Art

Ceramic Sculptures That Refuse the Neat and Tidy

Trafficking in fragments of beings, machines, and ideas, Julia Phillips rejects the immediate gratification of simple forms and answers.

Julia Phillips, “Mediator” (2020), ceramic, stainless steel, granite, nylon hardware; 69 × 112 × 112 inches (© Julia Phillips; all images courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery)

Intricate and intimate in scale, Julia Phillips’s sculptures demand close looking. Lit by natural light and spread out across a spacious gallery at Matthew Marks, the works invite viewers to travel the spaces between them.

Phillips creates sculptural fragments. Her pieces of beings, machines, and ideas refuse holistic representations, rejecting the immediate gratification of simple forms and answers. Instead, viewers are left to imagine what narratives and possibilities might fill the empty spaces.

Julia Phillips, “Observer II” (2020), ceramic, stainless steel, quartzite; 77¾ × 39 × 39 inches (© Julia Phillips)

In “Mediator” (2020), there appear to be two human collarbones — one racialized as white and the other as Black — perched on a microphone stand affixed to a large, black, circular platform. An allusion, I presume, to race relations and mediated dialogue. The circular platform, one of the physically largest components of the whole exhibition, might signify the scale of the issue itself.

Nearby, “Observer” (2016) is a ceramic sculpture that resembles binoculars mounted on top of a stainless steel support, with pink and tan fleshy designs where the lenses would be. The fleshy  allusion to the gaze suggests the tensions between surveillance and the body, a connection further elucidated in “Oppressor with Soul, In Treatment & Suppressor with Spirit, In Treatment” (2020). A sculptural assemblage, complete with two bodily fragments of the back of a human’s head and shoulders, the “Oppressor” gazes downward, while the “Suppressor” gazes upward. The fragments construct a narrative of oppression and suppression — in which souls and spirits are psychologically impacted by hierarchical power dynamics.

The thought-experiment of narrativizing Phillips’s sculptures requires an attention to the titles of her works, which frame and guide our understanding, as well as the imagination of spectators, who bring their own associations and politics. The artist’s framing, however, maintains a sense of opacity even as she nods to issues of race, gender, and embodiment. Phillips’s sculptural fragments deliberately pose questions, rather than supplying answers.

Installation view of Julia Phillips, New Album, Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, 2020 (© Julia Phillips)

Julia Phillips: New Album continues through October 17 at Matthew Marks Gallery (523 West 24 Street, Chelsea, Manhattan). 

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