity inadvertently becomes attached to them.

Jeffry Mitchell’s vessels embody artistic and queer identity through narrative displays involving small animals, skulls, flowers, chains, and other whimsical objects and creatures. These figures often appear cartoonish and clumsy due to the immediacy involved in their construction. Although seemingly light-hearted in appearance, they are deceptively irreverent. Covered in a thick, creamy glaze, the figures become almost buried in obscurity. Innocent creatures are cast alongside male genitalia and orifices making the muddy and crude application of the glaze read as excrement and other bodily discharges, such as semen and spit. Embracing the craft domesticity of ceramics, Mitchell employs clay as a medium to engage with critical content, such as the struggles of religion, sexual identity, and loss.

Mitchell’s piece, “1976,” depicts husky men holding hands, along with bears, skulls, and large grasping hands, all of which spiral around the shape of the stacked vessels. The playful bears2 symbolize pre-AIDS era promiscuity. The hands reach out and grasp for freedom only to be buried in a pile of skulls which are a reoccurring symbol in Mitchell’s work and serve as a reminder of human mortality. This continual interplay between fertility and impotence, life and death, reflects the pleasures of a fearless time in history before the devastation of the AIDS crisis. Ripe with tension and visual splendor, Mitchell’s work provokes a longing for touch. Their raw physicality is made evident by their totemic presence. They become minor monuments representing the tender struggles of repression, desire, and longing, allowing the viewer to feel their emotive content that is both joyous and contemplative.

Matt Merkel Hess, “Right Hand Sculpted By My Left Hand,” 2013. Unglazed porcelain, 4 1/4 x 8 x 2 1/2 ̋. Courtesy of the artist.

“Decorative Protection”(2011 – 2013), is a series of work that dismantles misconceptions about the female body and its need to be protected. Here Bari Ziperstein expands her ceramic practice outside of clay by incorporating cement, leather, custom decals, and other found materials into her sculptures. “Bust”combines terracotta in the upper body and cement in the lower. The face is made with a decal of an abstracted screen door with leering eyes, while the lower half is devoid of limbs, consisting only of cinder blocks adorned with a leather shawl. This imagery is derived from 1980s advertisements depicting women standing near wrought iron security doors, protective devices meant to appeal to a demographic of stay-at-home wives.

Ziperstein’s sculptures deconstruct the female form by abstracting the body and re-presenting it as a powerful structure. These Frankenstein amalgamations of the female figure effectively contrast the visual seduction of marketing and the misconceptions of women as weak and frail as portrayed in these ads. In using such durable materials, Ziperstein creates a super-evolved female form, whose strong exterior becomes a screen-like partition for her own protection, rather than the subject of vulnerability. The stacked cinder blocks act as a dividing wall between viewer and object; its turned head and watchful eyes peer out as if warding off danger. Though these figures are a fragmented and abstracted form of the female body, their totemic fortitude conveys their strength.

Kathleen Ryan’s sculptures are as much about physical strength as they are about fragility. Intuitively visceral and deliberately raw, her sculptures are created by pinching and molding clay over steel armatures. Finger prints remain visible on their surfaces retaining a visual record of their history and maker. During the firing process, the steel begins to melt and the cracking of the clay occurs as a resistance to the steel. “Block Wall” (2012)is a drooping outline of a cinder block wall: its thin lines create the appearance of a three-dimensional drawing in space. Drawing, like clay, shares a similar sense of immediacy. Standing as a melted, deteriorating screen, the upright position of “Block Wall” is made possible only with the support of each panel leaning against one another. This unconventional construction distinguishes it from the sterile industrial architecture that inspired the artist.

Jeffry Mitchell, “Basket With Two Skeletons,” 2013. Glazed earthenware, 10 1/2 x 10 x 9 1/2 ̋. Courtesy of the artist.

“Block Wall”’s crumbling exterior exists in a form of constant decay and repair. It is innately contradictory in that it is durable and fragile, large yet unable to stand on its own; it is both steel and clay. Its large scale garners a firm, physical presence that requires the viewer to walk around it; yet it again counters its own sculptural qualities by being deceptively flat. In this way, the piece functions much like a drawing, challenging the spectator’s perception of depth through its illusory screen. The negative space, in and around its outlines, causes the viewer to fill in the missing information with their own imagination. It is through absence that the forms become present.


  1. Note from Harems (2004)
  2. Also a slang term used by queer men to identify husky men with body hair


Allyson Unzicker

ALLYSON UNZICKER is an M.F.A. candidate in Critical & Curatorial Studies, University of California, Irvine, Claire Trevor School of the Arts. This essay was written for the exhibition, Corporeal Impulse, at the Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College (January 21 - April 12, 2014).


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2014

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