Babies on Top of Cabinets, Surrealist Mollusks, and a Life Sized Mermaid


By Claire Cushman (MFA 2015) 

“It’s hard to say life is small, delicate, and vulnerable unless you can show the real size of life,” says New York Academy of Art’s newest Senior Critic Judy Fox. On September 17th, Fox discussed the presence of abstraction in sculpture with renowned abstract sculptor and Pace artist Joel Shapiro for the Academy's first Art and Culture lecture of the school year. While Shapiro spoke about arriving at meaning through the process of sculpting, Fox explained her highly premeditated way of working. 
“The emotional effect is one of unattained glory, of someone trying to be something they’re not – a regular person trying to play a grand role,” says Fox, who relies on iconic figures from art or history, as well as a model she’s forced into the iconic pose and photographed. As she works, she observes the inherent tension between the real and the ideal. 

The day after the lecture, I went to Fox’s studio to interview her about her work. I removed my shoes at the door, and almost immediately had a layer of silky sculpture dust covering my bare feet. Natural light poured in from a wall of windows, and NPR – which Fox listens to constantly as she works – blasted from the radio. Strange figures stared me down from all over the room – babies on top of cabinets, surrealist mollusks, and a life sized mermaid from her 2012 PPOW show, “Out of Water.” Fox sat sculpting and continued to sculpt for the duration of our conversation. 

CC: What are you working on now?

JF: This long skinny thing that I’m scratching away at is part of a snake tree, which will be about eight feet tall. It’s a symbol of the temptations that confront Eve. When I think about evolution, and how animals express their sexuality, it’s not often visual – a chimp doesn’t dress up and doesn’t care about esthetics. Eve might represent the dawning of seduction and visual awareness.CC: How does this relate to your other work?

JF: I like to look at mythology, including religion, and think about the psychological and sociological themes that the myths are addressing. I reanalyze myths in a frank, contemporary, science-oriented way. I pillage all of time and civilization, and choose myths wherein the imagery seems to suggest a new interpretation by contemporary standards.

CC: Can you tell me how you arrived at your mollusk sculptures?

JF: I was thinking about evolution as an approach to visualizing the Garden of Eden. So I was reading the bible and I was side tracked by the third day, when the seas were created. I started thinking about primordial muck, primitive life forms, and sea monsters. I was interested in our connection to PRIMATIVE life, and our fear it, fear of monsters… you can see sea monsters at the side of old maps back when people believed the world was flat. These snakey, reptile wormy monsters were the inspiration for the worms. They were fun to make. You have to have a good time.

CC: What source images were you using to create these?

JF: I just worked from magazine and internet pictures, whatever I could get. Cephalopods are very flexible in the flesh, but they do have some anatomy, which I tried to study. I worked out the anatomy but also hybridized them with certain ideas I had, to give them different characters. I was using my ability to invoke human expression, to make them look like a person of one type or another. We are all animals, so we have certain things in common with them. We are fairly related even though not… I wanted to emphasize this ability to empathize across species. I was using form as a way of evoking aspects of human experience in a humorous way.
CC: What are you currently reading?

JF: I try to have a novel going… right now I am reading “Benang,” a novel by an Australian aboriginal writer, Kim Scott. I love anthropology of all kinds. That comes with being a figurative artist – you like to learn about the human experience from all sides. I tend to read science magazines and collect information that way. And listen to NPR.

CC: What artists are you looking at historically?

JF: My main stylistic influences/brothers are Northern Renaissance sculptors. I also love High Gothic sculpture, which is much more attentive to individual character. It’s actually kind of easy to make a Renaissance sculpture because all you really need is anatomy and curvilinear resolution. But to actually get all the individual character into it you have to observe a real example of a person.
CC: You mentioned during the lecture that you found observing nature more interesting than working from your imagination.

JF: When I was a student, I was once trying to finish up a piece and thought – “I’ll just make up the belly button,” which came out fine. Then the model came in, and damned if her bellybutton wasn’t way more interesting than the one I made! I realized that the act of understanding something is the act of trimming away all the irregularities. So I decided I was going to fight against that and stick to nature. For example, in painting, once you get some idea of what light and shadow looks like, you can probably do it credibly. But you’re never going to be Vermeer that way. There’s just nothing like actually observing real light and the myriad of color reflections. I encourage any artist to work from life. There’s no substitute for going out there and looking at reality.
CC: You spoke about trying to create tension between a model’s personality and the role you are trying to fit them into.

