‘Every Single Second It Changes’: Watch Sculptor Arlene Shechet Harness the Protean Power of Plaster

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Arlene Shechet: Sculpting Time." © Art21, Inc. 2015.

If you walk through New York’s Madison Square Park right now, you’re likely to see some combination of dogs, children, and tourists sitting on pink and yellow tree trunks, or maybe climbing on a white porcelain lion’s paw, or admiring a cast iron feather. This seemingly disparate arrangement of objects are parts of Arlene Shechet’s first large-scale public installation “Full Steam Ahead,” commissioned by the Madison Square Park Conservancy.

Shechet is known best for her smaller-scale works, many of which originated in the mid 1990s. That was a time when her artistic practice took a dramatic turn. Shechet has said that the tragic death of a close friend led her to begin experimenting with ceramic and plaster. Shifting her artistic practice toward volatile materials helped her confront mortality, literally and spiritually.

“Arlene Shechet: Full Steam Ahead” at the Madison Square Park Conservancy. Photo: Rashmi Gill. Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery.

Shechet sculpted without an armature, giving up control to the natural process. “Every single second as it’s drying, it changes,” she told Art21, “I would make a piece out of that material, that suddenly became just the right thing.” The plaster works evolved to resemble Buddha statues, a whole population of varying sizes, all bearing individual distinctions, which made up the basis for her mid-career survey All at Once” at ICA Boston in 2015. 

“Plaster is so much a time-keeper,” Shechet went on. “The real meaning of an icon—at least for me—was that it was there to keep me remembering what I wanted to remember.”

The segment originally appeared as part of the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” television series on PBS, below. “Arlene Shechet: Full Steam Ahead” is on view at Madison Square Park through April 28, 2019. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century television is available now on PBS. Watch full episodes and learn about the organization’s education programs at Art21.org.

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