By ASHLEY GIFFORD
The slate grey of the concrete floor offsets the deep scarlet red of three anthropomorphized strawberry figures, voluptuous and feminine, covered in electric yellow, lilac, and coral strawberry seeds. The figures coalesce into a pyramid shape. This ceramic wall sculpture, Strawbaes, faces the gallery entrance of Fuller Rosen when you walk into Grace Stott’s show, “Ambrosia.”
The show’s title alludes to the delicacy that was the food of the Greek Gods, rumored to be life-giving and restorative for those that lived on Mount Olympus. North Carolina-based artist Grace Stott’s sensuous, fruit-focused figures bridge the gap between symbolic and literal. The body of work featured in “Ambrosia” was inspired by Stott’s personal struggle with infertility, as E.M. Fuller, the gallery’s co-founder, shares in both the gallery’s press release and in conversation.
Stott’s year-long rumination led her to become increasingly interested in fruit imagery, and the longstanding correlation and symbolism it shares as representations of fertility. The personal and archetypal aspects of muliebrity in this work are uniquely expressive and auspicious.
Stott confides in me that Strawbae was the first piece in what she refers to as her “fertility series,” which she started in part because she felt like she did not see her own experience with infertility reflected in art. Stott struggled to find relatable forms, something that felt meaningful to her. In response, Stott decided to make her own fertility statues, resulting in what she affectionately calls “funky fruit ladies.”
The “funky fruit ladies” are womxn figures, fruit, but hybridized and strange. They both challenge and reference the long history of the feminine body objectified as fecund and productive. These statues, all of which were made this year, often have breasts, butts, and curves reminiscent of some female forms. There are clear similarities between these “funky fruit ladies” and fertility sculptures like the Venus of Willendorf (c. 28,000 BCE – 25,000 BCE) and other Paleolithic Venus figurines.
Equally though, Stott’s sculptures draw upon images from mainstream culture. Her fruited pieces bear a close resemblance to iOS emojis in both form and hue. The use of emojis in current day has been likened to the “ iconic communication system from antiquity and the lingua franca of the cyber age.” This pushes the traditional concept of fertility sculpture into contemporary digital culture.
The personal is celebrated in this series of work. Stott’s work positions itself in a long line of artworks that showcase femininity and fruit as signifiers of fertility. Stott subverts historical convention by combining fruit and nudity without centering men or the male gaze. This is intentional. All of Stott’s works relate to Western art history, where femininity, food, and fertility collide.
Stott instead personalizes her own reimaginations of these archetypes and conventions in art history through contemporary language, as seen in her borrowings from emojis and commercial culture.
Fruit Stack, the largest sculpture in the exhibition, is positioned on the floor at the entrance of the gallery. This piece stands out not just in terms of size but also in composition. A banana, mango, and strawberry huddle together, one on top of each other, covered in smaller ceramic mosaics, made from Stott’s own personalized stamps. Stott’s told me she fell in love with the mosaic making process after completing her first one on an exterior wall last year.
She considered how she could bring mosaic-making into her own personal practice, so she felt like tiling a sculpture would be the next logical step after her experience with tiling a flat surface. The stamps consist of random things Stott likes, cats, phones, eight balls, shoes, ladies, flowers, yin yangs, smiley faces, and other images that feel connected to Stotts’s life. These mosaics lay on top of each fruit form, providing considerate detail and tactile texture to this hyper-sized statue of produce. As Stott’s describes, the surface “exists as its own little world with its individual characters creating this cohesive surface of this bigger world.”
Several individual sculptures are displayed in a ”picnic-like tableau” on the back gallery table. Concha Face bears a small visage that subtly emerges in the bitten part of the seashell pastry. The delicious Mexican sweet bread roll is crafted to be larger than its normal scale.
Conchas appear again in Stott’s Lil Conchas a “ sugar-coated utopia of fruits,” that is a homage to Stott’s Texican and Mexican roots. The three half-eaten conchas are glazed in cherry blossom pink and meringue yellow with a crackled surface that presents deceptively like real sugar. I’m not surprised to see two of the three Lil Conchas that are about palm-sized have tiny bites taken out of them.
Viewers may not be immediately confronted with the nuances and humanization in Stott’s work because of the satisfaction of admiring her fruity statues. This seems deliberate on Stott’s end, as her color application is often guided by contemporary millennial consumer culture, as in Drippy Cheetos and Flaming Hot. Drippy Cheetos features a crinkled, open Cheetos bag with a small hand reaching inside it, tiny Cheetos spill out of the bag and lay neatly on the table. Stott’s work isn’t trompe l’oeil; her sculptures skew slightly from their real-life counterparts. It feels deliberately reminiscent of how objects often shift in one’s memories or dreams, reminding viewers that we’ve been invited into Stott’s paradise.
The wall relief sculpture Lil Cherubs was made while fantasizing about babies and where they come from. It reminds me of the conception story about the stork but intertwined with other myths: four cherubs fly together in a diamond shape, flanked by two flying elephants. The grouping conjures hope and celebration as the cherub is known as a symbol of innocence and love and elephants are known to be fiercely protective of their offspring and family. Each is glazed in a shade of the rainbow with their wings highlighted in gold luster.
The evolution of Stott’s personal experience with fertility comes full circle in this recent body of work. Stott’s shares with me that by the time she was done assembling her sculptures, she found out she was pregnant. The correlation between her making fruitage ceramic-based work, and her conception seems fantastical, given that fruit is literally the ovaries of a plant.
“Ambrosia” offers both a sensuous and vibrant escape for viewers during this tumultuous year. Stott drew upon her personal story and so her surreal and anthropomorphized depiction of fruits and inherent tenderness. Her sculpted food is intensely personal and equally rooted in imagery that is ubiquitous in daily conversation and experience. When we are unable to relate to each other collectively as we once have, “Ambrosia” offers a reprieve for viewers during this time of persisting collective isolation.
“Ambrosia” is on view at Fuller Rosen Gallery (1928 NW Lovejoy Street) through December 3rd. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, the gallery is open by appointment only.
- Ashley Gifford is a photographer, writer, and curator based in Portland, Oregon, originally from Honolulu, Hawaii. She is the founder and Creative Director of Art & About PDX, a platform that has been documenting Portland’s art scene since 2014.