NATHAN PROUTY's small-scale, abstract, ceramic sculptures ellicit a wide range of associations. They read as toys, trophies, fetish objects, consumer products and isolated body parts. Each whimsical and colorful piece maintains an uncanniness and sense of humor that makes it impossible to dismiss as eye candy, while simultaneously engaging the viewer in the pleasure of looking. Recurring formal motifs like piles, shafts and nubs offer the viewer the opportunity to contemplate the attractiveness of the sculptures, as well their ambiguous referents. Nathan's work has been exhibited at Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts (Newcastle, ME), The Clay Studio (Philadelphia), The Fuller Craft Museum (Brockton, MA) and Lacoste Gallery (Concord, MA) and is featured in The Best of 500 Ceramics: Celebrating a Decade in Clay (2012), published by Lark Crafts. Nathan is currently an MFA candidate in Ceramics at Ohio University.
OtherPeoplesPixels: In your artist statement, you say, "I have a problem. I am an image junkie" and later "My sculptures are the consequences of my addiction." This, of course, has the same humor in it that I also see in the work itself. But do you really think your image collecting and hunting is more excessive than other artists?
Nathan Prouty: I wouldn’t say that my attraction to images is more or less obsessive than other artists. If there is one truth about art weirdos like us, it is that we spend a large chunk of our lives in our own headspace. But looking outward is a huge part of—if not the reason for—what we do. As artists, we have a stronger drive to look and to ask questions about what we are seeing. The seeing and the asking become so intertwined that they fuse together into one process. But understanding the world through looking is just one method of processing and filtering and understanding the crazy thing that is the human condition.
When people write or talk about my work, they tend to glom onto the Internet imagery idea, maybe because of my blog or because of my statement. The work responds to Internet culture and Tumblr-style image de-contextualizing, but that is not the main subject or inspiration of the work. I’ve just noticed that this is a relatively recent read, and it’s interesting. But it’s too simple of an explanation. It is an easy way for people to feel they’ve figured the work out. They'll say, “Oh, he's mashed together a bunch of images he found online. Now I get it!”
I position myself with self-depreciation and humor in my work, statements and writing because I genuinely believe that we shouldn’t take everything so seriously. But the humor also disarms people who have convinced themselves that they hate "capital 'A' art." Suddenly they can’t stop looking at the giant pile of sparkling unicorn crap in the middle of a pedestal. I love seeing the work manipulate the entrenched prejudices of viewers.
The universal language of humor is one of the most powerful things we have in our toolkit as humans. It primes us to relate to each other and to make our way though the slog that is life on this blue dot. I have to live in that space of goofiness and chuckles to stay sane. If there is a negative in my way of seeing, it is that I have a tendency to go dark and cynical really quickly. But the work itself is so happy and goofy that it compensates for all the darker stuff and enables me to keep my head above those murky waters. I’m not really a quote guy, but Joseph Campbell said we should “participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world…” I try to live by that as much as I can.
OPP: Most of your sculptures are painted earthenware. Can you tell us a bit about this material?
NP: Clay is the axis around which things revolve in my studio. But I ditch it in heartbeat if it gets in the way for any reason. It’s not really a point of pride or something to champion from the rooftops. It’s a matter of pragmatism and efficiency. I use whatever it takes to get the job done: paint, glaze, underglaze, china paint, embossing powder, flocking, glitter and resin. One of the quirks of clay—and here I'm generalizing a bit—is a pretty major trade off between strength and color. You can either have bright, awesome, saturated color on lower temperature clay that is more fragile or you can have so-so colors—browns and grays and all that crunchy, hippy, macramé stuff—on really high-temperature, robust ceramics. That’s the mug you want in your hand at the Renaissance Fair, when the guy dressed in the crappy jester costume says something about your mother. High fire stuff is strong and dense and can really cause some Ren Fair damage! That’s why a lot of the functional stuff you see is brown; at those higher temperatures, the color just burns out. There are some absolutely stunning effects you can get at that higher temperature range, but I’m really in love with the versatility of the color and surface of the lower range material. A majority of my surfaces are glazed. The commercial glaze you can get off the shelf these days is pretty amazing in terms of its color range. I do use paint for texture on the plexiglass bases, but that’s about it these days. Within the old-school ceramics crowd, there is this unspoken rule that unless you mix the glazes yourself, you are not a "real" ceramicist, which is just a bunch of dogmatic jock-potter junk. I do and use whatever it takes to get the result I want.
OPP: What's it like to work with clay?
NP: Clay is a royal pain in the ass to work with. It’s fussy and fragile and dirty. It is probably one of the most inconvenient media to work in, but it is also awesomely versatile if you know how to tease what you want out of it. Clay has this insane ability to mimic. Ceramics can look like plastic, steel, grass or Formica.
The labor is crazy with clay, but the clay I use is the dumbest stuff that’s available. It's low-fire white stuff meant for summer camp ashtrays and kindergarten blobs. But it is plastic and flexible as hell and takes colors really well. Secretly, I love the fact that I am using clay that was meant for children’s projects to make my work.
OPP: What do you hate about clay?
