Arlene Shechet’s attitude-infused lecture–if you missed it, too bad.

Arlene Shechet’s lecture really conveyed her personality. Every statement she made was imbued with her personal style of delivery and insights into the nuances of her practice. This personal touch is the best ingredient of a successful lecture because beyond informing the audience about the artist, it inspires them in their own process as well. The structure of the lecture was indicative of Arlene’s sculptural practice. She molded her points and observations in such a way as to create both a chronological look at her selected works and a conceptual weaving through them. Just like her sculptural practice, her talk ebbed and flowed, drawing on previous points and highlighting the prevalence of fluidity and circularity in her sculpture.

Arlene began her lecture by announcing the uncertainty that has accompanied her works’ creation ever since she was a student. The factors that influenced her progression as an artist became apparent to her only in hindsight (something that is very comforting to hear as a student). Her works from 1992 and onward were the focus of her talk because this timeframe began with the death of some of her loved ones. At the same time in her life she was giving birth tho her children. The simultaneous flowering and withering of life began her interest in the theories of Buddhism and inspired her, upon viewing a lump of clay in her studio, to begin her iconic series of Buddhist sculptures. She stated that she would never have foreseen her departure into iconic imagery beforehand, but afterward, the Buddhist framework she studied was essential to her later practice. The buddhas she created acted as reminders for her in her process, and encouraged her to be mindful of the things which she embraced and which she avoided.

It was her research into Mandalas (Buddhist floorplans for stupas, which were placed onto blue paper) that inspired her series of paper works, both flat and casted. Every aspect of the process became an indicator for the next step—she cited her apron, boots, and the bubbles that arose during her mixing of blue and white paper pulp as factors that contributed to her fluid, ephemeral working quality. Shortly after her flat paper pieces, she exhibited in Los Angeles an installation of Vases. They were paper casts from blue and white pulp, standing atop the plaster molds that had created them. Arlene considered those vases to be stupas in themselves, as containers that referenced the convention of keeping ashes. Ashes played a more explicit role in her following works at the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington, which was inspired by the crumbling World Trade Center which she had witnessed. Each paper cast of vessels that she made contained less ash than the preceding one, and created a delicate gradient from dark to light. The emotionally charged yet reserved appearance of this piece exhibited Arlene’s breathtaking elegance. Similarly elegant was her glass rope, which she casted and displayed on the wall, protruding and receding around the space. The fact of the gallery’s past as a NAVY retirement home brought historical and contextual strength to her installation, while also playing with the fragility of glass in the shape of durable rope.

I was amazed by the fluidity that marked both her material choices and the philosophy of her work. Like the water that formed her paper pulp and ceramic buddhas, her free-flowing acceptance of the natural happenings in the studio led her from one project right into another. From her work in glass, she noted the importance of breath and collaboration which had already been so instrumental in the creation of her buddhas. She also noted the wax drippings in the shop at the University of Washington, which she casted and reproduced in rubber and Aluminum—materials that held great significance to the architectural setting of Manhattan.

Her most captivating objects to me were her oblong, bulbous, semi-anthropomorphized and unfailingly precarious ceramic pieces. They did not boast—they were far too humble and humorous for that word—they occupied their pedestals impressively, frozen evidence of Arlene’s spontaneous practice. As globulous, lumpy, leaning coils provided the backdrop for Shechet’s declarative tone, she described her love affair with the “magic of the three-dimensional object.” As a philosopher digests the multiplicity of meanings surrounding their subject, Shechet considered in-depth the formal, practical, chronological, and anthropomorphic implications of these intensely characterized ceramic heaps. In her eyes, the ceramic forms embody transformation. They change and develop as one walks around them, providing with each step a new piece of the story of their creation. While threatening a fall from their pedestals, they provide a noble example of how to hang in there, reveling in the precariousness of their position. Interestingly, Shechet’s creations are not darling, and many of them are fated to reach the dumpster rather than the gallery floor. She spoke frankly of her experimental process, valuing the immediacy of the act of creation and the power that it contains.

The intertextuality of her approach is something that was not lost on me. In every work she showed, a link could be seen to previous works, which, in the patently Buddhist mode of thinking, were overlapped and multifaceted from the start. For example, the three-dimensional nature of her works clearly drew from the circumambulation of the stupas that she had visited and studied. Inherent in the production of her ceramics was the water that so poetically mimicked the fluid nature of her movements and ideas. In a particularly encouraging sentiment about her practice, Shechet referenced the role of editing in her work. Rather than plan out all of her moves ahead of time, she jumped in headlong to her process, experimenting with any material, any shapes that seem fit, stopping at whatever point proves to be good-looking. She edits when something fails—if it works then it is developed further. She does not try to fulfill any grandiose thesis or hypothesis because the key element is the thrill of the experience. When viewed, this characteristic of her work is not lost in translation. Her rogue attitude was inspiring. Toward the end of her talk, I found myself collecting epic quotes straight from her mouth. Arlene Shechet “will do anything to make it work,” and spoke truthfully that in the real world there are many opportunities to be fearful, but in the studio one must be fearless.

3 Responses

  1. I really enjoyed how you described the her as constantly flowering and withering. I think her work is highly related to modern religious practices, many Americans have been learning more about Eastern religions, some of us embracing them as our own, others combining them with Christianity. Her repetitive ceramic pieces of Buddha are heavily Eastern influence, rather than the stereotypical fat Buddha we often see in American society. I thoroughly enjoy how each of those sculptures are different. However, they are far less significant to me, and it seems to you, than her other works relating to ropes, and water. Well done!

  2. I too liked your description of Arlene’s process as “flowering and withering”, as I feel that is probably the best way to articulate it. When hearing her speak, it seemed as if Arlene approaches each project with very little expectation and over time it blossoms into something completely unexpected. I agree that this is a direct representation of her personality, as she appeared to be open to all sorts of new ideas and procedures. Your description of the large, bulbous sculptures was very informative, as I had completely forgotten about these pieces. You are right, as I now recall her photographs of them, that they seemed to transform when viewed from different angles. Although we were able to view pictures of the sculptures from different angles, I cannot help but assume that seeing them first hand would be a different experience altogether. I was also struck by the precarious structure of these pieces, as they appeared to defy gravity. They were lethargic looking and top heavy, being supported by a base that appeared inadequate for such a large structure. I really enjoyed reading your interpretation of Arlene’s work and found it quite insightful.

  3. Thanks Wesley and Anna. It’s nice to hear that my interpretations are not without relevance to other people. Sometimes I wonder. Anna, I actually hadn’t given a lot of thought to the importance of Arlene’s Buddha’s physical appearance. I imagine that if she had leaned closer to the stereotypical Buddha that you might find in a corner Tibet store her work might have been disregarded all together, or at least its implications would be unrecognizeably altered. Wesley, I can tell you enjoyed the almost biomorphic structures as much as I did. I like to think of them as subconscious or character-driven metaphors of her process.

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