Figuring Space is the second major exhibition in The Clay Studio's (TCS) newly built, state-of-the-art home in the South Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. As TCS begins this new chapter in its own history with a new building, they have also established a new curatorial framework that includes the voices of our various constituents through an exhibition council. The council contains in-house staff and artists, as well as neighbors like muralist Cesar Viveros and community organizer Iris Brown. The council also includes the South Kensington cultural partners, including Taller Puertorriqueńo, and the Olde Kensington Neighborhood Association, as well as curatorial peers. Each member provides essential insight and acts as an ambassador within their respective communities, forming a conduit of information to friends and neighbors that offers a meaningful way to draw new audience members.
As a new member of a culturally rich neighborhood that is experiencing the turmoil of rapid gentrification, TCS is working to be a positive force within this changing environment. They continue to work to expand their organization's relevance by including the existing community, the hyperlocal neighbors, as well as local, national, and international art spheres. TCS is known internationally as a place to experience the best of ceramic art. With Figuring Space and their council, they work to advance a methodological approach to reflect the founding principle of The Clay Studio: artistic expression and collaboration.
The human figure has often acted as a metaphor for power and a symbol of imperialism within art. For much of history, the human figure was the most exalted form of an artistic masterpiece, representing myth, morals, and fame in cultures around the world. The representational human form, suffused with imperial power through the ages and rejected by many artists during the twentieth century as passé, has been reinvigorated by contemporary artists and infused with agency, potency, and a vision that reflect the race- and gender-informed body politics of today.
The exhibition, Figuring Space, reverses the paradigm of using representational human figures to depict historical perpetrators of imperialism and violence by fore-fronting artists from various backgrounds who create contemporary, representational work that fractures the myopic narrative of white male genius. The exhibition will present twelve human-scale clay figures, each confronting the viewer one-to-one and projecting the personal narratives of each artist in their own expression of identity and social justice.
The body, as a concept, is intimately tied to ceramic art; clay is often used as a proxy for the physicality of flesh and the vessel as a symbol of the human form. Although it requires incredible skill and intention to create a human-scale figure from clay, it is a more democratic material than stone or bronze. Made of the earth and used nearly universally around the world and throughout history, clay has the capacity to articulate cultural perspectives, social engagement, and artistic intentions. By using clay as a means to investigate the self, Figuring Space highlights sculptures that use this material – this earth – to reflect humanity. That clay, because of its connection to the earth shared by all humans, has the power to embody the sculptures with both the concept of humanity as a whole as well as the most intimate personal identity.
With the recent racial reckoning in our country, figural sculptures have often been at the center of public debate. Monuments honoring those whose dark histories have come to light are being reexamined and sometimes removed. Figuring Space uses that conversation of who gets to be seen and celebrated as the backdrop to present an exhibition of human-scale, figurative sculpture by twelve of the top American artists working in ceramics: Roberto Lugo, Cristina Cordova, Sergei Isupov, Tip Toland, Jonathan Christensen Caballero, George Rodriguez, Christina West, Kensuke Yamada, Roxanne
Swentzell, Kyungmin Park, Chris Rodgers, and Victoria Walton.
This exhibition of human-scale figural sculpture lays bare the divisions that permeate American art and culture. The invited artists expose the tragedies brought on bodies by forced migration, slavery, economic disparity, and gender inequality, as well as affirm artistic representations of aspirations for a more just society. Each uses the figure to assert their autonomy by presenting cultural critiques through the lenses of race, gender, age, and class, using the fraught history of the figure as fuel for their own powerful stories.
Jonathan Christensen Caballero says his "artwork narrates enduring questions of identity with the human figure, labor politics, and mixed-media sculpture. My narrative sculpture reinterprets the visual iconography throughout North and Central America with the materials available to working-class immigrants today. The figures reveal people who contribute to society by enduring labor, which often sacrifices their health and safety. Through my art, I hope to be part of the change I want to see in the world. It is a moral imperative for Latin Americans to be celebrated as part of the fabric of U.S. society. Our bodies aren't solely destined for labor, but also for love, joy, and acceptance."
