Spray painted in neon hues and silver grays, the inflatable sculptural forms in Claire Ashley’s ambitious solo exhibition “Lumpy Morsels, Hot Rocks” are reminiscent of aging bodies, saggy breasts, fat rolls and stretch marks. A whole family of bulbous, boulder-sized forms command attention as they occupy and even spill out of the gallery space.
The works have as much of a figurative quality as they reference puffy pastries in a bakery display. Yet blown up beyond human-size, they behave more as an immersive landscape. Looped audio by collaborator Joshua Patterson pulsates on top of the sound of the fans that keep the pieces inflated, casting a mysterious mood that Ashley intended as a kind of “alien landscape.” Towering over the viewer and stacked on top of one another, the installation is both imposing and inviting, threatening and vulnerable. Are we the newborn trying to make sense of the world through these giant, soft bundles of flesh or lost in an alien landscape?
These hybrid sculptural paintings are informed by a celebratory—but not idealized—relationship to motherhood. With the potential to expand and contract, inflatables inherently bear certain relationships to the body: inhalation and exhalation, wrinkled skin, and the stretching of a pregnant tummy. In contrast to how they appear in photographs, the surfaces of the inflatables are actually quite raw and worn. The stains and sprays of color remind me, on some level, of an obliviously happy, dirty kid. The influence of motherhood is present in the visual relationship to stretched, sagging skin, as much as in how the artist cares for the work. Bearing Ashley’s touches of maternal love and attention, the pieces are stitched back together with evident signs of patching whenever one bursts at the seams. It appears this happens often when the work becomes a performative costume. At the opening reception, performers zipped themselves fully inside of the inflatables for the first time (previously, they only partly covered the body, with just a pair of legs protruding). There’s a levity and humor to the work that comes from the unexpected scale and use of materials and a degree of silliness to the forms, especially when animated by a performer.
It’s refreshing to see such smart work that simultaneously manages to be playful. Comparable to the ways that artists such as Jessica Stockholder and Katharina Grosse bring painting into the physical space of the viewer, Ashley’s self-aware practice uses the language and history of painting to critique itself, acting as a kind of Trojan horse (much like the performers zipped up inside). Originally trained as a painter, the artist inserts her love of painting into the realms of sculpture, installation, and performance, all in a subversive attempt to critique and examine that tradition while pushing outside of it. The choice to work on such a large scale was intended as a cheeky counterpoint to the more macho history of monumental sculpture, (the works of Richard Serra come to mind), bringing a softer, feminine perspective to monumentality. Through an intuitive, process-based practice, Ashley’s work pokes fun and poses questions: Why does painting have to be flat? Why can’t painting be a kinetic thing? Why does painting have to be rigid? Straddling painting, sculpture, installation and performance, Ashley’s lumpy morsels and hot rocks are too big and floppy to fit into any one box.
Ashley, who teaches at the Art institute of Chicago, said that her charge as an artist in academia is to help art students realize that “meaning is a part of your character.” This quality is clearly apparent in Ashley’s own practice. Her roles as mother and artist are intertwined; creativity and creation go hand in hand. Humor can risk being easily dismissed if not done well, and citing motherhood as a primary influence on one’s work can unfortunately pose a similar risk. Ashley’s willingness to play off of the politicized nature of taking up space as a female artist and asserting one’s presence unapologetically, even obnoxiously, and with a satisfied smirk, are precisely the risks that interest me about her work.
“Claire Ashley: Lumpy Morsels, Hot Rocks” runs through Saturday, March 19, at the Cleve Carney Art Gallery at 425 Fawell Blvd., Glen Ellyn. Gallery hours are 11am-3pm Monday-Thursday and Saturday plus 6-8pm Thursday.