The Bakery: Fawn Krieger Interviewed by Nina Katchadourian

Clay and concrete converge through rupture, displacement, and fusion.

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Fawn Krieger, Experiment in Resistance 90, 2020, fired clay, underglaze, concrete, pigment, 19.75 × 5 × 6.25 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Begun in early 2017 at the time of the previous US presidential inauguration, Fawn Krieger’s sculptures have been made primarily by pressing fired clay forms into wet cement. A survey of these Experiments in Resistance is featured in her new exhibition, State of Matter, at Brooklyn’s Soloway Gallery. I spoke with her about unpredictability, negotiation, reconciliation, and what constitutes a fair fight.

—Nina Katchadourian

Nina Katchadourian I find myself thinking a lot about the “cake-ness” of some of your forms. Similar to the way some cake batter softly but surely transgresses the edges of the pan that initially kept it contained, some of your forms also swell up and threaten to overflow their edges. I think of foods that act that way as having an unpredictable agency of their own. (Flashbacks to a soufflé I made a long time ago that became monstrous, too fluffy for the form that held it.) Do you ever think about your sculptures as something related to food preparation?

Fawn Krieger My friend Branden Koch calls my studio “The Bakery,” which I love because the studio gets much more interesting to me as a theater space. I’m really into the making-of-making, the irreversibility of a moment, the no-turning back, and the defiant analog-ness of becoming—when stuff transforms into more stuff or totally different stuff. I’m in continuous awe that physical things transform through their interactions with other things.

Despite their brute physical weight, my sculptures appear much lighter than they are. I love handing off a sculpture for someone to hold, and I can see on their face another understanding of the work. This recognition—knowing a thing through our bodies (carrying, tasting, touching…)—is the beginning of revolution.

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Fawn Krieger, Experiment in Resistance 62, 2019, fired clay, underglaze, concrete, polystyrene, pigment, 11.5 × 8.5 × 13.75 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

NK You are often forcing things to share space: a fired clay form meets wet cement and displaces it as you press the clay form into it. But then that interaction also changes: the cement gets really hard, and I imagine this as a kind of revenge or retort. It’s like the ice that surrounded Ernest Shackleton’s ship that gradually crushed it. But I wonder if along the way there is a kind of negotiation that you mediate between these materials or a moment when there might even be a reconciliation—perhaps between you and them. Can you comment on that?

FK The premise of the work enables me to accept any outcome; they are all experiments, and, consequently, there are no mistakes or failures. It’s quite liberating to work through a set of problems that assert a value system outside my own bias. Even still, sometimes I think, “This is shit, maybe I lost it,” and later I revisit it and realize the work froze a moment of almost-collapse, and that’s more compelling to me than something that never skirts entropy.

This series is like an inverse of Albert Einstein’s Gedankenexperiment—thought experiment—where instead of playing out the theory in one’s head to figure out physical problems, the theory is played out physically to figure out metaphysical problems.

I definitely think a lot about the petrification of my materials within the context of feeling terrified, but I’ve never really thought of the cement becoming hard as revenge or even a reaction to the clay or my push, because it would ossify regardless. It’s almost like it becomes hard as a response to the trauma of its chemical refinement and its inclination to return to its natural state. To me, everything—and everyone—is in an active state of becoming and unbecoming and meets at intervals somewhere along this process. Both materials turn to stone—clay by going through an environmental process under extreme heat, and concrete by going through a chemical process when mixed with water. Turning to stone is one phase within a larger evolution of decay and reconstitution. I think of the moment when they collide as a kind of singularity moment: two geological substances (particles that perhaps haven’t touched since they were first formed) that were bound and then severed through extreme pressure at the beginning of time re-find one another and negotiate a process of reunification. 

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Fawn Krieger, Experiment in Resistance 40, 2018, fired clay, underglaze, concrete, pumice, pigment, 5.5 × 7.5 × 3 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

NK During our studio visit we talked about how some colors just can’t or won’t find place in these sculptures. I’d love to hear more about that, specifically, the colors you have worked with thus far, and what significance they have for you, and perhaps also colors that have seemed completely out of bounds, and why that would be.

FK Initially, I worked with what are sometimes called “Atomic Era” colors: pale, matte, ice-cream-type hues. This American mid-century aesthetic signified a coveted ideal for the home, selling national conflict to generations of women before us. I’ve been drawn to dislocating these colors, to looking at their placid violence, gendered subtexts, and persuasive agendas.

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking a lot less about specific colors and much more about context and how perception changes when we witness things bump up against other things. I’m looking for a certain kind of charge that has to do with colors working together to generate a vibration none of the colors can do alone. So, really, no color is out of bounds, but I still feel a close affinity toward colors used to define who we are and are not.

NK Could air itself, or maybe negative space occupied by air, work for you as an “ingredient” that creates a boundary?

FK Last year I started inverting some of the clay chunks, so their volumes became cavities, and I developed internal counterbalancing systems to push against the inevitability of gravity, which caused some pieces to appear to improbably stand with agency past a point of feasibility. This was the beginning of space inserting itself. Predictably, it’s expanded, including instances where nothing is holding forms together except gravity. Those pieces definitely feel to me like dollhouses or hand theaters, even moveable periodic tables. Perhaps due to the physical density of the materials I’m working with, I think of this “empty” space not as air but as this density’s equal and alternate mass or anti-matter. The conflict between them is a boundary.

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Fawn Krieger, Experiment in Resistance 15, 2017, fired clay, underglaze, concrete, 12.5 × 10.5 × 1.5 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

NK I’ve heard you ask yourself, “What happens when a desire to resist comes out of the body?” So I want to ask, what happens when you push? And what happens when the forms you are working with push back to the best of their abilities? Is it a fair fight?

FK Sometimes the concrete is almost too dry to push through; other times the clay is swallowed by the concrete, or it’s pushed back out. Sometimes the concrete overflows from displacement or seeps into the clay’s pores and changes its color. Other times I’ll have to fish out a subsumed form, getting concrete all over me and burning my skin, or the final weight of the hardened concrete requires a new orientation. The fight definitely isn’t always won by the hard substance or by my animated force wielding it. The concrete is like how one might imagine quicksand on Gilligan’s Island: there’s a slow-moving, immersive, and absurd threat to it.

I wonder, too, about the layers of intertwining histories between materials and how that charges the conversation between them. I see concrete as having witnessed, recorded, and facilitated our technological human story. From limestone caves, to domestic foundations, bunkers, nuclear-cooling facilities, and burial sites, concrete has served as our shelter, fortress, and undoing. Similarly I see clay as a material that has recorded the stories of our bodies and movement: from 1.5-million-year-old hominin footprints in fossilized clay discovered in Ileret, Kenya, and the Venus of Dolní Věstonice, a 30,000-year-old, pocket-sized sculpture, to toilets, catalytic converters, and space shuttle tiles.

As with all my work, I set out to ask a question of the world and forget it will ask that same question of me. When I first began the series, I thought about my push as connected to a framework of historical resistance. As the work evolved, particularly over the last year amid converging crises, I now see the resistance from the concrete, pushing back, like a wall or tidal wave. It’s interesting to think of this as both a reflection of a shifting moment as well as an evolving recognition of the wake of my own force.

Fawn Krieger: State of Matter is on view at Soloway in New York City until February 14.

Nina Katchadourian is an interdisciplinary artist based in New York City and Berlin, and Clinical Full Professor on the faculty of New York University Gallatin. Her work is represented by Pace Gallery and Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco, where her exhibition, To Feel Something That Was Not Of Our World, is on view until February 20.

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