I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Mary Carlson takes inspiration from religious iconography, demons, and snakes in her latest exhibition, Beautiful Beast.
Mary Carlson is a stealth artist. The power of her unassuming works and her deadpan humor sneak up on you. Her sculptures often take the form of familiar, homey objects—furniture, knick-knacks, flowers, ice cubes, the American flag. But on second take the familiar grows strange and nothing is quite what it seems. The chairs resist sitting, the flowers are porcelain, the ice is glass, and the flag has grown pale. Carlson places us in a realm of uncanny surrogates and slyly disrupts the security of casual assumptions.
I have been enjoying the evolution of Carlson’s work, visiting her studios and exhibitions for almost 20 years. When I stopped into Carlson’s upstate studio this summer for a quick visit I found myself entering an Alice In Wonderland world where the tiny demons from her last show had spawned enormous progeny towering over helpless embryonic ceramic saints. This shift and amplification of previously implicit narratives demanded exegesis, so I asked the usually reticent artist to sit for an interview. Her exhibition “Beautiful Beast” is on view until October 28, 2012 at Studio 10 in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Jane Dickson Let’s talk about your current show, Beautiful Beast at Studio 10 Gallery in Bushwick.
Mary Carlson I’ve been working with imagery of saints and demons, with the idea of the demonic also being beautiful.
JD This ceramic serpent in front of me is called Big Blue and it is 12 feet long.
JD Gigantic! It swallowed something?
MC Yeah, there’s a lump in its stomach. There could be a leg or another body part in there. I wanted my body to relate to it. It’s a visceral experience.
JD Big Blue is made in segments like a spinal cord. The sections sort of fit together but might be about to fall apart. It trickles down to really tiny and then gets big again. Looking at your segmented serpent makes me think of this very long tail of experiences we all drag around. Then we forget and pieces drop off. What was the impetus for this work?
MC At the Metropolitan Museum I saw a medieval French depiction of Margaret of Antioch in which a woman emerges from the body of a demon. I didn’t know anything about this saint but I learned that the stories about her were so far-out that when the Lives of the Saints was written in the 15th century she was considered not credible. She didn’t have to wait for Vatican II to be demoted (laughter). But I love the image of her. She was popular in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and inspired depictions in illustrated manuscripts, paintings, and sculptures. Titian painted her, and Francesco de Zurbarán did this amazing depiction of her. There are some anonymous works in which she’s holding the demon but won’t touch it with her clothes. In others the demon looks like a little lapdog! The legend is that a Roman governor wanted to marry her and she didn’t want to marry him. So he threw her to a demon and the demon swallowed her. I was thinking of this part of the story when working on Big Blue. The legend goes that Margaret tickled the inside of the demon and was expelled intact. She is always depicted standing up. She’s never pathetic. I love that she’s not a victim. She’s the patron saint of childbirth—and kidney disease!
JD Triumphing over adversity.
MC Another figure that I made is Michael the Archangel. I’ve been looking at this beautiful Raphael painting of him. He’s got his foot on the demon’s neck and he’s looking at it with compassion, like he really doesn’t want to kill it. I was working on the Michaels and the Margarets when I read the story of Joan of Arc, and it turns out she heard the voices of three saints: one was Margaret of Antioch, the other was Michael the Archangel, and the third was Catherine of Alexandria.
So I decided to look into Saint Catherine—Saint Catherine of the wheel. Vatican II demoted her. The legend goes like this: A Roman emperor didn’t like that Catherine was a good debater and that she was converting Roman philosophers, and soldiers, and even his wife to Christianity. He executed all these converts, including his wife. He threatened Catherine with torture but she wouldn’t back down. So he asked her to marry him. But she wanted to remain a virgin and be dedicated to Christ. The emperor didn’t like that. He put on the torture wheel to kill her, but the wheel broke and killed onlookers instead. So he cut off her head. She was known to be highly intelligent. And she’s often depicted with a sword—again, the woman as a fighter, an intellectual.
JD I just watched a movie last night by Margarethe von Trotta about Hildegard von Bingen. Have you seen it?
