Figuring Space

Jan 12th - Apr 16th, 2023

The exhibition will present full-scale, figurative sculptures in clay by the top artists working in clay in the United States. Kelli Morgan, Professor of the Practice, Tufts University, will add her integral knowledge of the historical use of the figure in American art over the last 200 years to deepen The Clay Studio’s usual focus on contemporary ceramic art.

The group of powerful, full-scale representations of human figures will serve as a body of evidence to lay bare the issues that permeate American art and social culture. Each of the artists chosen uses the figure to usurp the painful history of bodies on display in American history. They assert their autonomy and subjectivity by presenting cultural critiques through lenses of their own choosing: race, gender, class, and anti-war ideas. Roberto Lugo, Kensuke Yamada, Kevin Snipes, Cristina Cordova, Chris Rodgers, Sergei Isupov, Christina West, Tip Toland, Jonathan Christensen Caballero, George Rodriguez, Roxanne Swentzell, and Kyungmin Park are among the invited artists.

We are excited to announce that Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library will be collaborating with The Clay Studio through research visits for the Curator, and possible inclusion of historical ceramic figures from their Collection that represent cultural heritage, gender, class, and other social issues. Many thanks to Leslie B. Grigsby, Senior Curator of Ceramics and Glass, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library for her partnership.

The human figure has often acted as a metaphor for power and a symbol of imperialism within art. For much of history, the human figure was the most exalted form of artistic masterpiece, representing myth, morals, and fame in cultures around the world. The representational human form, suffused with imperial power through the ages, and rejected by many artists during the 20th century as passé, has been reinvigorated by contemporary artists and infused with agency, potency and vision that reflects the race and gender-informed body politics of today.

Figuring Space will reverse the paradigm of using representational human figures to depict historical perpetrators of imperialism and violence by fore-fronting artists from various backgrounds who create contemporary, representational work that fractures the myopic narrative of white male genius. The exhibition will present 12 human scale clay figures, each confronting the viewer one-to-one, and projecting the personal narratives of each artist in their own expression of identity and social justice.

The body, as a concept, is intimately tied to ceramic art; clay is often used as a proxy for the physicality of flesh, and the vessel as a symbol of the human form. Although it requires incredible skill and intention to create a human scale figure from clay, it is a more democratic material than stone or bronze. Made of the earth we stand on, and used nearly universally around the world and throughout history, clay has the capacity to articulate cultural perspectives, social engagement, and artistic intentions. By using clay as a means to investigate the self, Figuring Space will highlight powerful sculptures that use this material, this earth, to reflect humanity writ large, as well as the most intimate personal identity.

With the recent racial reckoning in our country, figural sculptures have often been at the center of public debate. Monuments honoring those whose dark histories have come to light are being reexamined and sometimes removed.  Figuring Space uses that conversation of who gets to be seen and celebrated, as the backdrop to present an exhibition of human-scale, figurative sculpture by twelve of the top American artists working in ceramics: Kensuke Yamada, Roberto Lugo, Kevin Snipes, Cristina Cordova, Tip Toland, Jonathan Christensen Caballero, George Rodriguez, Christina West, Roxanne Swentzell, Kyungmin Park, Chris Rodgers.

This exhibition of human-scale figural sculpture aims to lay bare the divisions that permeate American art and culture. The invited artists expose the tragedies brought on bodies by forced migration, slavery, economic disparity, gender inequality and affirm artistic representations of aspirations for a more just society. Each uses the figure to assert their autonomy by presenting cultural critiques through the lenses of race, gender, and class, using the fraught history of the figure as fuel for their own powerful stories.

Jonathan Christensen Caballero layers Pre-Columbian imagery on contemporary Latin American figures at work, asking who benefits from the American dream. The artist depicts people who contribute to society through physical labor, often sacrificing their health and safety. Roberto Lugo’s work combines historical decorative arts motifs with elements of modern urban graffiti and portraits of individuals whose faces are historically absent on this type of luxury item - like Sojourner Truth, Dr. Cornel West, The Notorious BIG, as well as Lugo’s family members. Tip Toland’s hyperreal figures reveal what it means to be human, living inside our varied bodies. Roxanne Swentzell creates full-scale clay figures that represent the complete spectrum of the human spirit, and hopes her expressive characters will help viewers connect more fully with their surroundings and feelings. Kyungmin Park contrasts the darker emotions and restricted psyche of adulthood with the boundless consciousness of youth through her sculptures depicting children at play and at rest. The twelve chosen artists explore their cultural identity and questions about what it means to be human in their figurative sculpture.

Figuring Space will be one of the first exhibitions in our newly built, state of the art, home in the South Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. As TCS begins this new chapter in its own history with a new building, we have also established a new curatorial framework that includes the voices of our various constituents through an Exhibition Council. The Council includes in-house staff and artists, neighbors like muralist Cesar Viveros, community organizer Iris Brown, our South Kensington cultural partners including Taller Puertorriqueńo, and Olde Kensington Neighborhood Association, as well as curatorial peers. Each member provides important insight and acts as an ambassador within their respective communities, forming a conduit of information to friends and neighbors that offer a meaningful way to draw new audience members.

As a new member of a culturally rich neighborhood that is experiencing the turmoil of rapid gentrification, The Clay Studio is working to be a positive force within this changing environment. We must work to expand our relevance to include our existing community, the hyperlocal neighbors, as well as local, national, and international art spheres. The Clay Studio is known internationally as a place to experience the best of ceramic art. With Figuring Space and our Council we have the opportunity to thoughtfully advance our methodological approach to reflect the founding principle of The Clay Studio: artistic expression and collaboration.

In addition to the Council, we are dedicated to including more curatorial voices. Jennifer Zwilling, Curator & Director of Artistic Programs at TCS, and Dr. Kelli Morgan are working together to make Figuring Space relevant

to our audiences and the art historical record. Dr. Morgan is a curator, educator, and social justice activist who specializes in American art and visual culture has worked with TCS in the past. Her scholarly and activist work combine to make her incredibly qualified to examine the issues of racial politics and the artistic use of the figure in this exhibition. Morgan has developed and championed new curatorial methodologies that privilege the voices of museum audiences, breaking the misconception that museums should hold all the authority dictating how to experience art. Collaboration with colleagues of varied experiences produce expansive curatorial perspective. Together, we are endeavoring to create an exhibition that can offer truly meaningful experiences for every person who walks into the gallery at The Clay Studio.