Sometimes there is a moment when the words on the tip of your tongue never arrive. You are looking at something that is both familiar an delusive and feel dumbfounded. You think, “I know what this looks like but I cannot remember what it is.” This can be exasperating and even humbling. I experienced something similar while looking at the 28 sculptural works and 3 monotypes in Parallel Situations: A Solo Exhibition of Christina Tenaglia at Thomas Park. The difference is that I was not frustrated as much as I was delighted and intrigued.
To make something that exists on the cusp of being named without crossing into the nameable cannot be an easy thing to do, especially over and over again. And yet Tanaglia does exactly that in her “Untitled” works. At a time when the art world seems to want to spell everything out, so nothing is missed, she takes a different path, following the inexplicable perceptual moments encountered everyday life.
Tenaglia’s primary material is earthenware, although her sculptures also incorporate wood, paint, screws, nails, graphite, and enameled copper. Some of them sit on the floor or on pedestals installed at both conventional heights and low to the ground. Others are attached to the wall, lean against it, extend from it, or rest on shelves. The scale also varies: some fit in the palm of your hand, while the largest ones — which are between 34 and 49 inches high — either are attached to the wall or lean against it.
Complete or partial forms are often repeated. Tenaglia is as interested in the surface as the thing. While she has been characterized as a sculptor working between abstraction and representation, which has become a pretty common move, I see her as an abstract sculptor working with ceramics. This associates her with artists such as Joanne Greenbaum, Mary Heilmann, and Joyce Robins. Like these three artists, Tenaglia does something unexpected with ceramics. She does not make vessels or pile one thing atop another (echoing Constantin Brancusi), nor does she make figurative sculptures or use readymades in her work. These rejections — which separate her from many mainstream currents in sculpture — ought to gain her attention, but I don’t know that they will.
The first piece I saw when I walked into the gallery held my attention so long that I almost forgot there were other works to see. It was a surprise to find that whatever formal qualities Tenaglia’s sculptures share, she doesn’t seem to have pursued a style, nor does she sample styles. Rather, I felt a certain sensibility running through all the work.
Looking through the checklist (which reveals that one group of work was made between 2010 and 2012, while the rest were made in 2019), what came across most strongly to me was her openness to using different materials and processes. “Untitled” (2011), measuring 3 by 2 by 4 inches, was mounted on the wall. It is made of wood, enameled copper, and nails. The wood is used to build an armature. The celadon-colored copper slats are attached to it, shingle-like, with nails that remain visible. The work protrudes from the wall, with the enameled slats reminding me of late 19th-century Samurai armor. While Tenaglia deploys a repeated form in a number of other works, there is nothing else like the enameled copper of “Untitled” in the exhibition.
In an untitled work from 2019, two flat, uneven earthenware rectangles are attached to the wall with screws, just a couple of feet above the floor, giving us an aerial view of their shelf-like construction. A dark gray circle on each of the rectangles seemingly tells us where to place a cup, flowerpot, or other item. There is something awkward, odd, and funny about the piece, and its extension into the room. Because of its proximity to the floor, I did not notice it at first, but when I did, I was fascinated — perhaps it seemed almost like it might have a function or it called attention to the idea of function. By suggesting that something should be placed within its confines, the dark grey circles remind us of how unperceptive we ordinarily are. We tend to see things in terms of their function rather than their presence.
In another 2019 “Untitled,” Tenaglia attaches white earthenware slats of different lengths and slightly different shapes to the wall, with black screws. The overall configuration of the stacked slats reminded me of a comb with a handle, made only of wide white teeth. The screws both expose how the sections are mounted on the wall and visually punctuate the ends. The placement of the slats feels inevitable rather than arbitrary; the comb-like shape prevents it from becoming part of the architecture. It asserts its existence while depending on the wall for support.
Tenaglia’s forms suggest that she’s looked at all sorts of contemporary household objects, from speakers to vacuum cleaners to CD holders. And yet, even as some works may evoke functional objects, she is not interested in parody or citation. Their formal strength sets them in their own domain.
In other pieces, the resemblance to something else either seems more attenuated or absent. How do you explain a dusty pink tube-like form resting on two sets of legs in “Untitled” (2010)? Because the sets of legs are different heights, the pink form seems to favor one side. But, of course, this is not true. How does a cylinder favor one side over another? There is so much going on in Tenaglia’s work, so much to think about and reflect upon, that I feel like I have just started to see what is there.
Parallel Situations: A Solo Exhibition of Christina Tenaglia continues at Thomas Park Gallery (195 Chrystie Street, Manhattan) through August 10.