Garth Clark: You are one of the few and great figurative sculptors working in clay. Collectively, the ceramic figure is the pit of Hades, the most inept part of the medium with a tiny number of makers who deserve to be called sculptors. I have watched as you have moved to new materials and, if not away from ceramics, at least it is becoming less frequent in your art. You know how the ceramics community can be: when one shifts media, the community often sees it as betrayal, much like when I left New York and moved to Santa Fe. It is not to be forgiven. And you teach ceramics as well, which also applies pressure to stay in the clay pit. Why the change?
Above: Christina A. West, Untitled Bust, 2014. Cast marble.
Christina West: Your comment about the ceramic figure collectively being like the “pit of Hades” makes the genre seem much more interesting than it actually is.
But to answer your question about material, the shift really began back in 2008 when two things happened: I became completely bored with my process of building the ceramic figures and needed to work differently to maintain engagement in the studio, and I also started thinking about how I could use material in a more purposeful way so that material could affect the content of the work.
Around this time I started working on an installation with figures that were made out of playdough (Wild Things, 2009) and soon after that began making figures with stuffed cloth, pillow-like torsos with slip-cast ceramic limbs (What a Doll, 2010-11). In these works, the material was highlighted in a way that hadn’t been in my previous ceramic work, which usually was finished with paint. The painted work isn’t recognizable as ceramic since you don’t see the material.
It was common for people who weren’t associated with ceramics to ask me what the figures are made out of because it’s not obvious. So I eventually started working with resin because it just made sense, logistically, for the larger ceramic figures to not always be ceramic if ceramic wasn’t important to the final pieces. The resin work is easier to lift and ship and easier to refine to the degree that I want. Using resin requires that I make rubber molds of the sculpture. Something that I didn’t anticipate when I started mold making was that the ability to make multiples would open up things for me creatively. The “original” now is so much less precious to me in the best possible way. I’m able to create multiple versions of pieces and take risks that I would not have before.
I’m not worried about betraying or offending the ceramics community because I don’t see this shift as one that will lead to the elimination of ceramics from my studio practice. Lately I’ve actually become much more interested in glazed surfaces and different clay bodies as material options for some of the work. And I have this idea that showing work made of a range of material, with ceramics in the mix, all presented as equal, might actually help integrate ceramics into a more mainstream art conversation.
Your art is adult. I grow so tired of the asexual pseudo classical nudes, infantile ceramic dolls and cute human toys that are so ubiquitous in ceramics today. Your work deals provocatively with sexuality and its psychological landscape, like Eric Fischl when he was good. But I notice that since you have been working more in resin (also hydrocal and cast marble) the edge has become sharper and eroticism more freighted with anxiety. Am I just reading my own psychodrama into the work? Is the material change having impact on content?
I like the Fischl reference—his work was an early influence for me. I think you’re right that the edge to my work has become sharper, but the material doesn’t really have anything to do with that. It has more to do with being at a point in my career where I feel confident in what I’m doing and am more comfortable being bold.
What are the strongest influences in your art? film, literature, life itself? Do you have any key muses in visual art aside from early Fischl?
The strongest influence is life itself. I think the core of my work grows from the difficulty I have in social interactions. For a long time—until I started teaching—social situations caused me a lot of anxiety, to the point that in high school I never spoke in class unless called on, and even through college, conversations that would be considered casual made me extremely uncomfortable.
I had a hard time reading people’s body language and facial expression as they responded to me, which made me hypersensitive to how I was being perceived. I loved watching people from afar and trying to understand them, but because that fascination was tinged with tension, it was great fuel for art making. Since teaching, I have become much more comfortable socially, but that anxiety still is always lurking in the background.
My key muses within visual art are Juan Munoz, Sandy Skoglund, and Diane Arbus. I saw Munoz’s work in person as an undergraduate student and was immediately drawn to the weird scale of his figures and the way he would group them together suggesting an ambiguous narrative. I love the way he used space in installations such as Towards the Corner and The Wasteland. Sandy Skoglund’s use of bold, un-naturalistic color to transform the familiar into the surreal definitely has influenced some of my work. And Diane Arbus’ photographs, particularly the images that she took at a nudist colony is the 60’s, were influential in my understanding of the way nudity can complicate an image.
