ANDRÉA KEYS CONNELL's slightly-larger-than-life ceramic figures are monuments to human vulnerability. Exhibited in groups, they nonetheless appear isolated and longing for help. . . or possibly connection. Their dense, fragmented bodies, drooping heads and extended arms poignantly register the weight of the world. Andréa earned her BFA in 2002 from Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and her MFA in 2009 from Ohio University in Athens. Solo exhibitions include Un-Home-Like (2010) at The Sculpture Center in Cleveland, Gently Down the Stream (2012) at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia and Being With, exhibited at Maramec Contemporary Gallery (2014) in Saint Louis and the Ivan Wilson Fine Arts Center (2015) at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Andréa lives in Richmond, Virginia, where she works as an Assistant Professor and Clay Area Head in the Department of Craft/Material Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Tell us a little about your sculpting process and your choice of ceramics as your medium.
Andréa Keys Connell: I had my "coming to clay" moment when I was a junior in college. Prior to that, I was focusing primarily on painting and photography. When I found clay, a connection between my brain, heart and hands clicked on, and I never left the clay studio. When I think about it now it makes a lot of sense. My mother collected Majolica, Zsnolnay and Herend. When I was little, I played with the figurines as though they were dolls. When she would catch me, she would take them and place them back on their shelves, reminding me of their preciousness. Their "preciousness" only made them more valuable to me and the narratives that I would impose on them.
I think I am also just more of a three-dimensional thinker when it comes to making. It was such a relief to me when I found clay. . . to be able to discover a form through the ability to touch it in the round. It is such a physical relationship, and when making life size or larger figures, I find myself hugging and pressing up against, pushing and pulling on the clay. All of this contact is imprinted on the surface of the clay. . . it's a pretty delicious way of making!
I build my pieces hollow, moving between coils, slabs and pinching. Building hollow provides me with the ability to form my figures by pressing from the inside. This feels very natural to me in thinking about the body: the skin/clay is shaped by what is beneath it. In this case, it is the internal pressure that I am using to shape the skin. There is an endless supply of metaphors in this way of making and representing the figure.
OPP: There are a lot of disembodied heads, arms and legs in your work. In installations like Un-Home-Like (2010) and The Pursuit of Hercules
(2011), the partial figures read as adrift, drowning or swimming in a
floor made of water. But the isolated heads and torsos from Gently Down the Stream (2012) don't read that way at all. They seem more severed. How are these figures different?
AKC: I thought of the figures in Gently Down the Stream
as being submerged, like in a swamp, stuck in time and certainly
fractured. I was also looking at a lot of photojournalism during the
making of this installation and thinking about the fragmentation
inherent in a photograph: the physical fragmentation of the frame and
the emotional fragmentation as the person looking in on the moment
OPP: There’s another metaphor! I often think that way, too, about processes I use in my own work, but I’ve found that not all viewers think that way about the objects in front of them. How often do viewers comprehend the metaphors that you see naturally as part of the process? If they don’t think metaphorically, are they missing the point?
AKC: Hmmm. . . I don't know if they would be missing the point because I am totally open to individual interpretation. I would never expect someone to see or think about things the way that I do, but I do hope that the essence of the content is felt. For example, if a person views a leg sticking out of the floor as a glimpse of a part of a whole body or a broken section of the body, the idea of fragmentation still exists in both interpretations. Whether metaphorical and literal, each read carries similar anxieties. I think of my content as a means for making an image, and that image has endless ways of being interpreted. I guess you could say that my content development is more a part of the process. I have never made a piece and I felt strongly, "THIS is what I want the viewer to take from this piece." Viewers tend to try to relate to my work in a humanistic way; they bring their own individual experiences to their interpretation of my figures.
OPP: Your figures, which seem to be either young children or
old adults, are generally slightly larger than life size and sometimes
out of proportion. How do scale and age intersect in your work?
