Proposing a world created through touch rather than sight, Juliana Cerqueira Leite’s brings us Until Different, her first solo exhibition in New York City. As a gathering, this group of sculptures shares a search for legibility with works in concurrent exhibitions across the Bowery, at the New Museum; shows by Sarah Lucas, Marguerite Humeau, and Marianna Simnett. But rather than conduct an inquiry through vision or language, as these artists do, Cerqueira Leite cultivates touch as a way of thinking, harboring its own intelligence.
Making my way to the rear gallery, Cerqueira Leite’s six plaster formations perform as a chorus, clamoring How am I made. Approaching them to formulate a response, the dripped plaster at the sculptures’ bases implies a haste in their making that turns this question into a plea. Peering around to the other side of the plaster globs, smears, and bulbs of Cerqueira Letie’s material are smooth and articulate casts, fragments of her body. Recalling Duchamp’s “Nude Descending A Staircase,” traces of the artist’s hands, knees, and elbows shift and repeat the chant How am I made. As if begging for the sixty seventh time might return something different than it did the sixth.
Plaster splashing against the artist’s skin must have required her stillness as it heated and hardened, providing time for her to think from inside her sculptures. Extracting herself from the cured material leaves voids, recalling her absence. While some of the other castings, instead, become molds to be filled with plaster, creating a duplication of her form in the positive. Added together, they suggest the boundaries of a body that should not be possible according to how bodies are commonly understood. But Cerqueira Leite forgoes the reassurance of inside and out to discover an existence where the rules of familiarity are replaced with a curiosity about what can be done with flesh.
After some time, I come to realize that the persistence of the question, How am I made, is not her sculpture’s question, but mine. It is me, their audience, all along, tricked by my own unwitting act of ventriloquism, projecting speech onto them. And now, I start asking this question about myself, producing a new urgency. My initial interest in how Cerqueira Leite’s works are physically constructed morphs into wondering about who I would be if touch were my only access to what constitutes existing. Suddenly, the sculptures drop their pretense as separate objects to reveal themselves as traces of sensation, accumulated to understand fundamental questions about existence through a body sensitive only to what is tactile.
“Urn 3” recalls a torso, rhythmically caressed into possibility, whose top most edge is low enough for me to reach my hand over and into. Were I to probe the void it encases, I would discover it is too deep for my arm to stretch through and feel its end. No clue about how far down it goes is offered by the base made from vacated hands planted next to absent feet. Fixed in a squat position, this carapace supports the tower’s diminishing diameter whose texture suggests the fingers of another body that made this cone’s brown rising possible. Do such tactile attentions of another imply individuation, or are interactions producing sensations of touch to be understood as two moving as one? Perhaps this kind of thinking about bodies, bodies as separate or entwined, is a product of vision. Cerqueira Leite’s sculptures do away with “me” and “you,” leaving us to understand interaction as a kind of self, apart from the bodies that produced it.
“Cinq a,” upright but lurching, is a counterpoint to “Urn 3,” as it offers a sense of being that is understandable only through one’s own touch. Plaster slathered here records this fleeting moment. Thickened and hardened white gypsum cement describes the simultaneity of sensation experienced from both sides of the skin, inside and out, where awareness arises from the accumulation of incremental fingerings.
Cerqueira Leite poses a chance to feel the lifecycles of flora in “Urn 4.” Hanging over damp soil, the cast of a body is positioned to excrete what becomes nutrition for the small fern below. Dry plaster leaching water from its environment and then dripping into the terrarium offers this plant sensations of wetness all around. The promise of food that we might not perceive if dependent on sight, might have a different meaning when considered using botanical sensations.
How am I made — the question that recurs through Until Different — behaves like a curiosity that cycles, a want like hunger or arousal. Cerqueira Leite’s exhibition expresses this circularity by testing how bodily and viscerally directed sculptural forms are experienced, bringing awareness to gaps deep within a collective understanding of how we know ‘self’.
Until Different is on view at Arsenal Contemporary (214 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through November 4.