Kyungmin Park explains her work, "As a ceramic figurative sculptor, creating my own clay figures which look familiar to humans requires this tactile sense-touch. Using the medium that feels to me most like human flesh, the whole process of making can be deeply personal and even intimidating. The relationship I have in my studio has helped me keep telling my own stories through my art-making process. We all went through an unexpectedly hard time in the past three years, which has affected us differently. Many of us reevaluated life, crossing off and rewriting items on our list of priorities. I felt we all were constantly tested, from the COVID pandemic to racial conflicts, wars, and the deepening political divide. I felt my brain was melting and on an emotional roller coaster I didn't sign up for. How Have You Been? / Introspection is a self-reflected work that speaks about how I felt over the past three years that I think anyone could relate to."
Roberto Lugo's work combines historical decorative art motifs with elements of modern urban graffiti. His work for the exhibition will delve into his hyper-personal exploration of identity in a figural form unlike any he has done before. Sergei Isupov's On the Way presents two very different stories of figures moving through space. The front is bright and full of energy, while the reverse is a black-and-white figure group making a hunched and plodding progress. Isupov asks the viewer to project their own histories and explanations of these contracts.
Explorations of age are present in Cristina Cordova's and Tip Toland's works. Cordova's Eva 15 is part of a series of portraits of her daughter. The artist is contemplating motherhood, the passage of time, the act of making the sculpture in partnership with her daughter, and the universal truth that children grow to be adults. It is an incredible process that parents intimately watch as they navigate the complex emotional journey. Tip Toland's hyperreal figures reveal what it means to be human, living inside our varied bodies. Her sculpture for Figuring Space represents a girl at age eleven. She is celebrating the innocence of that age, the moment just before puberty, when the joy of life is still without the weight of responsibility and worry.
Roxanne Swentzell represents a different moment in individual growth. Put Down the Man Baby shows us the moment in life when we let go of the burden of caring for those who do not need to have a caretaker. The imposing female figure's knitted brow conveys the emotion and allows the viewer to pause and consider what burdens they should relinquish. Kensuke Yamada explores relationships in a very different way. Me & You shows a male and female head, each sprouting from the same body. The heart-shaped protrusion from the chest suggests an emotion so big it cannot be contained within the figure.
George Rodriguez, Christina West, and Chris Rodgers address classical figures from global mythologies. Rodriguez's Memoria Ancestral is a figure with warrior-like armor covered in symbols of the Mesoamerican pantheon. The armor is decorated with images of Venado Azul, Quetzalcoatl, and other animal heads important to the mythologies of the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec cultures. The figure stands engaging the outside world with its mouth agape and hands poised to receive or give.
Chris Rodgers looked to Greek mythology and Laocoön, a figure who warned against the dangers of the Trojan horse and was punished. This was one of the most famous figural sculptures in European art history; the Laocoön's rediscovery helped to launch the Renaissance in Italy. In a project Rodgers has long wanted to undertake, he endeavors to alter the form and asks how we can make this landmark sculpture relevant today. Christina West also looks to ancient Greece, classical sculpture, and the representation of the male body. She is deconstructing, fracturing, dismembering, and claiming the famous Discobolus sculpture as her own. She asks us to think about what is left of and left out of the classical sculpture. West is inverting the usual white male gaze onto female bodies with her own female gaze and assessment of the male body form.
The twelve chosen artists explore their cultural identity and question what it means to be human in their figurative sculpture. This work will ask viewers to be at eye level with the sculptures. By looking at the figures eye-to-eye, not from the other side of a vitrine or a protective barrier, viewers are presented with the artists' individual voices and their autonomy. By the same visual markers, visitors are also presented with ideas about community. We cannot endure our recent cultural crises alone. We must live in more cooperative ways and support each other in order to survive.
More about the Authors
Dr. Kelli Morgan is a professor of practice and director of curatorial studies at Tufts University. As a curator, educator, and social justice activist specializing in American art and visual culture, her interdisciplinary research and curatorial work examines and theorizes how American artists, artwork, and institutions can challenge and rectify systemic racism. Over the course of her career, Dr. Morgan has taught at the Tyler School for Art and Architecture at Temple University, Wayne State University, and the University of Michigan. Additionally, she’s held curatorial positions at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, the Birmingham Museum of Art, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Jennifer Zwilling is the curator and director of artistic programs. She joined The Clay Studio (TCS) in 2015 and administers the resident artist program, exhibitions, the collection, and the guest artist in residence program. She earned her BA in history from Ursinus College and her MA in art history from Temple University, Tyler School of Art. Previously, she was assistant curator of American decorative arts and contemporary craft at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Jennifer developed and taught the history of modern craft at Tyler School of Art for ten years, and she has taught and lectured around the world. She represents TCS as a founding board member of CraftNOW Philadelphia.