"Nincompoop", Francis Upritchard, 2011

By: Maria Seda-Reeder

The Zaha Hadid designed Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, with its intermittently soaring and squatting ceilings and massive concrete pillars, has been notoriously challenging for artists and curators alike. Fortunately, the two current exhibitions on the second floor, Jannis Varelas’ “Sleep My Sheep Sleep” and Francis Upritchard’s “A Long Wait,” demonstrate a clever thoughtfulness for scale and installation by each artist in their work, as well as by exhibition curators.

For New Zealand-born, London-based Upritchard, consideration for size and scale seem particularly important to her praxis.  The exhibition on the second floor lower level gallery, organized by Assistant Curator Justine Ludwig, consists of one large multi-media ceiling installation, nine figurative “Holy Fool” sculptures, five painted bowls of varying sizes, an oversized plate and vase, as well as a glass sculpture consisting of nine “potatoes”—all (with the exception of the ceiling installation) resting upon metal &/or wooden plinths so as to bring the observer right at viewing level.

Upritchard mixes the found, refurbished, and meticulously handmade within “A Long Wait” by creating art objects positioned upon well-crafted pedestals.  The artist’s concern for mounting is particularly evident in the piece Lake Plate (2011) in which the shallowest of the seven painted polymer clay receptacles featured within the exhibition isn’t installed parallel to the floor, but rather held up like a face or mask by two hand-like clamps, atop an anthropomorphic metal base. In Lake Plate, the line between pedestal and art object is blurred, and the artist reinforces this idea throughout the exhibition.

The pieces I spent the most time with, were Upritchard’s people—these fantastic, boldly colored characters with half-closed eyes and meticulous details of hair, skin, and nails.  Despite the artist’s aforementioned attention to detail, her figures appear ambiguous in age, ethnicity, and in the case of Nincompoop, (2011) with its mannish face and baldhead but visible breasts, even gender.

Particularly with her figurines, Upritchard makes you wonder about her process.  These diminutive (but certainly not miniature) people look to be made of the same kind of modeling clay that one might see kitschy jewelry made from, and their long-limbed bodies stand, bend, and recline at angles that might otherwise collapse without some internal armature.  The colors & patterns painted on many of the sculptures mimic those on the perfectly scaled clothes with which she adorns them, and it is unclear how much of the clothes are actually made by the artist or appropriated &/or reworked. Scarves, robes, and gowns that appear to be hand-woven, sewn, dyed, and/or printed, coordinate with the pigments painted onto each character, as if the designs either soaked through their skin, or vice versa.

The artist’s carefully sculpted figures also include seemingly purposeful yet minor imperfections:  a different sculpting material blemishes the otherwise flawless surface, drawing ones attention to where joints, organs, or—in the case of her armored man, Knight (2011)—feet would otherwise be.  With the exception of the aforementioned, each figurine is barefoot with careful attention spent on minute corporeal details— goosepimply nipples, tiny eyebrow hairs, and delicate fingertips & toenails.  Their clothes, expressions, and body language solicit inspection, yet they seem quite isolated—not only from the observer, but also from each other.

For example, one of Upritchard’s wooden pedestals supports two male figures: Just Waiting (2011) and Just Dancing (2009), both facing the same direction in much the same lethargic standing pose.  One is significantly larger, with its back to the smaller figure; they do not interact and are seemingly lost in their own personal reveries despite their similar stances & coexistence on one physical plane.  Like Alberto Giacometti’s willowy and equally isolated figures, Upritchard’s appear to be a meditation on the loneliness and separation of the individual from his/her peers.

As I walked around the room, I found myself wondering why these irresistible creatures were standing amongst bowls, and placed upon the simple but carefully crafted pedestals. Pottery and furniture are not particularly what one thinks of when one imagines a contemporary art exhibition.

In much the same way that Upritchard draws parallels between the patterns and colors on the clothing her figures wear and the skin that they inhabit, the artist likewise draws a line between these people and the empty yet visually compelling receptacles she places them amongst.

By including the lesser-than-human-like vessels (vase, plate, bowls) within the exhibition, Upritchard drives home the point that all are empty containers.  The bodies reveal what otherwise remains of us after we die:  skin, hair, nails, clothes—the mere shell of our existence—and she has said as much about her figures in the past, describing them as “bereft,” having “no life,” and “like husks.”  By consequence, we are drawn to their humanity but wonder about their soullessness.

The hanging installation, Secession Chandelier (2010) consisting of colored blown glass lights and two taxidermy white snakes at the farthest end of the gallery where the ceiling juts up, successfully utilizes the space and similarly speaks to the artist’s use of objects as empty vessels.  The two snakes are open-mouthed, on the verge of eating their own tails, and hang from the ceiling in two interlocked yet open circles. Each glass bulb, much like the snakes, the vase, the bowls, and even the hollow “Potatoes” glass sculpture, (which consists merely of the shell of the tuber but looks amazingly like the real thing,) is a vacant hull.  Here again, then, Upritchard plays with the notion of the body as an otherwise empty container for the soul.

In taking Upritchard’s analogy one-step farther, I would likewise argue that a contemporary cultural institution rings equally hollow without the proper art to give the space spirit.  While buildings can be plagued with trials for institutional administrators, finding appropriate solutions, (as Upritchard and Ludwig have done with “A Long Wait,” by placing the objets d’art upon suitable platforms for public consumption,) allows the artist and viewers a modest dialogue—the real point of an artistically-conceived structure:  not just to be an empty façade, but to be a living institution.



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