Elisa Soliven, born in New York City, lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. She received an M.F.A. from Hunter College in 2011 and a B.A. from Bryn Mawr College. Her work has been reviewed by Two Coats of Paint, Art Critical, and Hyperallergic. She has shown at Nudashank, Baltimore; Daily Operation at Bull & Ram, NYC; Sardine, Brooklyn; Present Company, Brooklyn, among others. She is also a co-founder of the Bushwick based artist collective, Underdonk.
I am drawn to clay for the immediacy with which it conveys the working process, and for the way in which it captures a sense of the talismanic in the ordinary. The sculptures serve as a record of my inquiry to capture the essence of my subjects both figurative and abstract, as well as to preserve a frozen history of gestural mark-making. I symbolically transfigure the subject through an archaeological accumulation of modeled layers of clay and embedded ceramic. Working with constructed forms in clay and found materials, I rework the familiarity of the everyday object of the vessel into idiosyncratic inventions.
Interview with Elisa Soliven
Questions by Emily Burns
Hi Elisa! Can you tell us a bit about your background and what motivated you to become an artist?
Both of my parents immigrated to the U.S. and met in New York City. I was born and raised in New York City. My parents loved art, so I often went to museums with them. I first started making art when I was really young. It was something I grew up doing. My uncle is an artist and he taught me how to draw early on. I studied art history and studio art at Bryn Mawr College. At the age of twenty, I had very significant deaths in my family and I turned to art. I spent hours in the library reading about Joseph Beuys and Eva Hesse. Their work had an impact on me at the time. Even though I was painting then, I gravitated towards their work primarily because of the idea that art can have a healing effect when it brings together social and psychological subjects. One of my first jobs after college was working for Dorothea Rockburne as her studio assistant for several years, working in her archives and learning about her art and influences. She is an abstract painter and draws inspiration from dance and her deep interest in mathematics and astronomy. For her art doesn’t only make reference to itself, but to life and its interconnectedness.
Have you always worked with clay as a primary medium?
I grew up working with clay, but then for about ten years prior to starting graduate school, I was primarily a painter. It was in my last year that I turned to making sculpture at Hunter College. I didn’t get much criticism on the work that I was making then with trial and error. Clay is one medium that I am at ease with since you don’t need an armature and you can draw into it. This was a big step for me. Before then, I was working with unique, found objects, painting and transforming them, but it was a slow development. Clay gives my process flexibility because of its durability and its limits.
The texture of your recent work is very recognizable as your own, is there a specific reference for this surface quality or something that you hope it will evoke for the viewer?
The pieces you refer to are flat, square, and planar even though there’s both rough and smooth texture. I add irregular pieces of fired clay that I then build the piece around and meld into new multifarious structures. This almost archaeological method often determines the shape of the piece because I am working with unique pieces that have their own distinct forms. I try to unify them together into a whole, using the grid, transforming them into a singular, unified yet irregular body that conjures a squarish formation.
Can you walk us through the stages of planning and making a sculpture?
I start by deciding on specific dimensions for a grouping of sculptures and then from there I work within those parameters. I symbolically transfigure the subject through an archaeological accumulation of modeled layers of clay and embedded ceramic pieces. The works are often a conglomeration of different portraits into one work. I also work from my memory and they resemble a figure but are of no one person in particular. I sometimes begin from observation and then through formal transformations move into material and formal abstraction. My latest series are groupings of figures that also suggest a geological formation. Each contains particular idiosyncrasies that individuate from the mass while still embodying a group togetherness. I started including gray because of its neutrality. The body of the work is painted in various shades of blues, earth tones, and grays, with the mosaic like modules bringing vibrant color to the sculpture. I am using aluminum leaf as a unifying surface and texture. Aluminum is reflective, yet it also allows for the glazed ceramic underneath to peer through.
Is drawing a part of your practice?
For a few years, I made watercolor drawings using the grid and now I am coming back to this format. With the ‘grid vessels’, I make all-over compositions with this structure. I often draw in the morning to get things flowing and am continuing these drawing meditations.
Are there any overarching themes that you keep returning to in your work?
From the beginning, I’ve always made portraits. Every now and then, friends sit for me, and so the body is a focus, albeit in the abstract. Recently, I began casting found objects and fruit, incorporating them into the works.
What have been some of the biggest influences on your life and your work thus far?
My living environment is always a major influence. I grew up in New York City, but then moved to New Orleans in middle school. Then I traveled abroad and lived in Nepal for part of my college years. I returned to New York City after college and have been living here ever since.
What is a typical day like for you?
I wake up early usually at around 6 am, mainly because my children are early risers. During the day, I teach at Time-In, an arts initiative where we teach children out of New York’s underserved classrooms. Later, I go to the studio.
Who are some of the artists that you look at the most often or most recently?
I am particularly intrigued by the work of Tetsumi Kudo and Jack Whitten. I am also looking at the work of Lynda Benglis and Lucio Fontana. Both of these artists use clay in some form.
Is there anything that significantly supports or destroys your groove or energy in the studio?
