Claflin Lecturer finds the ‘true essence’ of subjects

Artwork lives an infinity of lives. And each life is determined by the limits or limitlessness of the viewer, the seer with ubiquitous eyes. On November 5, artist Arlene Shechet will give a lecture entitled “Working Over Time” in Taylor Hall. She has received the John S. Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship Award, three New York Foundation for the Arts awards, among other accolades and grants. A clay-based sculptor, she has established herself as an avant-garde artist of the moment. She often crafts aggressive pieces that challenge traditional notions of gender and form.

According to the organizer of the event, Professor of Art Harry Roseman, “[Shechet] takes on issues and materials that we are familiar with, rethinking them so that they become unfamiliar and assume new aspects… [her] formal vocabulary and the way in which she contextualizes her objects in their relationship to gravity and the bases they sit on are in dialogue with the sculpture while at the same time are a coherent part of the complete work.”

In my view, the work of Arlene Shechet succeeds because she wields painting and ceramic so abstract that the story of the piece must be determined entirely by the viewer. She gives us a seismograph of color and form. From her art, we get wild movement. The outline of hands reaches out, of figures embracing, of tides rising and receding. She crafts hints: ceramic and painting suggesting human form with the open-endedness of a question mark, allowing the viewer to give the art his or her own completion.

Shechet breathes humor into her forms, reinterpreting ancient art. In her collection, “Breaking The Mold,” she created a series of ceramic vases and plates painted to look like melting fine china, inverting inside of itself. She also pokes fun at the Greek ideal of beauty—the male nude in her collection “Tough Puff.” But perhaps the most relatable of her work to my fellow Vassar students is “A Night Out,” an amorphous and somewhat drained purple form that I relate to the campus-wide headache on the last dusk of Halloweekend.

As a classically trained sculptor, she questions the limits and nature of the medium. To her, there is no need to depict forms as they appear in the perceptive-reality; she attempts to portray the essence of things. I think of Picasso when he said, “art is a lie that tells the truth.” Even so, she gives us mere shadows and glimpses, encouraging the viewer to piece together meaning. This democratic ideal is particularly pertinent in one of her earlier works, “Out of The Blue,” which depicts a series of glass blue knots in various stages of untying along the walls of the room. The knots are different lengths and are punctuated by the blank canvas of the white wall. She has painted the floor blue and has drawn the image of an anchor.

Perhaps the knots and anchor become transcendental in a Whitmanesque sense, urging the viewer to unfurl restricting ties and fill in the knots’ negative space with a personal narrative. The piece should not be observed passively. Rather, the viewer is meant to experience it by walking around the room in tune with the other footsteps like a sort of pilgrimage. She unites together the process of making art and the experience of appreciating it.

Shechet was asked to deliver the Claflin lecture partly because of her constant pursuit to see art and her world anew, questioning canonical works and accepted ideas. “Her body of work is the kind of endeavor that speaks to experimentation, upending expectations and looking at aspects of the world in new ways. It also represents the kind of mindset that we encourage in all of our students at Vassar to embrace,” said Roseman.

To her, artwork is never an end within itself. It is a perpetual reworking, an inverting and subverting to create something that has never been seen before. Anyone can probably relate to Shechet’s love of inquiry and personal impetus to try what has not yet been tried. It is this curiosity and willingness to fail that enables the fullest flowering of the individual’s potential.

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