JF: In some cases, the model’s personality meshes with the hero or the figure they’re playing – that can work sculpturally, like in Shiva dancing. The model was a very confident, tough little kid – his personality fit very well with the Hindu god shiva, the creator and destroyer. So that worked well for the piece even though it wasn’t a very “tense” outcome. When the models are really different from the role I’m trying to place them into it creates tension, and makes a more poignant outcome. The sculpture becomes more about trying something that’s difficult. Both things are truth. It works in either direction. That said, there are still some pieces that end up more captivating than other pieces in the end.

CC: Do you ever scrap pieces, if you’re not happy with them?

JF: Of course I try to only make pieces that are going to be good because they take me so long to make, but some of them really end up being stronger than others. And since I’ve spent months and months on them, I use those pieces too. I show them all. It’s a big ceramicist thing to throw away imperfect pieces of your work. But ceramicists don’t usually work on a piece for a year.
CC: What is your pace?

JF: About one month for every ten inches of sculpture. Sculpting an adult takes me about nine months. And then by the time it’s fired, put together, seams fixed, it’s effectively a year for a life-sized adult. Kids are faster. And surrealist things are faster because they’re straight out of my head.
CC: As an undergraduate in the 1970s, you made abstract constructions. How did you move from these works to the strictly figurative work you are making now?

JF: I loved doing the constructions and probably would have continued making them had I been accepted into the Whitney Independent study program – they would’ve discouraged figure – but then I wasn’t accepted, so I went to art conservation school at NYU. This was cool because no art school at the time would have encouraged me in any way to do the figure. But taking art history courses exposed me to very serious interpretations of figuration and its various styles. I was also doing my own work and working out a way of doing the figure that reflected my own time.

CC: What skills did you learn at NYU that you use in your work now?

JF: That program was where I was really introduced to polychrome sculpture, because most sculpture in the ancient world was painted. It was really more of a post 19th century thing to have everything be colorless. Art conservation taught me to mix and layer colors, as part of replacing lost areas. Kind of by surprise, it was a great place to learn to make art, and a fun education.

CC: What kind of work did you do as a conservator? 

JF: When I finished graduate school in 1984, I started my first job at NYAA. I was taking care of their cast collection, which had a tendency to get broken by party revelers – I would glue them back together, fill the losses, the usual restoration routine. I later joined a private business that worked on Modern and Contemporary Art. Being a conservator saved me from having to do the usual kind of hustling that artists so often have to do. It was a great day job, and overlapped with my studio needs.

CC: Were you ever interested in working 2D?

JF: I’m just a natural sculptor, and am very literal minded. It’s possible for me to draw, but I wouldn’t credit myself with having developed a drawing language that works. I have respect for drawing and painting, but I don’t really like doing either. For example, I painted my Cuttlefish sculpture with a colorful pattern on its back, and it was tedious for me to paint within the lines. I don’t love it, but I have to paint to give my sculptures that sense of life.

CC: When and how did you come to a clear idea of what you were trying to say with your work?

JF: I didn't come to a clear sense of how to make figures contemporary for a long time. I was searching for a way to express certain things for years. For example, I wanted to avoid monumentality in favor of subtlety and intimacy. I went down a few dead ends, but when I started the baby series in 85, I knew that the sculptures were finally taking care of all the things I wanted to say. Eventually the language of form that I developed became my style. In the 70s, the grad students would say “Why would you make a figure, why bother?” When I started to do the baby series it was like “well, it’s a figure because my work is about human issues and personality.” Modernism had gone so far as to chop off heads and do just torsos, and abstract elements of the body. The head, and the mind in it, was important subject matter to me. I was looking to make figures that addressed contemporary life in an interesting way. 


Judy Fox contributed two essays in The Figure: Painting, Drawing, and Sculpture – Contemporary Perspectives, the New York Academy of Art's debut monograph
celebrating the art of the human figure, published by SkiraRizzoli .

Her conversation with Joel Shapiro is featured on the Academy's Vimeo page and her extraordinary work can be seen on her website

Claire Cushman (MFA 2015) is a painter and Social Media scholar with a penchant for blogging.  From time to time check in on the Academy's blog to read more entries from Claire throughout the year.

No comments:

Post a Comment