Several years ago, I started going to Greenwich House Pottery to fire my clay work. It’s been a great place for me because they have all the materials there, glazes, clay, kilns, and technical assistance if you need it.
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you?
There are many books, poems, and films that changed me. When I first moved to the city, I used to live near Film Anthology Archives and would go there to watch movies. The films of Robert Bresson stand out, with his casting of regular people as actors and sparse dialogue, there is a realness and authenticity that comes through; time is still for a moment. (I also go back to: Kalatozov’s “I Am Cuba”, Stan Brakhage, Tarkovsky, Satyajit Ray, Harry Smith, and Agnes Varda’s films, and for books: Dostoevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov”, Camus’s “Myth of Sisyphus”, Agnes Martin’s writings, Sontag’s “Regarding The Pain Of Others”, Simone Weil, and John Ashbery’s poems.)
What do you listen to while you work?
In the mornings, I usually listen to Bird Flight with Phil Schaap, a radio show on WCKR, but later in the day I’m not as particular.
Can you tell us a bit about your workspace? What are absolute necessities in the studio?
For me, the necessities in the studio are an office chair, a clear table, and a stool that I’ve used for years, but it’s really time that is a necessity.
How do you navigate distraction or lack of motivation while working?
If I’m distracted or have too many ideas, I try to make something utilitarian, a bowl, a vase, or tiles for personal use. This doesn’t happen often, since becoming a new parent, I have less spare time, and have to plan beforehand. Experimenting with differing methods and materials is important in my process. Ceramic glaze, the alchemical process of it, admittedly pulled me in. I started using cast objects as test pieces for this purpose, and then they often become incorporated into a sculpture or painting.
How important is the place where you live to your studio practice?
I live in Bushwick, Brooklyn, walking distance to my studio on Willoughby Avenue within a building of studios and galleries. Walking to and from the studio, I use this time to observe my surroundings, looking at all the layers of time that are built up on the streets, buildings, and trash.
You recently curated a group exhibition at Underdonk, in Brooklyn, called The Giving Body. Congratulations! I had the opportunity to see the show in person last week and its a fantastic group of artists. Can you tell us more about the theme and the work you decided to include?
Thank you for seeing the show! In this exhibition, the works evoke the human form, while emphasizing process and materials. There are twelve artists in the show. The work conscientiously embraces the idea that there are multiple ways to invest the body with gesture. All the work has the hand prevalent in the making of the object and this is an important quality that I look for in the work of others and my own.
You are a director (and co-founder) at Underdonk. How does your work with the gallery relate to your work as an artist? When did you become interested in curating exhibitions? Can you tell us a bit about your experience so far?
I organized a show called Dance Ghost in 2010 at Vaudeville Park, Brooklyn and brought together forty of my favorite artists at the time that had some ghostly figure or presence in their work. The show included artists that I admire, Katherine Bradford, Tamara Gonzales, EJ Hauser, and Chris Martin, among others. Since then I have co-curated shows with JJ Manford such as: Temporary Antumbra Zone at Janet Kurnatowski Gallery in 2011 on collaboration and Peter Lamborn Wilson’s book, “TAZ: “The Temporary Autonomous Zone’; Wilson who works under the pseudonym Hakim Bey. We were collaborating together at the time and it made sense to organize a show that was about artists making work together. We reached out to twenty pairs of artists who came up with their own pseudonyms and contributed collaborative work to the show. We then co-founded Underdonk with a group of our peers in 2013. Underdonk is made up of ten artists, and each person is able to curate their own exhibition with the rest of the group providing support. We’ve always tried to keep gallery responsibilities sustainable with working in the city and balancing the rest of our lives. Putting together shows for me is a timely thing, seeing something in particular that is happening in artists’ work and then making those connections. Reaching out and engaging artists from other generations and communities is exciting. I also co-organized a three person show with Liv Aanrud, Alicia Gibson, and Albeliza Perez and a two person show with Inna Babaeva and Lauren Clay.
The Giving Body, as well as another exhibition you co-curated at Underdonk in 2016 titled Onion by the Ocean highlighted sculpture and many of the works were ceramic. Can you tell us a bit about how you see the role of ceramic work in contemporary art today?
Over the last several years, ceramic has become a primary material for artists. It was once more connected with craft and utilitarian domestic objects, but with this comes a vast history and associations. People also equate ceramics with preciousness, but in my experience clay is actually more durable than other materials. Onion by the Ocean was co-organized with Essye Klempner. We brought together thirty-two artists for this exhibition. All the work was displayed on a large table top with a grid drawn out in pencil. Each piece fit within a foot by foot square, so being small in size was the main parameter. Essye also works with clay so she knows many artists working in this medium, but the show had a broad range of materials.
Do you have any other news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
A few group exhibitions planned for 2018, including one called Parallel Practices, curated by Patricia Spergel and Lori Glavin at Western Connecticut State University. This group show will bring together artists who work in multiple media. I’ll also be putting together a sculpture exhibition in 2018 at Underdonk.
Thank you for taking the time to talk with us!
Thank you for the interview!
To find out more about Elisa and her work, check out her website!