Clearly your work has a sharp psychological edge. Does that arrive in the studio as the piece emerges or are their certain thematic streams about the human condition that you continuously and consciously follow? In other words is there serial narrative taking place?
There is thematic continuity to my work, but I’m hesitant to consider that a serial narrative. I actually think of narrative as relatively incidental in my work. I’m rendering figures in specific poses and sometimes placing them near each other in ways that suggest relationships and encourage narrative projection (where people decide for themselves what they think is going on), but I don’t think of that as telling a story. It’s often not even clear what the figures are doing. If I were to call it narrative, it would be similar to work like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot where the minimal narrative structure is less about what literally is taking place than it is a way of presenting over-arching ideas (about existentialism in Beckett’s case).
Perhaps the most persistent thematic stream that runs through my work is about isolation or alienation within the social figure. I’m thinking of the degrees of alienation that are inevitable because of the inaccessibility of thoughts/feelings; even if we are good at reading visual cues and someone is being open with us, we can never be in another’s head as completely as we are in our own and vice versa. My recent busts with the sliced faces relate to this idea—rather than the portrait revealing something about the figure, they present a flat, opaque plane. But I think this sense of isolation comes across the strongest in my installations. With multiple figures in a space, I direct each figure’s gaze towards another’s, but they never quite meet and instead have a look of introspection or a far-off stare. In the installations, viewers experience a degree of alienation too because of the way I use color or other framing devices to the claim the space as a part of the figures’ fictional world. When viewers enter these installations they become out of place, or “other.” This is most explicit in my recent installation titled Misfits, where the designation of misfit oscillated between the sculpture and the spectator.
The ceramic community is changing by the day but is still a little conservative so some of your work may be tough to show and sell. Is the male nude still a taboo? But now that you work with clay and other media it expands your audience and you are no longer seen as material specific artist. How focused are you on sales and has your shift with materials changed the way you are received commercially?
So far I haven’t noticed a significant shift in audience. It might be because my new resin and Hydrocal work doesn’t look very different from my ceramic work so it is appealing to the same audience. Or maybe it’s because I’m most integrated into the ceramics community and haven’t made as many connections outside of it yet. I’d say at least 85% of my followers on social media still are people associated with the field of ceramics. I continue to get range of invitations for shows, as I always have—many from ceramic-centric venues (or curators who are a part of the ceramics community) and some that have nothing to do with material. I regularly get invitations to do shows in university art galleries, and that actually is where I’ve found the most conservatism. And the conservatism is related to the nudity. A few years ago a university gallery had me scheduled for a show and when the upper administration saw images of my work the gallery director was told that the gallery would be shut down before they let my work be shown. I had another university gallery pull out of a show because they got a new university president and the director didn’t want to “rock the boat” with my work. Things like that have happened more than seems reasonable given how conservative my work really is compared to the big picture of contemporary art.
I’m not incredibly focused on sales, in the sense that I don’t need to sell work to cover everyday living expenses and I don’t make decisions in the studio based on what I think will sell. But I do want to see the sculpture get out into the world and do need to move some work to keep the studio practice financially sustainable. The more income I can make from my sculpture the more ambitious and prolific I can be, but at the same time, I’m not interested sales dictating the direction of my work. I work with some commercial galleries—the Mindy Solomon Gallery in Miami and just recently CG2 Gallery in Nashville. Both embrace edgier work and, importantly, curate conceptually driven shows that include multiple mediums. They don’t assign a hierarchy to material and all of my work, regardless of material, is presented at consistent price points. There are some collectors who focus on ceramic work and aren’t interested in my new pieces made out of other materials, but there aren’t many of those collectors anyway.
Christina West is a sculptor based in Atlanta, Georgia.