essay by Daniel Wiener
After seeing Elise Siegel‘s work in the two person show (with Mie Yim) at Storefront Ten Eyck, I was inspired to clean up and post a few paragraphs I wrote about her work a couple of years ago. Go see the exhibition. It’s great.
Elise Siegel is a sculptor whose work has always dealt in highly-expressive, hand worn forms, a language that makes her work distinctive. Though her sculptures deal in the human form, she works within this figural language not because she desires pure representation. Instead, she seeks to learn more about the relationships we form with inanimate objects: how we animate and relate to them, how we see ourselves within them. Drawing on ancient sculptural forms from both Eastern and Western cultures, her work is situated within an aesthetic tradition that embraces spiritual and emotive inquiry.
Until the last few years, Siegel’s work has primarily been large-scale, staged installations of monochromatic ceramic figures in enigmatic situations. Her current investigations involve experiments with glazes, colors and pedestals; more specifically, how these variable layers change the outlying forms of her sculpture. Recently her work has shifted to singular portrait busts. While squarely within the European tradition, Siegel’s figures are not meant as commemorations of great power or beauty, but are fictional portraits of the lost and lonely. Each portrait has an individual cast, but all share a poignant longing gaze as if beseeching the audience with their yearning. They look as if they are trying to share the secret of their buried hunger with us, and thus establish an intimate connection. This connectedness between sculpture and audience is an old romantic ideal which Siegel elegantly brings back to life.
The tender and awkward touch, the straightforward and somewhat clumsy application of simple glazes of green, blue and black, and the inward-looking aspect of the not-too-big heads may give the appearance of modesty, but this work is very ambitious. By eschewing the trend of bombastic spectacle so often seen in gallery exhibits today, Siegel gives shape to vulnerable subjectivity through a lone handmade object.
In a recent conversation I noted a trenchant sentence in Siegel’s description of her process. She speaks of how in making each head by hand, what she seeks is “that moment when they appear to recognize” her. The search for this deeply sculptural moment is the crux of the matter – making sculpture live.