Ten questions from Danielle Rosen for Noelle Allen regarding her exhibition Low Fire.
You often use materials like wax, resin, clay, and sometimes living beings, like plants. I hesitate to call the materials natural or about nature before we examine the term. What is nature? How does the work define, consider, ignore, or frame nature?
In past work I have culled materials from my garden or walks around my studio, which is adjacent to a nature preserve. I used these materials as a filter through which wax, resin, or any other kind of formless material is poured. Although the actual flowers and roots never appeared in the finished pieces, they were integral to the formations of the work’s rhizomatic surfaces.
The current work, from Henry’s Rainbow to Low Fire, does not directly use any found material from outside the studio. The crucial organic component of this new work is water, which is used in the poured surfaces, worked materials and molds. The removal or addition of water from the formless clay or resin allows the materials to activate or sustain a fixed shape. In that sense, the materials are not simply raw, neutral substances but also the work’s vocabulary.
My six-year-old son is constantly trying to make sense of various phenomena, like crystals, rainbows, and lightning. Together, we create play scenarios and drawings around his discoveries. With this new work, I am attempting to conjure his innate and immediate sense of play and curiosity that comes from our interaction with these phenomena.
Sentience is often determined by and through language. If nonhumans do not communicate self-consciousness through human language systems then they are not considered, in empirical traditions, to be sentient. But the responsive and shifting ecologies of your work seem to propose alternate modes of communication through expressive entities and networks. Does your work conceive of nonhuman sentience?
The turns and folds, pinches and pulls in the ceramic works suggest a feedback system. The constant looping of information is a gesture that meditates on obsessions, repetition, and the desire to make sense of the unknowable. While I can see how aspects of my work could be viewed as addressing nonhuman sentience, this new work is specifically grounded in my experience communicating with my six-year-old who sees the world through a very unique, specific lens
Gardening is a hobby of yours. Do experiences with the living beings in your garden influence your engagement with broader ecologies, outside of your personal garden?
When we moved to Oak Park in 2011, we inherited a really beautiful, overgrown garden that spills into the parkways. The previous owners are designers and very carefully considered all aspects of the garden. It was daunting to us, especially with two young children under the age of two. The boys love the garden and I am always informed about any new flower and butterfly spotted. The children have named every section from “Bee Alley” (lots of milkweed) to “Zig Zag Zoop” (compost pile/crazy fort). They drag old furniture and wood beams into it to make ramps up the cherry tree. Their relationship with the garden has been in some ways destructive and in other ways creative. I think my experience with the garden necessarily informs engagement with broader ecologies and systems in general. My work often explores the collision in perspective caused by viewing systems on a microscopic and macroscopic level at the same time.
Do you support metaphorical associations between your casting process and processes of birthing or giving life?
I see the casting process as a way to create distance and generate uncertainty, explore notions of chance. I actively increase the element of chance by introducing water into the molds during various phases of registration. The tension between what I imagine will form and the actual product is exciting and allows me to take risks in the work. I am always trying to exploit the potential of the material.
In a sense, the ceramic work is similar in that the kiln reveals mistakes, areas of tension, and chemical shifts in color or surface that can be unexpected.
The element of uncertainty is not dissimilar to that of being pregnant. It is impossible to control the outcome!
Is beauty—as a concept—important to you?
I am interested in the mutable space between the beautiful and the abject. I also like Elaine Scarry’s idea that when we behold the beautiful, we learn to pay attention to the world.
The edges of the work are sharp. The aggressive mutability of the forms is a menace to the cuteness of a title like Fairy Floss. Can you expand on the ties between cuteness, aggression, and femininity in the work?
In Kelly Link’s short story, Catskin, children birthed from a witch and fashioned from sticks and straw are metamorphosed into kittens and rabbits. Similarly, Anne Sexton’s collection of poetry, Transformations, reveals the dark violence and unnerving humor of fairy tales. Both authors source children’s fables to reveal conflicts I am interested in exploring in my own work, such as the tension between multiplicity and simplicity, real and surreal, and home and work.
Untitled reminds me of the work of fashion designer, Rei Kawakubo, founder of Comme des Garcons. Like many of Kawakubo’s pieces, the works are hollow, tangled, and moveable; they are organisms that move independently from a body. The darkness of Untitled feels inherent to the form, as though the object was burnt and has been chemically altered. Hues are tonal, not about disguise or artificiality. The conceptual correspondence that I see between your work and Comme des Garcons, is that they are not interested in ornamentation but inwardness, fragile identities, otherness, protection, and strength. Do you see the same commonalities? Do you see distinctions between art and fashion?
The relationship you construct between Kawakubo and my work is very thoughtful. I love the austerity and asymmetrical cuts to her work. I would agree that this work is not interested in ornamentation, as I was constantly trying to strip it down and reduce it to its most important elements. Similarly to Comme des Garcons, the works suggest an abstract measure of the body; there is frequently no hierarchy of space, no front or back, elements are both interior and exterior. The tension between an object that appears or is fragile versus an object that is strong, fixed or durable is also very important.
I believe fashion and art have a symbiotic relationship.
The summer of 2000, I took a Korean Pojagi course at RISD. Immediately following that course, I declared a sculpture major at Smith College, my alma mater. That class was so influential to my decision to being an artist that I look back upon that time as very romantic.
Precarity can be viewed as a mode of resistance, when it is a choice. Your work is quite precarious; we don’t have a solid referent, but the forms feel familiar. Some feel as through they could tip over, others are precarious in their shifting associations, textures, and movements. This precarity or instability turns the forms into infinite entities that have the liberty of mutating. Will you expand on your relationship to precarity and mutation?
Often the precarious appearance of the work belies a surprising structural integrity or solidity. That said, there is no question that some pieces appear to be in a liminal state, almost on the cusp of disintegration. I like to push materials and shapes to their limits and be sensitive to the possibilities of materials while they are in states of transition. I lose work in the kiln or to various other processes; I am happy when 1 out of 4 pieces holds. Because precarity is inherent in the process of creating the work, it lends the finished product an indeterminate quality, almost as if it is in a constant state of growth or decay.
I am not interested in making work that provides answers, the work should be constantly evolving – one step ahead of comprehension.
In the show Kismache and Alien Fruit are the only works that are resting on solid plinths. I can imagine Alien Fruit swelling out of the plinth or melting into it. In contrast, there is a definite distinction between plinth and sculpture in Kismache. Will you discuss these distinct approaches to the plinth?
I made the plinth very specifically for Alien Fruit. The negative space of Alien Fruit is a perfect sphere and the marbled resin pedestal also hints at an interior pedestal within the pedestal. You can see an edge splintered off where it is clear there is another pedestal inside of it.
The plinth for Kismache was a found piece of slate, originally used for a printing press. The intent was to contrast this material (and its former utilization) with the piece, where each individual unit was formed by the interior of my hand.
Color is also very specific to both pieces. Kismache has a dusty, desert ombre (I grew up in very hot Sacramento) that makes way to a heavy crust of earth, whereas Alien Fruit’s colors are a liquid, marbled water palette.
What haven’t we discussed that you would like to address?
I am indebted to my mother, who is a painter and artist. I credit her for introducing me at a very young age to many artists, such as Robert Irwin and Eva Hesse, who have remained influential to my practice.
Noelle Allen is an artist living in Oak Park, IL.
Danielle Rosen is an artist living in Chicago.