The following essay comes to us from artist Ashley Lyon, who earned her MFA in sculpture and extended media at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2011 and her BFA in ceramics from the University of Washington in 2006. Lyon has been awarded residencies at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, the European Ceramic WorkCentre, the Archie Bray Foundation for Ceramic Arts and the Anderson Research Center. What follows compliments her exhibition selfsame at Alfred University. (Oct. 9 — Dec. 4, 2014).
Above image: Photograph by Ashley Lyon.
“I am striving for a nearness to realism, like a peripheral vision, in which my objects and images become vehicles for projection. A viewer’s empathetic response and haptic perception allow space for realism. In this way, realism is not only an experiment in the reiteration of a hand, foot, or head; realism is to locate the sensation of being human.”
The exhibition selfsame originated from the unique opportunity to concurrently display works in two anatomically distinct galleries located on Alfred University’s campus. This title connotes the thematic pairing of work displayed in these separate settings. Each grouping of work investigates a mirrored contemplation of being-ness, one through allusions to the existential and the other through suggestions of the physiological.
The grandeur of the gallery in the Schein-Joseph Ceramic Museum is a fitting location for the installation of the prolonged and evolving sculpture Risers, a mirrored set of vacant choir stands. The nuanced fabrication and display imply that the stands are not intended for actual use or as a base for a sculpture, but instead, serve as an embodiment of a choir itself. The dense and rich colored wood topping the risers is Wenge lumber, an endangered material originating in the Republic of Congo. Confrontation with its semi- circular embrace yields a sudden role reversal or sensation of being in front of an audience as performer rather than onlooker.
Inspired by the awareness and amplification of architectural space by sound (real or imagined), I originally proposed this multifaceted piece in 2011 as a life-size replica of a gospel choir for display in an abandoned cavernous bank in downtown Richmond, Virginia. As described, this work became highly questionable and suspect within the boundaries I assumed for my making process. I began to doubt my conceptual grounding and ethical permission to render a lifelike resemblance of an African-American choir. I feared that I would unintentionally depict a stereotype rather than the archetype I sought.
The simultaneous doubt and desire to realize this work drove me to research real choirs, photographing their performances and rendering portraits of their members. I began to examine the relationship of race and class in contemporary American society and consider my own prejudices, pondering my right to look and my right to render anything I saw. Consequently, this work has come to reflect this personal consciousness and revelation regarding assumptions and restrictions embedded within my own ethnicity and, more pointedly, its privileges. It is an articulation of the inextricable tangle of self and other, individual and group, and group as singular entity.
I am attracted to the conviction evidenced within exalted gestures and the particular expression of a body overcome with religious spirit. The photographic images displayed in the museum allude to both presence and essence. An enraptured hand, face, or extreme form of a singing mouth, displayed without sound, can be visibly confused for pain or fear as much as it can symbolize exultation. Perception of these minute details through the skin, eyes, ears, and mouth is a result of thousands of years of sensory evolution. Our bodies are physically aware of vast detail through these sensory organs and are built adept to intuit their input. Close looking and sensation are often bypassed in exchange for narratives or illustrations, which register differently in our minds than haptic perceptions and sensations. I deliberately distance my work from nostalgia and illustrative narrative, seeking instead to make the image or object emotionally isolated through fragmentation. By avoiding the construction of overt narrative, I hope to engage these faculties of realism and the uncanny through the plastic and psychological terrain available by the malleable immediacy of clay.
My handling of clay allows me to locate a specificity that aligns empathetically to the piece or object rendered and points to the construction of our realities. Each object or fragment I sculpt is worked from images and memory in such a way that the result contains an uncanny likeness to both the original object and myself. I invite the opportunity for misremembering and explore the gap between captured images and memories. This mirroring of myself through objects and images is at the root of my work. Casts are never taken directly from an object or person; instead, it is critical that my hands and my perception shape their form.
In any opportunity to exhibit artwork, I use the gallery’s architecture to organize presence; delineated space becomes a vehicle for sculptural form. Encountering a figurative object down a hallway or through a doorway, we first perceive the silhouette, convincing ourselves, if just for a few seconds, that another being is actually present. This can happen even when something seemingly as essential as the head is missing. This moment is the Uncanny and, however fleeting, sets up a dynamic relationship through which a viewer can project onto an object. Projection allows space for realism, thus, reality is generated by the viewer viewing the object; reality is not in the object.
The sculptures and photographs in the Cohen Center Gallery take inspiration from everyday bodies, portraiture, selective memories, and found images and objects. As an acute meditation upon a collective gaze, this grouping reveals a breath of investigations into the ontological boundaries of images and objects. A display of both two-dimensional and three-dimensional forms, this work plays with the potency of physical essence. Historically, man has sought to image himself in an attempt to understand what it means “to be”; by striving to capture our own image, we give permanence to our reality. These works attempt to illuminate the fluctuating and elusive quality of this reality that lives in a nameless space between us and everything else, much in the way that art exists between ideas or objects and their viewer.
Using the viewfinder of a 4 x 5 camera, I compose and isolate figurative objects throughout my process of making sculptures. These photographs capture the seductive wetness of unfired clay and highlight the mutability of this material. In the black and white photographic series Knees, wet clay vessels act as stand-ins or replicas of imagined, actual, and internet-sourced knees. Modeled life-size, they are enlarged photographically to a larger-than-life scale, heightening and enhancing the cracked and temporary state of their material existence. Frozen by the action of a camera shutter, the wet clay uncannily evokes the qualities of actual skin folding and stretching across the anatomy of a real knee. As a group they suggest the representation of individuals.
Functioning like portraits or abstracted heads floating in a background of deep black and removed from narrative context, they are presented as images of classical or historical artifacts although the objects have been modeled from contemporary sources.
Material presence, perceived through the senses, is critical to the comprehension of and the tension embodied in my work. I see material as a conduit to deliver content. By highlighting the simultaneous and conflicting presence of material and life-likeness, I question our physical absoluteness and perception of the world around us, pointing to the construction of our reality.
Ashley Lyon is currently a Turner Teaching Fellow in Ceramics at Alfred University.
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