Arlene Shechet, Once Upon a Time (detail), 2022, Photography by David Schulze © Arlene Shechet


Arlene Shechet Discusses Cohesion and Disjunction in Her First Solo Exhibition at Pace in Hong Kong

Published Friday, Jun 17, 2022

In her idiosyncratic sculptures, Arlene Shechet combines seemingly incongruous materials to give life to uncanny, lively compositions. With an eye towards poetry, humor, and paradox as they relate to form and structure, the artist investigates enactments of continuity and dislocation, conversing with her works throughout an improvisational but highly technical process. On the occasion of Shechet’s inaugural solo exhibition at Pace’s Hong Kong gallery, which is on view through June 30, we spoke with the artist about the new and recent works in the show, her distinctive use of color, language as a material in her practice, the role of disorientation in her sculptures, and more.

The following conversation has been edited for clarity.

Can you tell me about the meaning and inspiration behind the title of your exhibition, Moon in the Morning?

The phenomenon of seeing the moon in the morning—that kind of disorientation and spectacular beauty—is something that I admire. Living mostly in a non-urban environment, I experience that as a kind of natural miracle that is important to pay attention to. The unlikely converging of morning and night offers a profound awaking to the present moment. There is an unexpected beauty to this sense of disorientation, which keeps the viewer awake and is a reoccurring theme within my practice. Sculpture is a great medium for exploring notions of incompatibility. Elements that we think don’t go together come together in these works. Everything about my show relates to the idea that the impossible is possible. Moon in the Morning is a kind of poetry of everyday life that I wanted to call attention to.

How do you see these works relating to one another or challenging one another?

In making an exhibition, I always want to animate the whole show, but I also want to animate the viewer to each piece. In a lot of ways, I believe that art can be a very alive presence, and that aliveness is confirmed by the pieces speaking to one another, nodding to one another, gesturing to one another, being in the space together. There’s a kind of gesture in each piece individually and a conversation of gestures, almost like a dance among the pieces. That is enacted in the installation, but I think each sculpture individually is a totem—each work has the architecture of the body built into it. The complication of both organic and geometric forms combines, in my view, to create a kind of wholeness that allows the viewer to relate to these sculptures filled with life.


Arlene Shechet, Together Forever, 2021, Photography by David Schulze © Arlene Shechet

How do you begin the process of constructing these multilayered, multifaced sculptures that contain all kinds of contradictions of material and texture?

The physical process of making the works is intuitive and doesn’t involve predicting where I’m going to end. So, I don’t make a drawing, I don’t make an armature, I don’t make an idea that is specific. I have a general impulse and, as soon as I begin, I have something to work with, push with, push against, and react to. These things require a lot of time and space to evolve. If one was going to make something from a drawing into a maquette, you know where you’re headed, and you go towards it. You might make changes, but you have a sense of where you’re going. Because I’m making these things without that preconception, I am doing it over a much longer period of time. It’s often a couple of years to go from beginning to end because it involves trying things and failing and trying things and succeeding. There’s a lot of pushback and conversation with the artwork. I know that sounds a little crazy, but it is true that if one is attentive to what is happening, the artwork will start to demand what it needs.

I’m one of those artists who works in the moment in an improvisational yet very technical way. For me, it’s one thing at a time and, often, one part is cast off another. I don’t begin with any one material all the time, but if I’m beginning with a wood part, I will be casting the clay from the wood itself—I needed to invent a new kind of clay to do that and that’s a whole other technical aspect of what I do. So, the parts cohere in a way that I command. Technically, they can exist together seamlessly or with seams, so that you can see that one part is related to the next while being a different material. I aim to make a symphony of forms that somehow come together and have a resonance in the emotional and psychological as well as a physical space. I know it’s done when it hits that point, but I can’t predict when I’m going to arrive at that moment—that point of awaking and balancing.

How would you characterize your use of color in your work with ceramics?

Color is something that is built into my relationship to ceramics. In ceramics, I really made a dedication to just working with glaze rather than paint about a dozen years ago. I chose to use glaze because it is very alchemical and miraculous. The surface, through the firing, becomes part of the structure. The seamlessness of that is very exciting to me and has resonance in the natural world and possibly in the unnatural world as well. I think as humans we crave that kind of cohesion. Color is a very compelling language that I believe crosses all boundaries. It’s a language unto itself that is so strong that people react to it deeply within their bodies and minds. That creates openings that bridge typical boundaries that we have with words and different languages. It bridges cultures. It exceeds a specific culture into a kind of humanity that is important. I’m trying to make color emanate from within the sculptures.


Arlene Shechet, Moon in the Morning, 2021, Photography by David Schulze © Arlene Shechet

What is the relationship between color and scale in your work?

In the smaller works from the Together series, I tend to have intense, saturated color—that’s how it appears in the world. There’s no single color in any of the works, but I try to make those Together pieces feel as if they are more of a single saturated color. The scale demands a different kind of simplicity, a different kind of relationship to the color than the larger works, where I’m trying to make many compositional decisions that allow the forms to cohere to one another. The color acts as part of the bridge from one material to the next.

In addition to color, the Together series also has a relationship to time. Time itself is a big subject matter—time in creating the works, time in life, the fuzziness and liquidity of time in the pandemic.


Arlene Shechet, Together Again: March Tuesday, 2022, Photography by David Schulze © Arlene Shechet

What kind of exchanges do you see between the steel structures and the ceramic sculptures that they support in the Together series?

Just making clay things would never be enough for me. The steel is as important as the clay—it’s about that relationship. If you look at them carefully, you can see that there’s always part of the ceramic piece that looks like it’s falling off or flowing from the steel. When I make the clay parts, I’m making them without flat bottoms. I don’t have an orientation to it. That was a parameter I set to challenge myself to make sculptures that could exist in any way. I wouldn’t know their final position until I get to part two, which is, after they have a first firing, these ceramics become hard enough for me to play with in various orientations. That can happen in a day, or weeks, or months when I’m just playing with the pieces.

Because these pieces are smaller scale, I was able to do this by myself during the pandemic—the larger pieces require assistants present. My studio is filled with a variety of objects, and I find the right kind of platform so that it feels precarious but is actually very solid. I’m moving things around, and the steel is hugely important.

I’m also pushing back with color in the steel structures—either a complementary or contradictory color to that of the ceramic, or one within the same range.

There’s a sense of both balance and precarity in your sculptures—how do you achieve that combination?

I’ll give an example. Inhaled a Blue Moon is a piece that’s wood and steel. One doesn’t think of those things as wedded together also with extreme color and sterling silver gilding—all these edges of why these things shouldn’t work, it is this physical tension that compels me to try to make them work. Things that naturally go together easily are not exciting to me. I want to be challenged by the material.


Arlene Shechet, Inhaled a Blue Moon, 2021, Photography by Meredith Heuer © Arlene Shechet

How do you strike a balance between the representational and abstract elements in your sculptures?

My work has a lot of art historical references; however, I don’t want it to be didactic or require people to know a lot of things. I like people to approach the works on many different levels. But no contemporary sculptor gets away without having Brâncuși referenced over and over again. A lot of my work, especially early on, was related to challenging the notion of the blank pedestal. If you’re a sculptor and you’re challenging the neutral pedestal, everybody is going to talk about Brâncuși. I sort of got fed up with people talking about Brâncuși, but at the same time I love to play with the reference.

I don’t want to have my work read as a series or have one piece too complicit with the next. I want there to be many points at which things are broken open while still coming together. The thing that is disruptive to me also makes everything cohere. In the same way that I don’t have an idea of where a piece will end when I begin it, I don’t work ahead of time towards a specific presentation. I’m gathering the works that I think will converse in compelling ways.

Can you tell me more about how you use words as a material in your practice and what you’re looking to communicate or evoke with the titles of your works?

I’m trying very actively never to make titles that are descriptive. I don’t understand descriptive titles—I feel like that’s an interruption to the viewer. I am much more interested in the viewer having an open experience rather than a confined, directed experience. I feel it’s more generous to the viewer to come to the work without being told how to think about and experience it.

At the same time, I love words. I love the opportunity to be a short-form poet—a very short-form poet—and play with words in the same way that I play with form. That’s why I think language is a material: it is its own element as well as part of the object. The titles of my works act as guides, without being too direct.

Sometimes words offer an opportunity to bring humor into existence within the piece. There can be humor in the words themselves, but also in the relationship to form. Humor is a very complicated thing to experience, and I love the complication of that. It involves fear and joy, shutting down and opening up, and also a physical reaction. I’m going for a kind of physical comedy in the pieces. Words can sometimes, but not always, be an element of that.

  • Essays — Arlene Shechet Discusses Cohesion and Disjunction in Her First Solo Exhibition at Pace in Hong Kong, Jun 17, 2022