Art

The Penetrating Gaze of Portrait Busts

While Elise Siegel’s sculptures take the form of traditional portrait busts, they are anything but.

Installation view of rough edges: Elise Siegel at Studio 10, Bushwick (all images courtesy the artist)

Elise Siegel’s new installation rough edges at Studio 10 in Bushwick gives new meaning to “reversing the gaze.” The installation consists of 12 ceramic sculptures — loosely speaking, portrait busts — each around 24 inches high and mounted on unpainted plywood plinths. As you enter the gallery you can see each one separately as well as its relationship to the others. While they take the form of traditional portrait busts, they are anything but.

Be prepared for the penetrating gaze of this group of partial figures. You might just feel quietly confronted or stop dead in your tracks. “This is about you, not us,” they seem to communicate, as they beckon you closer. They don’t represent anyone in particular and gender and race seem intentionally indeterminate, though you, the viewer, might assign a more specific identity, bringing to them your own experience and/or expectations.

Installation view of rough edges: Elise Siegel at Studio 10, Bushwick
Installation view of rough edges: Elise Siegel at Studio 10, Bushwick

Titles provide no clues. They are simple descriptors: “Black and Pale Blue Portrait Bust with Hollow Eyes” (2018) or “Portrait Bust with Copper and Iron Stripes” (2017), for example. For some, Siegel’s hollow busts might evoke vessels or perhaps metaphorical containers of emotion. Each reveals an uncanny expression, reinforced by variations in modeling, as well as glazing techniques like the complex, layered application of colored slips and oxides that produce raw, patina-like surfaces. These formal characteristics translate into emotional vulnerability and promote personal projection.

Projection, in fact, is key to Siegel’s work. Unlike the more traditional portrait bust, which represents the external characteristics of an individual, these busts seem to be about interiority — yours and mine. If you read darkness into them, be assured you are not alone. They encourage us to acknowledge the emotional rough edges we all feel at times, if not all the time.

The busts also encourage us to project external experiences or externally generated fears or anxieties on them. For some, they might conjure a jury or the aftermath of the 2016 election, a nuclear attack, or a climate-related disaster. You name it. This is the poetry of Elise Siegel’s work and, although content may vary, it is the source of poetry in art in general — tacit permission to bring one’s experience to bear and to participate in the creation of meaning.

Installation view of rough edges: Elise Siegel at Studio 10, Bushwick
Installation view of rough edges: Elise Siegel at Studio 10, Bushwick

rough edges: Elise Siegel continues at Studio 10 (56 Bogart St, Bushwick  Brooklyn) through February 3.

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