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Ecstasy in Clay: Sculptures by Mary Frank at DC Moore Gallery in New York City

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The Chelsea art galleries in Manhattan are an amazing free public resource and the DC Moore Gallery helps to show why with their latest show - Mary Frank: Elemental Expression (Sculpture 1969 – 1985 and Recent Work).

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In the press release for the show Frank is quoted as saying: “Clay is gravity seeking. There are moments when it seems analogous to flesh.” She also states: “It is an astounding medium…so alive and dead, both.” Frank’s innovation involved how she used clay to represent her figures. Using clay’s flesh-like qualities, she created sheets of this material to form an outer layer of a figure’s body. Furthermore, she made no attempt to make the sheets seamless. Indeed, you often see intentional gaps between the sheets and you often see where the sheets of clay overlap. The result is that you perceive hollow figures of (mostly) women who were engaged in intense emotional or inner experience. The hollowed pieces seem to represent the residue, as it were, of the inner change or intense experience that occurred. This is, basically, petrified evidence of inner engagement that we are challenged to now engage and understand. The pieces often seem to capture a moment of inner change leading to tranquility or some intense bliss or serenity being directly experienced by the figure.

In many of her early works on display at DC Moore, we see these figures lying supine while having engaged in some trying type of inner process. The position of the body often implies that some type of struggle has occurred within the resting body. In other pieces we see figures upright and dancing or in some type of extreme, gravity-defying posture. By presenting the outer crust of the person undergoing intense experience, Frank seems to be pointing to the divorce between that transformative outcome within the figure and the perception of and attempt to understand what has happened by the viewer.

In these sculptural pieces, the viscera of the subject are gone and this is, basically, the de facto case any time we perceive another person undergoing something intensely emotional. We are compelled to interpret and respond to what we can see – we have no direct access to the actual feelings of the other person. If another is feeling pain, we often will also feel pain, but it is a different type of pain. Our bodies and emotions essentially deceive us with analogous but watered-down versions of the other’s experience, which does tend to draw us closer to the afflicted person, but not enough for a real sense of fellow-feeling. Conversely, when we see extreme joy, we also might feel joy, but it is not the joy the other feels, but a diluted version that intimates the deeper joy while still excluding us from the full participation that only the subject who has engaged in the initial experience can feel.

In these pieces by Frank, these are frozen, petrified experiences without the external or internal contexts. We do not know what initiated the experience and we do not know the inner workings of the body that brought about the experience. We are left with nothing but the physical expressions. Indeed, we are very much interlopers and voyeurs in this process. The figures are not attempting interpersonal engagement with us – they have sought out seclusion and we have found them, or at least found traces of what they have gone through.

Others who have seen Frank’s work point out a sensuality in these figures. That’s true but in some religious literature and art (St. Theresa by Bernini is an easy example) sexual ecstasy seems to be used as an analog to approximate complete spiritual fulfillment. It is the closest form of corporeal bliss that can approximate spiritual bliss. Religious writers and artists (including Frank) might also be pointing out the intense relationship between the spiritual and the sexual. The spiritual is literally born from the sexual and also gives meaning to the sexual process.

More than anything, Frank seems to want us, perhaps, to be aware of the distance between experience and the perception of experience, and to examine how we face this distance. How do we grasp, or can we grasp, what these figures are experiencing? Do they elicit compassion? Do we feel joy? veneration? envy? curiosity? Do we really recognize what the subject is going through? If we have not experienced intense, spiritual ecstasy, for example, but we are confronted with evidence of it (in these pieces), what is our response? Can we even believe in the experience that these figures seem to have gone through? Do these figures give us hope for something more meaningful in our lives or are we left with a feeling of disbelief?

DC Moore also presents more current work by Frank done through the process of archival pigment printing on bamboo paper. In the vibrant pieces Frank further explores the themes of experience, transformation and transcendence which are found in her sculptures.

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