MC Isn’t there somebody with chains in her flesh? But it wasn’t her, it was—
JD —the mother superior. When the mother superior dies they bathe her body and find she’s been wearing this spiky chain around her waist for a long time. It’s totally embedded in her flesh and disgusting. I think that they brought that up in the movie to emphasize that Hildegard was against flagellation. She became a healer and as she was tending to the wounds of another flagellant she tells him, God doesn’t want you to suffer. We’ll put medicinal herbs on your wounds and this nun will sit here and sing to you to soothe your soul, so that you don’t feel the need to punish yourself anymore.
MC (laughter) That sounds like a much better route.
JD Next to this giant demon your saint figures are tiny. They’re all about seven inches. Their demons are so much larger than they are!
MC There’s a reference to porcelain figurines, ballerinas—those kinds of knickknacks. But I wanted it to have more of an underside. They are either holding a demon, coming out of the mouth of a demon, or holding a sword—so it’s not all “happy happy.” All of them reference specific paintings—a Saint Catherine by the Renaissance painter Pinturicchio, a Margaret of Antioch by the Master of Trebon, another Margaret based on a painting from the workshop of Agnola Gaddi (at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), and lastly, Michael the Archangel by Raphael.
JD The saints seem doll-like, generalized. Are you interested in them as types as opposed to individuals? The demons have a lot more character than the people. (laughter)
MC The saints all have their individual story, but the sculptures, Margaret of Antioch, Catherine of Alexandria, and Michael the Archangel, are a lot smaller than the demons so there are fewer details.
JD You really get their expressions. It’s fantastic. We’re looking at Four Part Snake with the red gaping mouth. He’s cartoony. He looks like he’s kind of writhing in agony and he’s got these eyes that are like, Oh no! You can’t tell if he’s about to swallow you or whether he’s screaming out in pain. But he doesn’t look too threatening. He looks more, like you said, abject.
MC I didn’t think of that. But the demons do have more to them.
JD The first works I saw of yours were the skins. Then you went on to a series of grass and trees, then birds and bugs and this giant squid. Then you did the blood stains. Each body of work has its own materials—latex, ceramics, fabric, beads … . Now you’re producing creatures from paintings as sculptures. It seems as if your work has moved from a more deadpan investigation of the simulacrum, to reproduction, to more fantastic creations. Let’s go back to earlier work—to your glass ice-cubes displayed in little puddles of real water so they looked as if they were melting; or your infestations of insects made out of feathers and fur that you put up in the corner—those really looked like Ew, there’s a swarm of bugs in here.
MC Was that the show you curated? I forget.
JD Yes, In Thin Air. You made a little infestation of insects for the gallery.
MC During the ’90s I spent summers in Hancock, New York, in fly-fishing country. There was a video in the library there on how to make flies for fishing, and so I checked it out.
There’s a real range of materials in my work but the content always comes first, the decision about the materials comes afterwards. Like with the faded American flags, I was actually thinking more about having gray hair than anything political. (laughter)
JD You were thinking about fading yourself?
MC Yeah, that’s where I was able to bring something that was more personal to this object that’s very general and symbolic.
JD You’re from Wisconsin, I feel like we share a plain-spoken, mid-western vibe. Did you grow up on a farm?
MC No. Actually I lived in a mill town in Wisconsin. My grandfather worked in a paper mill and so did my father—as a chemical engineer. But both of my grandmothers grew up on farms.
JD As to your exploration of women’s works—sewing, beading, crocheting—did you come from a tradition of capable women who made everything?
MC My mother tells me how her mother was always working, taking care of nine kids. But she did crochet to relax and I remember what her thumbs looked like when she was working on something.
JD The beaded blood pieces are amazingly complex. Once you figure something out technically do you get bored? Is that why you move on?
MC I love not knowing how to do something and having to figure it out. As far as getting bored and moving on goes, it’s more about being finished with an idea and thinking about the next piece and what would be the best way to make it. The thing about the ceramics now is that I’m really into glazing and formulating my own glazes. It’s endless as far as what’s possible. I’m teaching myself, but I did go to Kohler, the bathroom fixtures company, in Sheboygan Wisconsin. I was an artist-in-resident there for three months. While there I imagined that what I was working on would come out a certain way but everything ended up looking like a bathroom fixture, like a toilet basically. (laughter) It was almost in reverse that I learned about clay bodies and glazing. In terms of, Just because it’s a blue glaze it doesn’t mean that you can water it down and it’ll turn into a different blue glaze. It’s set in its formula.