AKC: I work very deliberately to blur the lines of gender, age and time. In a sense, I am attempting to create an internal portrait, and I don't believe in gender or age or even time when confronting the inside. I watch people a lot, and I think about how we carry ourselves. You can read a lot about a person in their body. These are all observations that I take to studio and at times exaggerate.
Much of my research is preoccupied with how the perception of objects can either represent or obscure complex social realities. The Hummel figurine is an example of such a visual trigger that I have used throughout my work. The Hummel began production in Germany in 1935, the same year the Nuremburg Laws were passed. Though production ceased during WWII, it immediately picked up at the end of the war. The popularity of Hummel figurines grew as American soldiers stationed in West Germany began sending the figurines home to their loved ones as gifts to ease the anxieties of those who awaited the soldiers safe return home. Hummel figurines ultimately became an emblem of a pastoral, healthy and safe Germany. In my early work, the youthful chubby cheeks of the Hummel have been stretch and deflated, and the healthy round bellies have become distended and heavy. This is all a result of the internal pressure that I am using to form the figures. By manipulating the pastoral qualities of the Hummel and by incorporating realistic human features such as defined fingernails and lips and a very intentional gaze, I seek to represent a more complex social narrative than exists in the original figurines.
OPP: Up through 2012, whole bodies of work were monochromatic, not just individual pieces. Why was monochrome the right decision for earlier bodies of work like (dis)Placement (2009) and Un-Home-Like (2010)? What led you to pursue a more accurate rendering of color in recent work like Then the Wind Blew... (2015), and several works from Being With (2014)?
AKC: The monochromatic work was often trying to represent the look of wet clay, such as in (dis)Placement, Gently Down the Stream, and The Pursuit of Hercules. (dis)Placement
was specifically referencing terracotta because the original Hummel was
sculpted out of terracotta, then a mold would be made and it would be
cast in porcelain. For that piece, I was interested in the idea of the
discarded. Essentially, I wanted the pieces to refer to malleability.
In Un-Home-Like, the pieces actually have house paint that I had mixed based on the primary colors used in Delacroix's painting The Barque of Dante. I made washes of these colors and dripped them in many layers over the figures. Being With and Francis were painted with oil paints. I was looking at a lot of religious statuary, particularly 17th -18th century wooden saint statues. I loved the look of them and was making pretty specific references to them in these pieces, so I just went for it. And Then the Wind Blew is essentially a giant figurine and I wanted it to look like that, so I glazed it.
OPP: I love the cardboard boxes as both pedestals and containers in Being With (2014) and Gently Down the Stream (2012). They seem to add to the feeling of despondency in the figures. What led to this decision?
AKC: You got a lot of the references right. They are pedestals and containers. I also wanted these very heavy ceramic figures to appear simultaneously lighter than they are and on a precarious edge, which can be quite unsettling when standing in front of them. The figures stand at a slight lean, and they really tower of over you. There is the feeling that they could collapse at any moment. I think this lends to their own vulnerability, which also points to the viewers vulnerability by being in their presence. They are referencing monuments, but they are quite pathetic in their structure. They are trying really hard, but pointing very clearly to their own weakness.
OPP: Could you talk more about why you choose to represent vulnerability in your sculptures and elicit vulnerability in the viewer key? Would you say this is the key theme that runs through all your work?
AKC: I think that is a really good observation, and I don't know if I totally realized the presence of vulnerability in pretty much everything that I make. What a great thing to see—thank you!
I do think about vulnerability often, perhaps because I feel it so often. There can be so much beauty and destruction in vulnerability, and to open oneself up to another requires so much trust. My interest in that kind of vulnerability runs parallel to my persistent thoughts around responsibility to one another. I am always concerned with the ripple effect of actions, the necessity of vulnerability, and the responsibility involved in the awareness of another person's vulnerability.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent exhibitions include solo shows I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago, as well as Here|Now, a two-person exhibition curated by MK Meador and also featuring the work of Jason Uriah White, at Design Cloud in Chicago (2014). Most recently, Stacia created When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center. Closing reception guests were invited to help break down the piece by pulling pins out of the wall.