Elise Siegel, “Portrait Bust with Dark Gray Bodice” (2018); “Portrait Bust with Radiant Orange Underglaze” (2015) (image courtesy the artist)

Since the mid-1980s, Elise Siegel has been exhibiting her work, receiving significant institutional support, and enjoying critical notice for an oeuvre based on figurative ceramic sculpture. Yet rough edges, which is on view at Studio 10 through February 3, has the makings of a watershed moment for the artist.

For a decade or so, Siegel has concentrated on the genre of the portrait bust — though the subjects of these works are drawn from memory and imagination, not from a specific perceptual source or sitter. As the 13 works in this stunning show demonstrate, Siegel’s narrowed focus has led her to a body of work that is both personal and universal.

Of literal “rough edges” there are few, if any, among this cohort, as these busts are soft and modeled — convincingly fleshy. They might be roughed out, insofar as surfaces are slightly bumpy, forms a little lumpy, and glazes as provisional-looking as the handling of the clay itself.

rough edges: Elise Siegel, installation view (image courtesy the artist)

These glazes are mostly matte, whether they’re primly tinting a coif or neckline, or running deliciously in rivulets down a torso. Hints regarding hairstyle and costume locate all but one or two figures on the female side of the gender spectrum. Each is around two feet high and placed on pedestals that bring them to around eye level. They look at you looking at them.

Their inscrutability is arresting. Mona Lisa’s flickering smile seems like a chortle in comparison. But far from being expressionless, these faces seem to register complex or even equivocal emotions — hovering between stoicism and disappointment, say (“Pale Blue Portrait Bust with Dark Drips,” 2018), or between incomprehension and muted chagrin (“Portrait Bust with Amber Shirt and Lavender Hair,” 2016).

Elise Siegel, “Portrait Bust with Dark Gray Bodice” (2018); “Portrait Bust with Radiant Orange Underglaze” (2015) (image courtesy the artist)

In this narrow range of ambiguous emotional indicators, the slightly cocked head and pursed lips of “Portrait Bust with Dark Gray Bodice” (2018) registers heightened attentiveness tinged with skepticism. Nearby, the subject of “Pale and Dark Gray Portrait Bust with Dark Eyelashes” (2018), with her slightly slack jaw and distracted gaze, might be straining to remember her password. We feel her pain. The hint of raised eyebrows and an unsmiling mouth give “Baby Blue Portrait Bust with Square Eyes” (2018) the look of someone who doesn’t believe a word of your story. Paradoxically, this dampening of affect is somehow quite affecting.

Why that should be is a topic my wife and I have pondered at length, and here’s what we’ve come up with: the viewer is struck by these multifaceted yet understated attitudes and shaded emotional states because they are embodied in the work through such direct, primal means. We appreciate the fine-tuning wrought upon these clumps of mud even as we let ourselves be taken in by it.

Elise Siegel, “Pale and Dark Gray Portrait Bust with Dark Eyelashes” (2018) (photo by Sharon Lawless)

It’s not that the work implies a narrative, particularly, but rather that the viewer brings to the experience a lifetime of reading and responding to facial cues and what they reveal about states of consciousness — a highly subjective process. In a recent interview with Leslie Wayne, Siegel says of her figures, “I want them to be as much about the viewer as they are about me.” Indeed, their ambiguity is a kind of mirror.

Contributing to the works’ impact is the consistent form of these busts; armless, each tapers to a narrow, integral base located just below the rib cage. (These works are less structurally precarious than they appear, attached to their pedestals by means of an internal anchoring system.) The absence of arms and hands — for that matter, of expression through posture or stance — elicits a sense of muteness and vulnerability.

rough edges: Elise Siegel, installation view (image courtesy the artist)

Regarding influences, the artist acknowledges the terracotta Haniwa figures of ancient Japan, Renaissance reliquary sculpture, and African masks. As a sculptural genre, the portrait bust is an ancient invention; post-Renaissance, those that don’t depict a specific individual often shoot for caricature (Honoré Daumier) or typology (Franz Xaver Messerschmidt). Among Siegel’s distinctive achievements, then, is her works’ mesmerizing subtlety. They recall the great screen actors who can project profound and precise shifts of feeling with slight adjustments to the muscles of their face.

Siegel’s ability to suggest this infinitesimal mutability surely has something to do with the medium of clay, which of course is acutely responsive to touch. I wonder if these tenuous expressions would translate at all to a bronze cast from a clay original. Probably not, since the ceramic glazes’ transparency contributes so much.

The show’s haunting presentation also exerts the pressure of self-consciousness on the viewer. But for a lone work in the gallery’s reception area (the exquisite “Two-part Bust with Two-Toned Face,” 2018, which, though also armless, doesn’t taper to a base but is truncated below the pectorals), all are positioned so that they face the gallery entrance; they form a small crowd, an audience awaiting the arrival of the gallery-goer.

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

Stephen Maine is a painter who lives and works in West Cornwall, Connecticut, and Brooklyn, New York. His writing has appeared regularly in Art in America, ARTnews, Art on Paper, The New York Sun, Artillery,...