Figures scowl, sigh, stick out their tongues and tie themselves into knots in “Bodily.”
Soojin Choi’s sculpture “You Can’t Take Back” resembles a cubist rendering of human toil in 3D form. From multiple angles and in varied poses, a head, arms and legs have assumed the form of an abstract pretzel. In reality, Choi took slabs of clay to construct the limbs and arrange them in a seemingly physically impossible pose with emotional gravity.
You have to see it in the round, where the gestural quality remains, said Shalene Valenzuela, the executive director of the Clay Studio of Missoula.
“Even though it’s a very complex construction, it has this sense of looseness” in the brushstrokes and angles, she said.
The studio’s May group exhibition features nine artists from residency programs at clay centers or studios around Montana who work in the figure.
The show came together after Valenzuela noticed that a strong list of figurative sculpture, whether human or animal, that is happening around the state. She decided to reach out to artists, that are in the emerging talent phase of their career.
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“Our local audiences may not have access to that work all the time, so being able to introduce them to people that are currently working, albeit even for like a year or two, is exciting,” Valenzuela said. Choi, for instance, is from South Korea and based at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena.
The construction of many of the pieces is a feat, Valenzuela said. The artists have to work out the physics of a sculpture that must stand freely or hang on a wall, while still getting it to interact with the viewer the way it’s meant.
The ceramic studios around Montana bring in artists for residencies, which vary by length from a few months to multiple years. The artists gain access to equipment (which is expensive) and studio space (also not cheap anymore), often in exchange for teaching classes and time to develop new bodies or work or explore their ideas. That means they’re a steady stream of new voices — while they’re not indefinite, the creators often stay and establish themselves as parts of the artistic community.
The expressive possibilities of the figure, and its many moods, color the room. You can see a calm and sad-looking bust of a bear, its head adorned with flowers, by Shelsea Dodd of Studio 740 in Helena. The deep blue-black surface is sculpted with elegant lines and widely carved motions, not unlike a palette-knife painting. The title, “Callisto,” refers back to the goddess Artemis’ hunting partner, who Zeus turned into a bear.
Teresa Larrabee’s busts of humans are more playful. A finely rendered face, with short pigtails, sticks her tongue out. “That Time I Swallowed a Gold Star Ring Trying to Do a Magic Trick” has plenty of cool details to watch out for, Valenzuela noted. The surface is decorated with crayon. The ring on the end of the tongue is real. The necklace has little letters that say “Fudge.”
“Sassy” is the word Valenzuela uses to describe “Cosmonauta,” a figurative sculpture by Kristy Morena, a resident at the Bray. With a vintage sci-fi suit adorned with green lightning bolts on the legs and shoulders, the character stands with hand on hip and accented side-eye.
Moreno’s statement says, “By producing these investigate physically paused moments, she introduces a space for reflection whichs the journey of a personal point of view, individual habits and character.”
Sydnie Jimenez, also at the Bray, sculpted a free-standing figure who’s saying a lot with some literal side-eye, too, although the specifics that stirred the expression are left open-ended. Head tilted downward, arms crossed, in a hoodie with a middle-finger logo and a skirt and platform shoes, “All Alone,” doesn’t beg for company. Jimenez adorned the sweatshirt sleeves with characters with illustratively expressive haircuts and matching expressions.
Her statement says her work “shows the tough demeanor in which especially black and brown femmes take on or are projected onto as a defense mechanism combating an unwelcoming society.”
Exasperation, or exhaustion appear in two pieces as well. “Baggage,” by Kelly E. McLaughlin, a resident of Studio 740 in Helena, rests on a pedestal. A female figure, sculpted from the waist line up, arms extended downward but tense, back bearing a basket with a sleeping pad and pillow. An expression of uncertainty is heightened by the color choices: From the chest down, the figure is brown, from up, dripping with white.
Stephanie Dishno’s “A Memoir,” a bust that’s more than 3 feet tall, wears an expression of weariness, with a disembodied hand (cut off at the wrist, with no arm) resting on forehead for extra emphasis.
Dishno’s fellow Wildfire resident, Gabs Conway, conjures human expressions without the face. In her wall sculpture, “The Twins,” a set of intestine-like pink tubes squiggle together. At each end, a mouth bearing its teeth.
The viewer is confronted with “a relatable human thing like teeth and mouth, but then when you’re combining it in this way, it sort of throws you off-kilter,” Valenzuela said.