How a Residency at a Toilet and Sink Factory Inspired Arlene Shechet’s New Public Art Project at Madison Square Park
Arlene Shechet wants to change the way you think about porcelain.
For her first-ever public art installation, at New York’s Madison Square Park, Arlene Shechet wasn’t afraid to push boundaries. She sought to create an exhibition that would draw viewers in, a physical space that they could touch and feel. The result is “Full Steam Ahead,” which sees Shechet’s well-known work in ceramic blown up to a monumental scale, with various sculptures forming a kind of outdoor living room in the park.
“The sharing of joy and the chance encounters with art is the core of what I’m interested in with this project,” Shechet told artnet News during a tour of the show, which is installed not on the park’s verdant lawns, but in and around its shallow reflective pool, which the artist has completely drained.
“Emptying the water allows people to sit on the rim,” said Shechet, who thinks of the space as a kind of theater in the round. She is currently collaborating with other artists to stage performances there at various points during the show’s run.
The site-specific work is at times subtle. “When we emptied out the pool, I photographed where the water gathered into puddles,” she said. After, she recreated the water pattern on the floor of the basin using reflective electroplated cast iron tiles. “They are kind of architectural formations of puddles.”
Throughout the installation, Shechet used what she refers to as “real” materials. (“Because of the constraints of public art, a lot of it is made out of plastic because it’s cheaper and lighter,” she said.)
The works started to come alive during a recent residency at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center—yes, the maker of Kohler Toilets—in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, which provided Shechet the means to make large-scale works in solid brass, cast iron, and other durable materials. One porcelain piece, Low Hanging Cloud (Lion), weighs more than a ton.
“I went to the Kohler factory to make these pieces,” she recalled. “They gave me materials and studio space, and I was able to work there for seven months.”
Shechet also worked at the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory in Saxony, Germany, where she dreamed of reproducing massive versions of delicate porcelain sculptures, a material she hopes to reclaim. “People think of porcelain as the most useless, froufrou stuff,” Shechet lamented. “There is something more substantial there; a story that people could be interested in if only porcelain was shown and installed in more interesting ways.”
In “Full Steam Ahead,” Shechet has given porcelain a strong, commanding presence, challenging its associations as a material for top-shelf knicknacks. Anything but delicate, her porcelain works invite physical contact, drawing in the viewer. Throughout the tour, a toddler was even spotted climbing on the works in the show.
The installation is juxtaposed against the park’s permanent monument to Civil War Union Admiral David Glasgow Farragut by architect Stanford White and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. It’s Farragut, and his famous order “damn the torpedoes! Full stead ahead!” that inspired the exhibition’s title. The monument, with a bronze statue of Farragut, includes two allegorical female figures representing courage and loyalty.
In front of the statue, there now sits a reclining female figure, titled Forward, a voluptuous form carved from a richly colored slab of wood that stands on her own, independent of the memorialized man. “I wanted to make something warm to stand up to the coolness of that monument,” Shechet said of it, her first major work in wood. “I’m asking people to slow down and stop and look at things.”
See more photos of the exhibition below.
“Arlene Shechet: Full Steam Ahead” is on view at Madison Square Park, between 5th Avenue and Madison Avenue at 25th Street, New York, September 25, 2018–April 28, 2019.
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