L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
The poet Frederick Seidel once received a death threat. It came via answering machine, in the form of a message left by a young woman. In a breathy voice, the woman said, “Frederick Seidel . . . Frederick Seidel . . . you think you’re going to live. You think you’re going to live. But you’re not. You’re not going to live. You’re not going to live . . . .” It was repetitive and frightening, but it also seemed like the wrong kind of threat to give a poet like Siedel. Even if he didn’t want to die, he knew he would. Much of his poetry fixates on that very fact, though the way he writes about death and the life that leads up to it often unnerves readers. “Give me Everest or give me death,” he writes in Climbing Everest. “A naked woman my age is a total nightmare /but right now one is coming through the door/. . . She kisses the train wreck in the tent and combs his white hair.” Verses like these that marry unexpected privilege with bodily dilapidation and a flash of meanness are hard to forget.
If Siedel’s poems were made of clay, each would more or less resemble an Andrew Lord sculpture: the crevices, fluids and disruptions of the human body would be unapologetic, ungainly and honest. Yet they would maintain a strange veneer of sophistication. Lord knows how to turn a clay vessel into a receptacle for everything corporal.
between my hands to water falling, the current exhibition at Santa Monica Museum of Art, catalogues the past 20 years of Lord’s career and highlights four distinct bodies of work. Despite his irreverence, Lord, a British artist who began making art in the 1970s, plays into the revered tradition of ceramic vessels. In fact, his work, which has the air of something old and privileged, recalls Cellini’s Saltcellar at the same time that it recalls the childish ceramic mounds made by Michael Reafsnyder. For breathing, biting, swallowing, tasting, smelling, listening, watching, a series that began in 1994, Lord used impressions from his own body to shape the clay—a crude way of translating physical sensation into art objects. He literally bit, pressed into and clawed at his forms. The results are craggy gray vessels displayed on white pedestals. Siedel might say they look as though they’re “wrinkles of the ocean on a ball of tar.”
In smelling, the vessels are thin and elongated. In breathing, they have unevenly swelling bases, like balloons inflated by someone who has to regroup between each blow. In swallowing, the most visceral of the series, the vessels are lumpy as if full of food and other objects, choking hazards that got lodged in the throat and never slid down. Though flesh-like and vulnerable, the sculptures in breathing, biting, swallowing, tasting, smelling, listening, watching are also glazed and embellished with streaks of gold coloring. Corporeality doesn’t have to be all grit.
The untitled series, begun in 2004, reimagines ceramic work by Post-Impressionist Paul Gaugin. Lord emphasizes Gaugin’s weirdness over his voyeuristic self-importance and Lord’s blackish vessels double as caricatures and exotic creatures. Grouped together, they become an army of knotty bodies, an unromantic interpretation of Gaugin’s dabbling in the prehistoric. (Siedel wrote about Gaugin too, talking about a nose that, “looks like Guagin’s/ His silent huge hooked hawk prow”–and while noses in Lord’s work aren’t too imposing, there are some “hooked hawk” elbows).
Lord’s exhibition also includes two Fontana-like wall works with fleshy bumps protruding from them and a seven minute video of water gushing down a stream, the stream that inspired Lord’s recent river Spodden series. The inadvertent effect of these inclusions is to emphasize how much more evocative Lord is when he works in ceramics.
Ceramics are possibly the most bipolar of the art mediums. When polished and over-crafted, they silence, even deny, life’s rawer aspects. But when handled with the virtuosic impertinence of a sculptor like Lord, they become a fleshed-out battlefield that pits refinement against ruin. between my hands to water falling, a collaboration with the Milton Keynes Gallery, continues at the Santa Monica Museum of Art through August 21st. A sister exhibition will open in the UK in September.