Essay by Nancy Princenthal for catalogue of show " In the Moment" at Elizabeth Harris Gallery, March 30-May 11, 2019
Elisa D’Arrigo: In the Moment
Our sense of our own bodies is subject to no end of distortion. The parts that should enable and support us sometimes seem to cause trouble instead: we feel that our arms are too heavy to lift; our chests sag. We give way, and fall down. Dreams give us one language for this condition, physical comedy another. Elisa D’Arrigo combines the two in a series of alarmingly potent little ceramic figures that engage our propensities for reverie, humor and, perhaps most satisfying, deep human recognition.
After having long worked in other mediums, primarily stiffened and stitched fabric, D’Arrigo returned to fired clay in 2010. The hand-built forms she has been making since, coiled, pinched and twisted, evoke bodies but also garments, and in either case containers that seem to stand up only with some effort. Often perilously atilt or frankly collapsed, they sustain in postures that variously suggest resignation, pugnacity and rousing if wryly self-conscious good cheer. And whatever their stance, it seems provisional. “They’re still moving,” says D’Arrigo, who takes inspiration from dance (she is an enthusiast of, for instance, Mark Morris); we are meant to see them as “just paused.” Contributing to their liveliness are surfaces that run with an impossible wealth of color, pattern and texture. Rather than applying glazes with brushes, which she finds permit too much control, D’Arrigo uses unorthodox tools, squirting, dripping and spattering glazes—and also liquid clay (slip), for texture—with syringes, eyedroppers, a toothbrush. Variously nubby and scaly, striated and pocked, the resulting surfaces evoke polished gemstones, luster glass, patterned knits and flesh both tender pink and charred, mineral black.
D’Arrigo’s attunement to the human comedy is vividly apparent in the posture of On a Limb, one of several works in which one swollen outstretched form—an arm, it seems—overwhelms the torso-like vessel it supports. Big and bumptious, it pulls forcefully toward independence while remaining achingly, inseparably attached. Similarly distended limbs, gravely and laughably enlarged, weigh down—or, provide ballast for—various bodies in the wickedly engrossing series P.G. On My Mind (The dedication is to Philip Guston, and in particular to his “Poor Richard” drawings, in which Nixon’s nose grows to alarming, Pinocchio-an proportions. D’Arrigo says she thinks of Guston as a sculptor, for the bulky bandaged heads and rocks that appear in his paintings; she similarly admires Marsden Hartley for his blocky, sculptural clouds.) Like Guston’s disembodied heads, D’Arrigo’s figures seem all sentience, headless (and legless) though they are. Or perhaps it’s better to say they are (again as with Guston’s imagery) all inflamed feeling, exposed and raw. These are figures whose faculties of touch and proprioception seem raised by a factor of infinity.
If uncanny, unwieldy growth is one vector of expression in D’Arrigo’s sculptures, attenuation is another. Spindly arms are lifted joyously high around a big-bellied form in One plus 1 = 3; the arms in Twisted 13 are narrow and long enough to form a kind of straightjacket. In Googler Dyad, the stranglehold is so tight the body within disappears, though even here, humor lurks: the title refers not to a search engine, but to the pattern of what look like googly eyes on the vessel’s surface. With physical humor just short of slapstick, So Inclined tips forward jauntily, one arm thrust up in a salute, while the other extends to break a fall; mitigating the humor is a surface that has a slightly ominous, pitted cast, as of hardened lava.
The rounded, stacked shapes of Her Own Volution 3 form a voluptuous little figure indebted, in her proportions and also her ancient-looking bluish surfaces, to the Venus of Willendorf—although the delicate little brown foot that extends beneath her seems distinctly that of a humble snail. More flagrantly lascivious is Demimini, which again summons a mollusk, this one with a blackened shell, and flesh inside that is a wet, luscious pink. Gendered by its spangled, rosy surface if not by its form, Pink Sprout evokes, from one angle, a head with cigarette, and from the other a figure balanced on one arm, with one leg kicked up like a Rockette at Christmas.
The feminine connections are, perhaps, over-determined. Ceramics have a long if uncertain association with women’s work. In a landmark 2009 essay called “On Dirt,” Ingrid Schaffner cites Georges Bataille’s notion of the informe (which names materials that are “crushable on the spot” and “formless as spit,”) to claim, “it’s as if clay itself were a leveling medium, a disruptive field of operations.” But Schaffner hastens to add that clay also offers the possibility of “diminutive scale, decorative surface, exquisite detail, unabashed sentiment”—that is, the “terms of the figurine.” Affirming an inevitable association, she concludes, “If they sound familiar, it’s because feminism has made them a generative means for addressing issues of contemporary life through art for decades.” In short, “feminism takes dirt in stride.” But it is also true that the kind of hand-craftedness associated with ceramics—a medium lately ubiquitous in all the more ambitious precincts of contemporary art—is hardly identified exclusively with women. In an essay about Martin Puryear, David Levi-Strauss writes, “at the edges of utility,” Puryear creates “vessels that might be dwellings in the shapes of bodies” which live “in that fertile seam between representation and abstraction.” If the description fits D’Arrigo’s work snugly, so does Levi-Strauss’s claim, “The labor that is compressed into them allows them to work over time, and the time it takes to make them is the time taken to mean it.”
As with many artists who have long experience in a refractory material, D’Arrigo’s process is at once intuitive and deeply informed, and involves a reciprocal relationship between intention and chance. Which is to say, she understands that her control is both inalienable and limited. How the clay will behave when wet—how it will slump and yield—and what will result from firing a series of glazes, are not things she can altogether predict. Yet she is attentive to the conventions of the medium, and is for instance a stickler about making all her vessels watertight: if you’d like, you could stick a flower in almost all of them. In fact she has sometimes done so for exhibitions, with irresistibly appealing results. While these vessels are without question a species of figurative sculpture, their arms can also be seen as handles. Utility goes with the territory.
But it only goes so far. “”Dissonantly evocative, eccentrically constructed, and defiantly connected to a notion of sculpture as abstract statuary, a three-dimensional site of anthropomorphized contemplation,” Caroll Dunham has written about John Newman’s similarly scaled sculptures. “No interpretive frame would seem to be off limits.” The same can surely be said of D’Arrigo’s incorrigibly nonconforming sculpture.
Review of "Absurd Petunias" at Patricia Sweetow Gallery by Julia Couzens in Medium. Image: "From There To Here", 2022 glazed ceramic
John Yau Hyperallergic review of Elisa D'Arrigo "in the moment" and Martha Clippinger "pieces" at Elizabeth Harris. April 21, 2019
John Yau's review in Hyperallergic of "vases and drawings" at Elizabeth Harris Gallery (March 13, 2016)
Mario Naves review in "Too Much Art" of "some vases" at Elizabeth Harris Gallery (November 27, 2012)