North and Center: HEPHAESTOS CHALLENGED: 7 WOMEN SCULPTORS
Contemporary Sculpture exhibition of works by university sculpture professors in the region with Lisa Austin of Edinboro University of PA, Carmel Buckley of Ohio State University, Kate Budd of The University of Akron, Lane Cooper of the Cleveland Institute of Art, Alison Crocetta of Ohio State University, Isabel Farnsworth of Kent State University, and Irina Koukhanova of Cleveland State University; curated by Robert Thurmer
Hephaestos is the Greek god of sculptors, metal, and fire. He is the smith-god, the craftsman and artist, who creates both weapons and ornaments. As the son of Zeus and Hera, the king and queen of the gods, he occupies a central position in the cosmos of the ancients. He represents advanced technology* tamed by the ordering principle of beauty. Although the god himself was depicted as a lame and bearded dwarf ** – rejected by his mother for his ugliness – he nonetheless, is the source of beauty and refinement of everything that is ‘made.’ He fashioned Hermes’ wings, crafted Eros’ bow and arrow, and it was from his forge that Prometheus stole the fire he gave to man. The figure of Hephaestos is a metaphor for a certain esthetic that is characterized by the imposition of the artist’s will on massive, obstinate matter, creating forms from heavy metal with heat, tools, and physical strength – the attributes of primal male creativity.
American sculptors championed this ‘macho’ esthetic in the second half of the 20th Century as art schools and universities adopted it as the true path of sculpture. Inspired by ever more massive mechanical forms achieved through energy-intensive industrial processes, ‘bearded dwarfs’ dominated the sculpture departments in art schools across this country... until relatively recently, when a new generation of sculptors, many of them women, began to challenge the preeminence of the ‘hephaestian’ esthetic in the academic discourse of contemporary sculpture.
This exhibition explores the work of seven women sculptors teaching at universities in this region today. Their work illustrates the slow transformation of academic sculpture programs to a more nuanced sensibility. Sculpture on the whole has moved well beyond the strictly 3-dimensional and has entered the domain of ideas, multi-sensory experiences, human interactions, and linguistic propositions.
The title of this exhibition not withstanding, the only direct reference to any god in this exhibition is to Ganesh, not Hephaestos. It is perhaps appropriate to end with the image of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god of overcoming obstacles, intellect, and insight who is, like Hephaestos, the artist-god in his pantheon. Ganesh, like Hephaestos, is the offspring of a divine and royal couple – Parvati, the mother goddess, and Lord Shiva, the destroyer – but Ganesh, in contrast to Hephaestos, is beloved and adored by his mother, perhaps instructive of the feminine principle at work. Ganesh, in this exhibition at least, contests the domain of the old forge god, as wisdom overcomes strength.
* Hephaestos is the product of the Bronze Age when metallurgy and metalworking was the pinnacle of technological achievement
** The Greeks abhorred physical defects and distinguished themselves from the reviled Barbarians (lit. bearded ones) by being clean-shaven
My artistic process is one of gathering, sorting, and assimilating my experience of the world. In sculptural form, I re-shape and articulate distillations of my subjective experiences. I use imagery, color and tactile materials as an entry point. The pieces emerge from the act of making, responding, contemplation and play.
Whereas much of my work has used the figure or ‘the body’ as a starting point, this new installation embraces landscape and memory. Out of various materials such as re-purposed wood, found paper, recycled monoprints and dyed tubing, I construct hills, water, flowers and a forest. The inspiration for the piece began with a writing class, “Writing Your Spiritual Autobiography.” The act of writing and reading aloud to a group was very meaningful and enlightening. What emerged again and again, through the journey of remembering and writing, was a strong connection to the landscapes of my childhood. Here are a few excerpts that inspired my piece:
“At age 6 or 7, I had a favorite spot under a weeping willow tree. I would lie under it with my head on a ‘dream pillow’ -- a pillow created out of paper with drawings on them, stuffed with crumpled paper and stapled together. I would rest under this willow and watch the hanging branches sway in the wind. I would stare up at the sky or close my eyes and dream.”
“The places that I lived in California as a child (ages 8-13) hold special memories for me. I loved the soft, rolling (often brown) hills of Marin County. I remember exploring the open space for hours and hours on foot or horseback. I recall experiencing intimately the many creeks, damns, and forests…”
“The summer when I was 16 (in VA), I loved being alone up at Black Pond, the solitude in nature soothed me. I would hike up to the spring fed lake situated high above the Potomac River and swim in the mysterious dark water. I would climb and sun on the large boulders, listening and watching the birds, and observing the vastness of the sky, the white water river below, and the ever shifting clouds. I can recall the feeling of awe that I experienced for all the beauty that surrounded me.”
“I remember swimming out in the pitch-black ocean as far could, where I couldn’t touch anymore. Focusing on the barely distinguishable black horizon and the stars above and below, (the water was filled with little glowing algae or jellyfish, something quite small… they were everywhere in the water, glowing). As I was engulfed in the surrounding blackness and void of it all, I was both frightened and exhilarated. I experienced weightlessness and loss of the definition of my body. I felt like I was floating in the universe.”
“...Taking the leap, jumping backwards off the wing of the plane, required a literal leap of faith that I wouldn’t die and a leap of spiritual faith that is much harder to define or describe. As I floated down with a parachute above me and the landscape below, I experienced joy, beauty and a faith in both myself and in something greater.”
