In Practice: Under Foundations
In Practice: Under Foundations surveys diverse media through the lens of foundations and other raw, basic, and structural forms. The exhibition was curated by Jess Wilcox, the 2014-15 SculptureCenter Curatorial Fellow. Wilcox commissioned 11 artists to present pieces that analyze what lies beneath a work’s exterior. In addition to sculpture, the show includes video and performances, expanding on the idea of “foundation” in ways that both clarify and complicate it. Some pieces solidify, some engage, and others unravel the quest for understanding the foundations of creative expression itself.
In a single channel video, Potter’s Will (2015), the artist Ben Hagari personifies a clay vessel by providing a second body to the object. The video shows a clay vessel being molded, thrown, and spun. Next, the artist—caked in clay—rouses and begins to trudge around a dimly lit room. Hands slap, pat, and caress a chunk of clay. Mimicking the rotation of a potter’s wheel, the camera spins, reproducing the sweeping movement of a piece in formation. The vertiginous motion culminates in the clay figure’s awakening in the darkened baroque lair, alluding to the fiery interior of the kiln. This delightful material anthropomorphizing plunges the work into a fantastical realm, dwelling not on the potter, but on the pot, and the animation of material.
Alexandra Lerman’s terracotta slabs, organically imprinted with contours of the human body, confront material animation in more complicated ways. On clay pieces throughout the galleries, a smudged handprint documents the gesture of swiping a touch screen, an outstretched arm with a taut hand records the universal hand gesture for “stop,” and a foot is depicted mid-arch descending a single stair. The unusual works masterfully join movement with solid material forms. The clay pieces are striking not simply as documents of performance, but as props in the performance itself.
Lerman’s sculptures archive the physicality of communication, a theme also present in Madeline Hollander’s movement sequences for their collaboration Illegal Motion (2015). The movement sequences consist of eight dance performances that interact with the clay tablets in the gallery space. Dancers perform copyrighted movements that range from the hand motions of sports referees to TSA pat-down techniques (all of which are technically illegal to enact). The mesmerizing performances activate the body in space, divulging subconscious patterns in corporeal conveyance. Performers repeat the choreographed gestures in a loop throughout the galleries, eliminating the traditional beginning, middle, and end of a performance. With no trajectory, the dancers break down the convention of a starting point or foundation.
Dealing more directly with the architecture of the space, Janelle Iglesias’s The Only Way Out Is Through (What Doesn’t Bend Breaks) (2015) draws one’s eye to the arch-shaped ceiling. Iglesias offers an amusing collection of arched objects and bodies that either naturally assume that form or bend to that shape. In foregrounding the architecture of the basement, she also reveals the novel places where this shape quietly manifests. The arch may begin as an architectural foundation, but serves so many other functions in nature. A leaf covered gazebo, a metal horseshoe, a piñata rainbow, and a triumphal arch tchotchke are arched by nature. A bendable reading lamp, a half-eaten donut, and a drooping slinky are forms capable of conforming to this shape. A life size image of a body mid-backbend and an arching mannequin imply that the body, too, can bend backwards to create this silhouette. Iglesias’s nuanced interpretations of the arch extend beyond the foundation, connoting strength, shelter, flexibility, and tradition.
Interpreting the notion of foundations in art historical terms, Xu Wang produced a compelling marble sculpture and video piece that deals with traditional depictions of bodies in the Western canon. Xiawa and Dawai (Eve and David) (2014-2015) is one of the most overtly political works in the show. The artist focuses on the artisans of Quyang county, China, an area known for its quarries, marble carving schools, and marble sculpture market that duplicate traditional Western forms for the Western market. Wang presents two life-size marble sculptures of the artisans also depicted in his video.
Both pieces comment on the use of Chinese labor to reproduce European sculpture. Wang carves over sculptures of Eve and David discarded for flaws to produce the likenesses of two Quyang artisans. Here, race can be chipped away at, transforming Euro-centric ideals into depictions of contemporary Chinese artisans. Wang undermines the canon by inserting these artisans into the coterie of Western gods, heroes, and kings. Foreheads are smoothed, collarbones are sanded, and hair is stylized. Hips jut out in the traditional contrapposto stance. The powerful work stirs questions about whiteness in art history. By closely echoing the Western style, the artist subverts these conventional depictions of the human form. Wang’s sculptures exist as both original and replica, straddling the space of real and fake, foundation and superstructure. The foundational layers are manifold. As copies of Greco-Roman styles and as the original work of artisans, Wang’s pieces are both conceptual and material readymades.
Catherine Czacki’s work diverges somewhat from the curatorial agenda, troubling the idea of foundations. She has amassed several enigmatic piles and hangings of found objects, papier-mâché-wrapped furniture, and fragments of familiar forms. The strange shapes, folds, and cracks in these quotidian items draw attention to their exteriors. In the strongest work, Low plane (Glass) / It is itself at all times II / Low plane (Silver) / Incisiform I / Subtracted objects I-IV (2014-2015), smooth paper pulp, black glass, and wood fill the contours of an iPhone case on a low pedestal with other glass and wood pieces. Rendered obsolete, the once functional case transitions from an artifact of technology into an abstract sculpture.
Rosa Aiello’s CGI animation Serving Water (2015) briefly lingers on the surface, but plumbs a psychological depth in toying with broad foundational forces like gravity and the movement of the body in space. Aiello pulls her viewer along a tin ceiling, exposing a tiled interior and set table. Aiello’s work is at first disorienting, but reveals a sophisticated interpretation of space, depth, and perspective. The set table reappears in close-up and then from below. The tableau cuts to an expansive field of majestically sunlit reeds rustling in the wind and then to black-and-white footage of masked men breaking into a chain-link gate. Familiar spatial structures are inverted, and glimpses of shadows eerily imply the presence of hidden living forms.
As a whole, In Practice: Under Foundations is most notable for exposing a rich and varied body of new works by living artists. The pieces fit together most fully within that context. Yet these dissimilar voices, in clay, video, and movement, etc., unite in the ways they undermine, complicate, and expose the foundations of art making. There is room for each interpretation, explicit and implicit, under, around, and beyond the foundations.