Sculptor Judith Shea curates an archive of self-portraits by women members at the National Academy Museum.
Entering Her Own Style: An Artists Eye with Judith Shea, at the National Academy Museum last fall, one was greeted by an unusual crowd: a selection of self-portrait paintings by the rare 19th-century female members of the Academy. It was like a parallel universe of pioneering artists, poignant in their struggle to strike poses balanced between unabashed confidence and traditional femininity, between “I’m part of the club” and “I wouldn’t join any club that would have me.” Upstairs galleries of 20th and 21st-century members’ self-portraits surrounded Shea’s three incandescent life-size portrait sculptures.
There was tremendous energy in this gathering. Shea’s work embodies the elegance of restraint: each sculpture feels paired down to its essential form—confident, solid, precise. The figures staring out of the paintings and sculptures seemed to send out shivers of delight at being released from the storage rooms where most had languished for so long. I wanted to ask Shea about this act of wildly inclusive generosity: her choice to mingle barely known, hopeful fore-bearers amongst the famous few. I seized on this opportunity to draw her out about the ideas of solidarity and femininity in this exhibition, and about the trajectory her work has taken over the years, from the ethereal early clothing deconstructions to these imposing portraits.
Jane Dickson How did the idea for this exhibition evolve?
Judith Shea The Academy made an overture about curating something from their collection, which I didn’t know very well. I did not have an agenda. I began by looking at photographs before I began to look at real work; there’s a book that covers the collection up to 1920s. What stood out right away was this extraordinary collection of self-portraits by the member artists. Submitting a self-portrait used to be a requirement of membership.
Artists don’t often get into the back rooms, the storage rooms of museums. It’s this incredible thing. Like any comprehensive collection from this period (the 1820s to the present), for the first century it’s pretty much men—great men, men with names—and then there are women who are usually nude and nameless, or called The Muse, or Liberty, or Naptime.
Mary Carlson takes inspiration from religious iconography, demons, and snakes in her latest exhibition, Beautiful Beast.
Mary Carlson is a stealth artist. The power of her unassuming works and her deadpan humor sneak up on you. Her sculptures often take the form of familiar, homey objects—furniture, knick-knacks, flowers, ice cubes, the American flag. But on second take the familiar grows strange and nothing is quite what it seems. The chairs resist sitting, the flowers are porcelain, the ice is glass, and the flag has grown pale. Carlson places us in a realm of uncanny surrogates and slyly disrupts the security of casual assumptions.
I have been enjoying the evolution of Carlson’s work, visiting her studios and exhibitions for almost 20 years. When I stopped into Carlson’s upstate studio this summer for a quick visit I found myself entering an Alice In Wonderland world where the tiny demons from her last show had spawned enormous progeny towering over helpless embryonic ceramic saints. This shift and amplification of previously implicit narratives demanded exegesis, so I asked the usually reticent artist to sit for an interview. Her exhibition “Beautiful Beast” is on view until October 28, 2012 at Studio 10 in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Jane Dickson Let’s talk about your current show, Beautiful Beast at Studio 10 Gallery in Bushwick.
Mary Carlson I’ve been working with imagery of saints and demons, with the idea of the demonic also being beautiful.
JD This ceramic serpent in front of me is called Big Blue and it is 12 feet long.
JD Gigantic! It swallowed something?