Roberta Griffith, one of eleven artists selected for the Artists of Hawai’i 2013 exhibition at the Honolulu Museum of Art, is a painter and sculptor with a long and distinguished career who moved to Kaua’i in 2008 from upstate New York. In this Honolulu exhibition, she exhibited three ceramic sculpture installations along with related monotypes. The installations, which range from the nearly monumental to the diminutive, are conceptual/figurative in nature with a thematic thread involving infancy/childhood and play.
The largest of them, Hung Out to Die, is startling to encounter, with three transparent white tulle bags containing white forms hanging from a cold, industrial steel frame. Approaching closer, the viewer is surprised, perhaps horrified, to discover that the forms in the bags appear to be the dismembered body parts of infants and baseballs.
In fact they are hand-pressed porcelain elements made from molds the artist acquired from a doll manufacturer near her Otego, NY home (and where she still maintains a summer residence and studio).
Nevertheless, the illusion that Griffith creates is central to her purpose, and together with the cast shadows of the gallows-like steel stand and the sly title of the work, deliberately playing off the phrase “hung out to dry,” establishes her preoccupation in her current work with notions of demise and death.
In Hung Out to Die, Griffith finesses a fine line between the formal aspects of her work and the psychological/political, as she performs a kind of bait-and-switch. She counts on the gestalt impact of the work to draw viewers to the notion that the work is a comment on the subject of abortion, so hot-button controversial in this time, as well as child neglect and abandonment. But is the work that? Or is it simply what it is, tulle bags containing ceramic babydoll parts suspended from a metal frame?
Griffith relies on the power of metaphor and the human capacity for imagination, maintaining a tentative ambiguity while the minds of viewers fill in blanks.
The opposite, size-wise, is the miniature installation Debris Contained, comprising five hand-built, fragile porcelain boxes, with sliding covers, holding sculpted porcelain elements of tiny babydoll parts and baseballs. Here, the viewer is drawn in close to admire the fine and delicate detail of the forms.
The boxes and contents charm with their intimacy, but again there is the underlying metaphor—embodied in the title—that seems to ask: “Is this the next, the last stage, for the figures in Hung Out to Die, shriveled to little forms, stuffed in tight coffins to be closed and put away, never again seen and touched?”
What about the baseballs? This motif appears again and more prominently in the third installation, Stuck in the Sand, a painted wooden sandbox of normal size with real sand and encompassing myriad elements of childhood time, such as baseballs, sticks, drawings, and babydolls, all rendered in trompe-l’oeil clay and porcelain and presided over by a ceramic facsimile of a stuffed toy aardvark named Cheryl.
The installation is part autobiographical, for the artist, a tomboy growing up who played baseball and football with the boys through elementary school. There is a sense of nostalgia in this work, as Griffith evokes not only her childhood, but childhood in a broader sense, something to which all viewers can relate in some way.
So much is crammed in the space of the sandbox–more elements than one or two children could play with, no room in fact for children at all–that it takes on an aura of ruin, abandonment, loss, like a midden, or refuse heap with the leavings of a culture, just unearthed by archaeologists.
Like Cheryl, a universal avatar, we are all in a sense stuck in the sand of the past.
Robert Griffith’s works in Artists of Hawai’i 2013 exquisitely convey the familiar lament: nothing is what it seems, nothing stays the same, nothing lasts forever. Artists of Hawai’i 2013 was an exhibition at the Honolulu Museum of Art. Curators selected 11 artists from more than 341 applicants and gave them 10 months to create new works.
Griffith is included in a new exhibition PRINT paper + sandbox at Galerie 103 in Kukui’ula, Kaua’i, Hawaii until May 3. Along with other artists such as Jean Cocteau, Tom Lieber, HC. Westermann and Sally French, the exhibition examines traditional and contemporary printmaking in an effort to challenge conventional limits and technique.
James Jensen is the Curator of Contemporary Art, Honolulu Museum of Art.
Above image: Roberta Griffith, Debris Contained.
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