I seek archetypal forms, creating hybrid objects that are self-contained in the way of a stone or piece of fruit. They inhabit a zone between the organic and functional, the psychologically charged and coolly neutral. Desire, disease, fecundity and constraint are recurring themes; I keep worrying at them, like a dog with a bone.
I begin by carving solid blocks of wax; creating a positive by removing material is magical and challenging. Working intuitively, I learn what the piece is by making it. By wrapping, pinning, polishing and embellishing, I give in to the human desire for artifice and decoration.
As a child, I was fascinated by ancient Pictish stone spheres. The museum didactics said only “use unknown, possibly ritual”. Oddly functional in appearance and old beyond my comprehension, these small forms had presence and mystery and gave me a sense of the power small objects can have.
In making this piece I am responding to a desire to use the human form as I have made works in a similar vein in the past. Many years ago I carved some miniature heads that I have wanted to incorporate into a piece. After working on a collaborative project this past summer I found a way that I could use these earlier carvings as models for multiple castings in hydrocal. I thought again of Rodin with his casts of modeled body parts that he used over and over in different configurations. In the first iteration my cast heads, numbering nearly four thousand, massed in a line that traversed the Urban Arts Space gallery, suggesting movement and accumulation. The work obliquely refers to my interest in multiple replicating marks whose subtle variations lend the work its visual interest. This column of heads, suggesting a marching army, were heading off course and for the second installation of this piece I will group the heads in a disorderly fashion that might suggest swarms or disorganized groups massing in some way. I am interested in both the political and the visual aspects of the work where accumulation and disorder correlate to the potential reading of the pattern formed by my collection of miniature heads.
“Panoptic Landscape” evolves from the theme of my last solo exhibition “Iron Enclosure”. Iron cage serves as a metaphor for the predicament of modern human beings trapped in a socioeconomic structure of their own making.
Not only is space crucial to the exercise of power in the new work but in “Panoptic Landscape” power also creates a particular kind of space. In that space the solitary struggle and triumph of individual psyche unravel through a multitude of references escorted by an ironic grin.
“When men have departed from the right way, it is no wonder that they stumble and fall.” – Thomas Paine, Common Sense
Lisa Austin spent much of 2013 as a candidate for Erie (PA) County Council. To most people, a political campaign will seem a strange diversion for an artist. It is, however, within the framework of Joseph Beuys’ “Social Sculpture” that Austin’s work may be understood. Like Beuys and Paine and Plato so long before, she has concerned herself with the social and the political and their capacity to sculpt society. If sculpture is the artistic discipline that puts something “real” into the world, if sculpture produces works that shape the space through which we move, then there is no more potent medium for sculpture than political action.
The collaborative installation “Common Sense” is named for Thomas Paine’s 1776 pamphlet. Like Paine, Austin and Cooper put forward “Common Sense” as a rallying cry. Through the lens of Austin’s recent candidacy and by literally offering a political stage to those willing to occupy it, “Common Sense” examines the workings of our current political system. Through this examination the roadblocks to a “government by the people and for the people” become painfully clear, as does what might be a remedy for what ails us. While the requisite posters, buttons and various other campaign props illustrate the financial requirements for the most modest of campaigns, it is the stage which offers its counterpoint.
As with all good theater, the political stage requires actors. Actors capable of acting as authors, orators and philosophers, they must take the stage without withering under the gaze of the audience, but most importantly they must suspend disbelief and entreat their audience to do likewise. They must take on faith that their performance might affect change, that their participation might help sculpt if not a perfect union, then perhaps a kinder nation. The stage, as the centerpiece of the installation is an invitation to participate, to be fearless, to be heard. It is a reminder that we must not yield our responsibility to be heard to those with deeper pockets or political machines to drive their causes, but that we take seriously our nation’s generative concept – “We the People”.
Lisa Austin, a professor at Edinboro University of PA, is a co-founder of the Civitas collaborative in Erie, PA where she is community activist working primarily through Social Practices.
Lane Cooper is an artist and writer working through painting, video, installation and on occasion performance. She is an Associate Professor in Painting at the Cleveland Institute of Art where she organizes their “Lunch on Fridays” series.
A Garland for Ganeśa
This garland is a heartfelt offering to Ganeśa, the remover of obstacles and the deva of the arts.It is a strand composed of many parts that form a circuit. Like our lives, it is an accumulation of small, often fleeting, gestures that combine to form a larger whole. We are each living a series of complex and astounding events. One moment a prayer, the next a memory, and the next a breath that is coming or going.
I initially made this paper garland as part of another performance project entitled A Circus of One (Act II). This sculpture was to form the ring of this one-woman circus. I intended to lay the garland at the feet of the audience in a gesture that would create the envelope for the performance while allowing me to acknowledge and honor each witness to the event. For me, the form and intention of this performance object was always intrinsically tied to Ganśa as garlands are a traditional offering to him.
When the garland was nearly finished, I began to realize that it was not the best solution for A Circus of One (Act II). The garland had a mind of its own and would not maintain its form as a ring, nor did it behave as I imagined. In practice, it was rather unruly to handle and much heavier than I had anticipated.
In many circumstances, our art has other plans for us. Eventually, I accepted that the object needed to be put aside in favor of another way to convey my intentions through a different form. I trusted that this garland would find its way back into my work at the right time. It lay in waiting for this opportunity to manifest within another context. Ganeśa has removed one obstacle to make way for another possibility.
A Garland for Ganeśa, Alison Crocetta, paper, 32'L x 5"D (shape variable), 2013.
Special thanks to Emily Irvin, Zac Little, Jamie Edelstein and Kelly Ryan who have all joined me in the making of this garland.