Lauren Clay’s sculptures permeate the visual field like gamma radiation, unmistakably succulent in their Easter-egg hues. Drawing from references as varied as classical Greek symbols, a Southern Baptist upbringing, and Judy Chicago, her work is at once playful and deeply spiritual.
Lauren Clay’s sculptures permeate the visual field like gamma radiation, unmistakably succulent in their Easter-egg hues. Clay’s paper objects battle the limits of two-dimensional space. She experiments with materials, colors, and processes in attempts to morph flatness into form. She extends out of the Minimalist tradition, manipulating size, shape, and absolutes in her visual vernacular. Gouache spatial concepts complement and cultivate her sculptures simultaneously. Her work confirms “the power of one small object to transform the space.” Clay’s work is a spiritual facilitator, serving to incite and expose self-proclaimed sanctity.
Lynn Maliszewski: What are you working on right now?
Lauren Clay: Since my last show I’ve spent a lot of time researching and doing some experiments. I’ve been thinking a lot about classical Greek symbols of wreaths or bunched objects— you know, the ones you see on buildings throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan. They are these big, ridiculous, grand, decorative forms, but at the same time they’re also kind of autonomous. I’ve also been thinking about portals into other spaces and voids and the experience of traveling into the void.
So, right now I’ve been working on a series of wreaths and garlands. When I’m starting a new piece I usually begin with a wooden armature, then use some type of paper-mâché on top of it. Then I’ll construct around it with paper construction. Sometimes I’ll use things like balloons, or other things to help give the form more weight or volume.
LM: How does your training in painting inform your current work?
LC: Before I transitioned into making sculptures, I was painting small architectural spaces. My early work was painted on large pieces of paper that I thought of as proposals for these spaces that could probably never really exist. They are definitely relatable to my current work, but the early paintings were more architectural. Since the pieces were on large sheets of paper, they naturally curled and flopped off the wall, so I began cutting the paper. As they developed they increasingly became more and more sculptural. The painted aspect of my early work described these little minimal architectural spaces. They were imagined spaces. I think this is something that still happens in my gouache drawings. My drawings still depict these small, imagined spaces and interiors.
I’ve been using paper in a sculptural way since 2003. I have this love/hate relationship with it. In a way I’m okay with it but sometimes I feel like it corners me. I like to use paper because it’s so accessible, so easy to transform. And it’s so autonomous– it doesn’t reference anything in particular. At the same time, I feel like there’s also this painter’s impulse to take a flat surface and transform it into an illusion of space. I like the idea of transformation… I also really just like objects: things that exist in your space and aren’t just an illustration. I like making something that physically dwarfs me.
LM: Tell me about your visual language, specifically the strips of paper and tunnel forms.
LC: The small strips of paper with the curved ends that I tend to use in a lot of my work developed from this idea I had of taking the most minimal manmade form I could think of— the square, and trying to make it even more minimal. My idea was that if you curve the corners of the square, it doesn’t have four sides anymore, it has only one continuous side like a circle. It was a really silly idea but it became a predominate part of my visual language. My early visual language began with an interest in subverting the traditional, masculine forms of sculpture and painting. I felt like I was inheriting all of these heroic masculine forms, whether I liked it or not. I really love a lot of the formal devices of the Bauhaus artists, and the Minimalists but at the same time I thought they were a little sad and pathetic. All of the forms are so striped down and barren. But in my work, these really basic forms— squares, circles, and triangles, begin to multiply and become this other thing completely.
The tunnel, or stepped cone shape is a form that I used a lot in my last show at Larissa Goldston gallery. You can see it used heavily in the totem piece [Totem for Grotto Heavens Hootenanny, 2009], where these tunnel forms are embedded in the surface of the sculpture. That piece references a Chinese Scholar’s Rock, and the tunnels start to describe the surface of a rock that has eroded. Chinese painters and scholars use these rocks as contemplative objects. Painters use the rocks to help them paint imagined mountain-scapes— almost looking at the rock as you would a diorama.
LM: What influences your color choice?
LC: I like to think of color as its own entity— not really intending for it to reference anything in our day-to-day life. Sometimes I’ll choose colors that create a sense of illusion of depth, or color that will help me “bend space” within the sculpture. So sometimes I choose fluorescent colors or really saturated colors that create this crazy reflected light. The way I choose colors is probably similar in some ways to how someone like Dan Flavin or Anish Kapoor would choose colors.
I think in some ways the work, and my use of color is poetic. I feel like it’s not cool right now to be poetic or to make highly crafted objects, but I can’t help it. I find myself grasping around, trying to make sense of things that I become aware of, and I’ll end up with two things opposed, things that shouldn’t necessarily work together. In the end I find myself making connections between two things that don’t make sense on the surface, but are, in my mind, deeply connected in an esoteric or spiritual sense.
LM: How does spirituality inform your work?