NP: One of the things that drives me crazy about clay is “the community.” I say that with a big eye-roll and sweeping air quotes. I think it’s awesome that the medium has this robust base of people that get together to "talk clay," and there is such a widely distributed academic community revolving around ceramics. But at the same time, I am skeptical. It can result in some pretty lazy thinking. There is very little criticality in our corner. While it’s nice that everyone gets a trophy for showing up, it creates some steep, uphill battles for ceramic artists, who are not interested in spending a week obsessing over kiln design or who went to which MFA program. And because there is such a culture of subpar criticality, it’s easy to overcompensate and try to shove tons of concept and meaning and academic language into work that should just exist on its own. This is where the academic MFA factory really becomes the default way of surviving and thinking, which is a bit troubling to me. I am too much of a skeptic to trust any "default" just because it is "the way things are done." I might be contradicting myself. I don’t really have a thesis there; I’m just making observations based on my own experiences. Ok, now I'm hopping off my soap box.
A lot of the clay work that is "making it" out there in the larger art world right now is this stuff that is clunky and poopy and super-summer-campy—I don’t know how else to describe it. Like, chunky ashtrays with drippy glazes. Sterling Ruby and Arlene Shechet, are two that come to mind. Let me be clear though that they all make really beautiful work—I would kill for a Sterling Ruby piece. But the fact that curators and museums, suddenly willing to consider ceramics and rushing to jump on the bandwagon, are gravitating towards that genre specifically and somewhat exclusively is a bit odd. For those people who really know the material, the clunky ham-fisted look is water way under the bridge, and I question why there is not more innovative, diverse work getting picked up. It’s out there, but we never see it "cross over." The net needs to be cast WAY wider, and the ceramic folks bear most of the responsibility in making that happen although no one wants to cop to it. I think this is somehow tied into the same reasons we still see Peter Volkous being included in "cutting edge" contemporary ceramics exhibitions. Again, he makes great, powerful work, and I'm not suggesting that it should be shoved aside. But it is time to bring some additional voices and ideas to a wider audience.
OPP: Your sculptures are abstract, but I see a lot of recurring forms in them, including shoes, both male and female sex organs. Sometimes they look like unusable, complicated wireless mice. I get the sense that it doesn't matter to you if what I see is where you started from, but would you pick your favorite piece and give us the insider info on what you were thinking about when you made it?
NP: Oh man. Yeah, I really love that viewers can bring their own associations to the work. But I feel guilty sometimes because it’s too easy for me to just shrug and play innocent with the content—“you see whatever you wanna see, man!” At the same time, it is hard to delve into and thoroughly unpack the meaning because the work is kind of about everything, and therefore it's kind of about nothing. It's about the everyday, in all the many ways that word has meaning.
It's sex, death, love and angst all wrapped up in a poop joke. And I am ok with the poop joke being front and center. It's the punch line that is delivered first, and you as the viewer need to work backwards towards the actual set-up of the joke, which may or may not have some more serious undercurrents bubbling up. But if all you see is the poop, I can't get uppity about it. All that said, what I say in my statement is also true: the pieces are a consequence of crazy amounts of input from all corners, not all of it necessarily visual. It’s not just about the imagery but also the implications behind that imagery. Any given piece is actually some neurotic algorithm of history, advertising, emotion, design, desire, frustration and nerdiness.
Right now, my favorite piece is Hercule. It came out of my Masterpiece Theater phase, when I was watching a bunch of PBS murder mysteries and period pieces. Hercule Poirot, created by Agatha Christie, is the main character in this great, campy PBS show that has been running forever. That piece is the only one I still have in my possession, and I think I’m going to keep it for myself. It’s this dainty, small pink thing that lies low and flat. It has a certain formal command of its own space, similar to the character in the TV show—dainty, meek, but razor sharp and easily underestimated. It holds this blob covered by these little strips of bandages or toilet paper, almost like a hat. I was thinking about old-school Universal Studio monsters like the Mummy and about toilet paper and its uses and connotations—what an odd thing! The base of Hercule—in fact, the bases of most the pieces—references countertops and laminate surfaces of the post-war American material boom. Thanks to new chemical technology, anything could be made to look like anything else. The little slice of 1950s kitchen countertop that Hercule sits atop represents the insane abundance of products and material wealth that was part of the new, post-WWII American reality.
OPP: You are in your second year of graduate school at Ohio University. How has your work changed since you've been there?
NP: Oh boy. When I decided to go back to school, I made the conscious decision to seriously reevaluate what had become habitual in my studio practice. One thing that has really cracked wide open for me is the idea of placement. I have started to think about the hierarchy and taxonomies of display within the home. If I hear one more grad student talk about the "realm of the domestic," I think I might barf. Yet I find myself right there too, somewhat begrudgingly.
I make these precious, fetishized objects, and they go out into the world. But what happens next? Lately, I’m thinking about the display of cherished, sentimental objects. Why does grandma’s clock go on the mantle, but that weird mason jar full of seashells that you brought back from Myrtle Beach goes on the back of the toilet tank? I’m thinking about the emotion and memory that objects absorb and about the beauty and wondrousness of us as a species, as viewed through our junk. The little, old lady down the street cherishes that crappy, dollar-store resin angel with all her heart. It’s enough to make you tear up. It’s crazy and beautiful at the same time.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and existential significance of participating in mediated culture in her embroidery, video, sculpture and collage works. She received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006), where she will begin teaching in Spring 2013, and is currently a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT Residency in Chicago. Notable exhibitions include Losing Yourself in the 21st Century (Maryland Art Place, Baltimore), MP3 (The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago), Please Stand By: Stacia Yeapanis + Readymade (Baang & Burne Contemporary, New York), Over and Over Again (BOLT Project Space, Chicago).