But I could use the formulas of obsolete glazes. I saw this guy measuring things out and stirring them up—whipping it all up with a little mixer, and there was his glaze! I thought, I can do that, and then did research and started making my own glazes. I have my father’s balance scale from when he was a kid. It must be 75 years old and he still had the box that it came in. It was something for chemists, it has very beautiful little weights and it still seems really accurate. I also have his digital scale and the lab glassware that he used as a chemist.
JD I’m interested in the role of labor in your work. It seems like everything you do is fairly labor-intensive. Is that a conceptual part of your process?
MC Working with my hands, it’s almost like they have a mind of their own. They’ll do things that I won’t be able to predict.
JD Did you have to fire Big Blue in different sections because it wouldn’t all fit in your kiln? Wasn’t it terrifying? What if the glaze isn’t the same this time as last time?
MC Yes, I did need to fire it in sections. There are 28 parts to the piece. The glaze is a total accident. It’s actually made up of two coats that are fired separately. First it’s high-fired with a glaze that has a lot of copper carbonate in it and comes out brown. Then it’s covered with a white glaze and low-fired and comes out turquoise, and some of it is a little blistery. Doing the formulation myself, I can experiment.
JD So you knew you were going to get this beautiful blue?
MC No, not really. But I keep records of tests, making sure I write everything down. I label it or number it, and keep a notebook of what everything is so I can go back to it later.
JD The one time I did pottery, I remember taking the samples and going, Oh this looks so beautiful. I’m going to paint this color and then that color. When it came out it looked like mud. Bummer! (laughter) I don’t have the patience for this. I need the immediacy of “I can see it as I’m going along.”
MC Working with glazes is almost like working in the dark. You don’t know what you’re going to get. Often I get something so different from what I imagined that I think it’s awful. But then, a week later I’ll really love it because I had to let go of my expectations of what it should look like and instead I actually see what it looks like. It takes some time to accept that.
JD To embrace the chance aspect of it. But can you refire a piece and paint on it many times?
MC If I reglaze something I usually refire it at cone 5. The first glaze firing is cone 6. Sometimes I use hairspray to give the glazed surface some tooth, making it easier to put glaze over it and refire it. But the refired glaze means fusing to an already existing glaze, not to the clay body.
JD You said something earlier about damage.
MC With the bird and the plate sculptures from a few years ago, pretty clearly there’s some kind of damage that’s happened. I wanted these pieces to be about imperfection. I made the birds when I was learning to do slip casting, so the damage happened really easily. If it was damaged, I would say, Yes! If it wasn’t, Aw, too bad. If the plates I made broke in the kiln, that was great. The ones that didn’t break, I use in my kitchen. As far as there being a thread, I guess it’s about something vulnerable or delicate but strong at the same time. I love the idea that through vulnerability there’s strength.
JD Which would apply to the grasses—made out of metal—poking up in the cracks of the sidewalk that you made a few years ago.
MC Yes, it’s about something being able to grow in a very small space. My furniture pieces were also about a compressed space. But there’s actually room and you can actually sit in the Wing Chair if you go like this! (laughter)
JD “She says, contorting herself extremely.” Looking at these current pieces, I’m suddenly making a link to your telephone-cord tangle work from a few years ago. People don’t really use phones with cords anymore, but somehow that seems to relate to that tangle of insects you talked about. Now, I’m looking at Encoil, this other big serpent who’s all gnarled up like a phone cord.
MC That was also about confinement. The inspiration actually came from a William Blake etching that shows a snake coiled around a body. In my piece, a body could have been in there, but it has escaped and the coiled and twisted snake remains. I like directness in work, but there’s more to it than one meaning, there are multiple readings. One day a piece might look like this and then the next day, Ah! It’s really about that. I love when that happens. I also love when that happens to me with other artists’ work.
JD Which to me is the whole purpose of making art. I guess poetry is similar. In prose you have to actually say, This is what I mean. This is what this sentence is about. End of sentence. Whereas in visual art, in poetry, and absolutely in music, you can evoke a whole range of responses.
MC I love it when I make work and then look at it years later and forget what the initial impulse was, or what I thought it was about. I just see it totally differently. Then it’s like, Ah, the work knows more than I do.
Mary Carlson’s Beautiful Beast is showing at Studio 10 from October 5 to 28, 2012 in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee