The positioning of Emily Counts’ sculpture, “Moves Moves,” in the front gallery of Carl & Sloan Contemporary suitably makes it the focal point for her current exhibit. A good four feet out from a corner, it necessitates that two walls remain blank. At 82 inches tall and comprised of an array of stacked components made of stoneware, porcelain, platinum luster, concrete, wood, epoxy clay, copper wire and bronze, it initially brings to mind the cairn-like stone balancing acts that one sees on rocky beaches. Similarly, it stands as a monument, if not to excess, then an unapologetic variety of treatments.
Still, the title seems to suggest a self-conscious awareness that asks if the accumulation of materials and designs might be a little too much (include in this the verb/noun double-duty of “moves”). Both a question of excess (More More) and a concern for balance, if asked, I would assure the artist that her use of black, white and grays lends a cohesiveness to the work. Yet, there is more to consider.
A little more than halfway up “Moves Moves,” one of its ceramic components is made to appear as if it has been forcibly pierced through and through. A cord of ceramic tubes (large beads) strings through the holes and hangs like dead, uneven appendages, which makes the tower become a nearly seven-foot tall figure; and as a figure, the many treatments and designs on the ceramics become adornments as they echo ritual scarification, tattoos and head gear.
Cords of ceramics are evident in the three larger pieces in the gallery’s main room, while two smaller pieces contain a similar gesture with chains made of bronze. This stringing was also in evidence in her exhibit last year at Nationale. It would not be a surprise to discover she also makes jewelry, specifically necklaces. I mention this not to close down the reading of Counts’ endeavors but to open it up. After all, it is the interplay between the jewelry-like structures—along with their role in creating the human form—that leads us to consider the implications of a decorated body.
“Subvert and Copy” (stoneware, slip cast porcelain, platinum luster, cotton cloth and polyester fiberfill) is a sculpture in repose. Displayed on a long, white-washed plywood table, the string of over-sized baubles becomes the length of a six-foot tall figure. Two large, rounded forms are stand-ins for the shoulders and pelvis. And if one accepts this form as human (perhaps missed if the piece was instead displayed on the floor), it should also be noted that while the cord runs under the arch that is the shoulders, the inguinal area has been ruptured in the same manner as “Moves Moves.” A figure at rest this is not, but violated, and the table, funerary.
I hesitate. This violence is treacherous ground on which to make an interpretation for this body of work, yet subversion seems to reinforce such a perspective (one that “copy” perpetuates).
Certainly the massive wall piece, “Basic Diagram” (stoneware, porcelain, platinum luster, wood, nylon rope and copper wire), with its heavy fob and decorative yet threatening end, speaks to something dangerous and uncomely. But unwieldy. (Better to use the smaller pieces with bronze chains as nunchucks or flails.) Reminiscent of a sweater clasp, the title, “Basic Diagram,” makes one think this remains a model for something yet to be realized. If for jewelry, it would be a maquette in reverse (bear with me here), for otherwise, how would one ever hope to wear, let alone manage such a piece? Or is it a model for something larger still? Unlikely, for we already have a sculpture. No, the absurdity of scale is what provides us with extended meanings. As the title implies—beyond the nod to the making process that the titles of all of these larger pieces suggest—“this is how things appear/work,” and they can be unbearable.
Simone de Beauvoir in “The Second Sex” states, “The function of ornamental attire is very complex, and often its purpose is to accomplish the metamorphosis of the woman into idol.” (New York, Vintage, 1989. Pg. 158) As idol, meaning is imposed and piled upon; and as it is with such statuary, form is static. The woman adorns herself and turns to stone. Or, if one prefers, such enhancements and modifications cause a displacement that transforms the one “made up” into an Other.
It would also seem the complexity de Beauvoir mentions in her observation, encompasses and therefore has the potential to turn the adornment on its head, which is certainly what would seem to be the calling of the contemporary artist. How then to transform ornamentation into resistance? Despite their highly decorative aspects, “Moves Moves” and “Subvert and Copy” give evidence to damage done that aligns with a social burden/pressure one might feel in accessorizing. Counts then distances the decoration from utility through scale. Complementing this are the pieces that are quite manageable and harken to weaponry that can address offense, both the taking of and actively fending off.
It is the symbolic nature of art that allows artifice to serve up bitter medicine. In less capable hands this would be no more than a benefit-of-the-doubt moment where “pretty” and “appealing” (or even a dressed-up utility) might be sufficient to appreciate the effort put forth here. And while this narrower approach is available in these sculpture, it likely has less to do with Counts’ intent than with that particular viewer.
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