LC: I was raised Southern Baptist, so it was a really prominent factor in my life growing up and in most of my family’s life it still is. I was also raised in the South so it’s just very much a part of the culture. There’s just something about growing up with all of that symbolism and imagery and connecting it to how you live your life, and what that means. At the same time there are certain things about it that I’m really drawn to, like the mysterious otherness, or the idea that something exists outside of the material world. I’m really attracted to that in a fantastical way but at the same time, I really struggle with all of those ideas. It’s just a filter for viewing the world that I’m stuck with. I can’t help but pick up on biblical themes and symbolism in everything I see or read. I think it maybe has something to do with also growing up in the suburbs. I had these two worlds: the old Southern Baptist family life with so much heavy symbolism on one side, and then on the other side, the suburbs, where everything is plastic and fake. Maybe my work is the result of continuously trying to reconcile those two worlds.
Lately my ideas as relating to spirituality have been more along the lines of Yves Klein and his monochrome paintings. I’ve been thinking a lot about him as the judo-master: in his writings he talks about standing on the judo mat, and to him the judo mat itself is a monochrome– this plane of emptiness and transient space. He talks about his paintings as windows, as framing the void. I think my work is the residue of an attempt to transcend that space like Klein. It captures that energy, or that attempt. At the same time I know my work is really kind of dorky and creepy. Maybe not creepy, but awkward. I don’t think it’s necessarily something super romantic and easy. It’s capturing that energy and that determination but, at the same time, it’s all over the place and haphazard.
Lauren Clay’s objects stand as spiritual totems, relics from a religious journey or spiritual awakening. Her work embraces “searching for that thing [and what] you feel when you’re in the midst of it.” ‘The unending amends we’ve made (imperishable wreath)’ (2010) encircles the void of blind spirituality. A feathered wreath transforms into enflamed residue. The perpetual undertow encircles the central cavity, finding mentions of freedom at the bottom-left of the circuit’s torturous infinity. Despite the indefinite twirl, the coral and robin-egg streaks maintain a contented hypnosis. The momentum of spirituality becomes an eternal whirlpool able to convince if not brainwash in its wake.
Flamboyant objects energize Clay’s restless quest for the legitimacy of spirituality, yearning to decipher its contrived hallucinations and the submission of the masses. Lonely Rainbow Picket Found Hoarding the Ten Thousand Things (2009) references Los Angeles Minimalist Judy Chicago’s nearly room-sized piece Rainbow Pickett (1965/2004). Clay utilizes a single monochrome beam pitched diagonally against the wall as the basis of the work. Predominantly cool-colored gems swell beneath the coral board. Clay mutates the strength and clarity of Chicago’s piece, extracting the single trapezoid and implementing it as a restrictive rather than liberated entity. No longer contributing to a united breath as it did in Chicago’s piece, the plank becomes an enforcer. The polygons are damned to life below the surface, smothered by cheery appearances. Clay’s remove from Chicago’s platonic piece depreciates religion’s role, physicalizing its transition from a massive, generalized elucidation to a restraining, overbearing despot.
Swimming through dead-ended inquiries and the encroaching comforts of religion, Clay encourages proactive exploration over effortless satiation. The Golden Road to Unlimited Devotion (2009) situates the viewer within the immersive utopia of spirituality. Clay’s bugle shapes interrupt the soothing stream of periwinkle paper, curious passageways beyond the tidal wave. They are engaged without being submerged, disrupting the ease of the façade and rustling the feathers of the composition. They are “grasping for eternity or trying to figure out if God exists or how we exist in the world and what it means.” It is unimportant whether these shapes move in or out, but rather that they provide a break from the unadulterated, apathetic, acceptable landscape. They instigate movement beyond the attractive void.
Clay refutes religion’s ability to singularly expand upon life’s questions despite its voluptuous promises. She investigates death as a sure-fire escape from religion’s ploy. Struck by its presence in traditional hymns, Clay finds solace in the divisive line, “Death is the gate of endless joy and yet we dread to enter there.” There is heaviness in the eventual nothingness of death, an experience specific and dynamic for each individual. In freedom from life’s concerns one is denied further personal enlightenment and satisfaction. Investigation of life is neutralized and closure is denied. Clay’s Within You or Without You (2009) series of drawings epitomize the abysmal structure of this hunt for spiritual substance. The backgrounds are invitingly vivid pastels, gradient portals to nirvana’s sublime freedom. Staunch, geometric fortifications descend upon the exterior of the open utopia. Religious rustication padlocks the entryway. Death, in its assumed transcendence, functions similarly to religious assumptions in that it provides no portal to paradise, no spiritual affirmation. Rather than expanding, it stifles and suffocates. Clay’s objects refuse to define the nirvana she seeks. She urges viewers to pummel simplification of life’s spiritual voyage. Rather than rationalize, she revels in the disorientation and satisfaction of her individual quest.
Watch a slideshow of Clay’s work below: