Pauli Ochi caught up with Emily Sudd at her installation currently on view at Angles Gallery in Culver City. The show, Transmogrification of the Ordinary, addresses representations of the domestic object in fine art. Sudd’s piece in the exhibition, titled Disown, features collected ceramic objects, kiln shelves and bricks. Describing her work as engaging in “conversations with still life, narrative, and abstract painting; postminimalist sculpture; hierarchies of materials and taste; and the role of the kitsch object,” Sudd’s work includes abandoned souvenirs, collectibles, paraphernalia, odds, ends and is evocative of the overall feelings of abandonment, tragedy and twisted humor.
What are some of your earliest memories of art–either making it or experiencing it?
When I was a child, I thought I would be an illustrator and writer of children’s fantasy books. Of course, I also thought I would be a ballerina and a dolphin trainer.
How did you find your way to ceramics?
I found clay in high school. I immediately loved throwing on the wheel. I found it to be beautiful and graceful, like dancing. I don’t even know if I wanted to make anything. I just wanted to be good at throwing.
You recently graduated from UCLA’s MFA program. What was that experience like and how did it affect your work, or the way you think about making work?
Well, UCLA is an incredible place. I think I really found myself as an artist there. I looked at my time at UCLA as an opportunity to take advantage of some of the greatest minds of the artistic community, and I was able to achieve a lot of clarity about my interests and intentions. I was also able to freely take risks and experiment, and that was critical for me. UCLA feels like a safe space to explore in any direction of interest. The faculty and MFA community was very supportive, and I feel extremely grateful to have had the chance to study there. I didn’t really want to leave, actually.
You combine discarded ceramic sculptures with kiln firing techniques. Describe how this body of work first came about.
It started through some tests I was doing with processes and materials. I was working with casting slips and I had a vision for a piece that was partially slumping. I wanted to combine low-fire and high-fire casting slips in a piece that would transform in the firing. So, I set out to do some test firings with already-existing ceramic objects to see what would happen when I fired low-fire objects to high temperatures. I naively assumed that my expertise in the properties of clay bodies would tell me what a ceramic object was made of. I thought I could grab a pot off the shelf, determine it was terracotta, and therefore know what temperature to fire it to. I was unbelievably wrong. But, the results of those experiments were so stunning that they sent me off into a whole new area of exploration, and I found that working with the objects that I didn’t make and therefore didn’t already understand, was far more interesting to me than making something with the intention of having it look a certain way.
There is inherently an element of surprise in your work. What are some of the benefits and challenges that accompany that?
This work is very much about negotiating with control. I’ve invented a process that forces me to let go of a certain amount of it. On one hand, the process lets magic in. What could be better than discovering that something amazing and unexpected has happened? On the other hand, it requires me to be very flexible – in my expectations, and in my planning and process. I have to work with what I have, and what I get back. There is a constantly evolving endpoint for the piece. I may start out with one vision for a sculpture. And, when I get the results of a firing, the product will completely change that vision. For instance, the object that I thought was going to be the centerpiece of the sculpture may be completely obliterated. Now, I have something else entirely to work with. So, I start again from a new position. I see it as a conversation between myself, the objects, and the process. We all have something to say in how this comes out. But, there is always surprise, and that is always interesting.
What drives you to make this body of work? Is it something about the objects you find? Or is it the process, or the final product that most interests you?
It’s all of the above. It’s the mystery in acceptance and discovery of whatever qualities the objects bring with them. It’s setting a plan into action, letting it take its own course, and then finding out later what has actually transpired. I started working with this process not long after I started doing my own firing, and I don’t think that is a coincidence. The process of firing is very much about suspending expectations and accepting the results of the firing conditions. There is a lot of mystery and wonder, which provides the space where discovery takes place. I like to open the kiln and be surprised, and I always am. And, the finished product is always beautiful and strange.
There is both humor and tragedy in these pieces. How do you balance those two somewhat conflicting elements?
I don’t do it. They do it on their own. And, they do it in the viewer. Some people see the atomic bomb, and some people see comedy. Many see both. The work is a veritable Rorschach test.
What’s next? When we met you discussed an interest in exploring other ideas related to this body of work, where do you see this idea going?
Right now, I see it expanding into other mediums. I doubt it will be as chance-oriented, but I am interested in issues surrounding objecthood and authorship. I think I will be making more work involving the collaboration of objects with one-another, and manifesting something new out of the qualities already present in objects. I’ve started collecting thrift shop paintings, and I see a project coming out of this soon. I’ve been thinking about it a lot.
Where can people see your work now, and what do you have coming up?
Right now I have a sculptural installation on view at Angles Gallery in Los Angeles in a group exhibition called “Transmogrification of the Ordinary”, which will be up until November 1st. Next up is a solo show at Occidental College, opening February 23rd, 2015!
*Photos courtesy of Emily Sudd