In Dialogue with Julia Kunin
Running through March 4rd, Julia Kunin’s exhibition Mechanical Ballet at Kate Werble Gallery features ceramic wall reliefs and caryatids that create an imaginary narrative of sexually charged figures. “They are at once fortresses in themselves, a merging of body, machine and architecture, ready to become weaponized,” the artist says. The works draw from the hard-edged geometric rhythm found in Art Deco objects and the relentless patterns pay tribute to Art Nouveau and Op-Art. Her most recent large wall pieces are made up of multiple sections, with the potential to be re-arranged and taken apart. Julia Kunin refers to them as sculptural drawings in clay, that vibrate with iridescence — “the destabilizing psychedelic color enables the figures to change and move in their ever-shifting narrative frieze,” she says.
Tell me a bit more about yourself and your art.
One of my favorite objects is a tan reduction fired stoneware goblet, thrown on the wheel in the 1970’s by George Scatchard. I use it every day in the studio, and never tire of it. I am passionate about the history of craft, and the decorative arts, with the intent of celebrating so many of the unknown artisans who make extraordinary objects. Using those functional objects feels like participating in a daily ritual.
I was born in Vermont, and when I was thirteen, I used to hang out and watch the potters at the University of Vermont. I was soon welcomed by Hideo Okino, head of the pottery shop who nurtured many a studio potter, to work for free. I learned by watching and doing, the old-fashioned way, and I liked being the only kid amongst adults. I immersed myself in making sculptures.
I abandoned clay in 1984, working in all types of media, including video, focusing on sexuality and gender. In 2000, When I felt I’d said everything possible about sexuality, I veered in a new direction exploring the grotesque. When solving a sculpture problem in 2002, I looked to ceramics and fell in love with clay all over again. It wasn’t until 2013, when I had a Fulbright to Hungary, however, that I returned to imagery I used in the 1990’s to address lesbian visibility, gender and sexuality. It was hard living in such a conservative environment there. Little did I know what 2016 would bring to the United States.
What is the idea behind the body of work at your current exhibition?
Looking at gender, and sexuality through a poetics of the surreal lies at the foundation of my work. Mechanical Ballet traces the evolution of my use of the abstracted body as a means of addressing sexuality, through portraiture. The figures are stacks of symbols that incorporate the space age architecture and failed utopian socialist art that I saw in Hungary. In 2013 I began to look again at 70’s feminist art and literature for inspiration. Les Guerilleres, the 1969 feminist novel by Monique Wittig, served as a jumping off point for the portraits that I’ve made from 2013 to the present. Mechanical Ballet traces the evolution of this pantheon of mythologized queer warriors that verge on the robotic and otherworldly.
Tell me a bit about your process of making your ceramic pieces.
Pecs, Hungary where I’ve been going for the past ten years, is the birthplace of Bauhaus artist Marcel Breuer. I’ve been to several Bauhaus exhibitions there and have been enchanted by Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet, created in 1912. Many of my drawings are influenced by Schlemmer’s performative figures. I keep notebooks filled with sketches incorporating multiple influences, including machine diagrams, and works by Viktor Vasarely whose museum I’ve visited each year in Pecs since 2009. The wall reliefs, large and small are a means of creating sculptural drawings.
When I finally achieve a drawing that feels right, I create a large life size rendering of it, that then goes through numerous iterations. Finally, I use the drawing as a guide to create a large clay slab that then goes through lots of changes as I figure out the puzzle pieces that make up the sculpture. I don’t have a slab roller, and I enjoy the physicality of pounding and rolling out the slabs of clay for the piece. The work keeps changing all the way through the process, as I add, subtract, and modify.
The iridescent glaze that I use is influenced by both Art Nouveau and Art Deco ceramics. It creates a sense of infinite mirroring and multiple reflections within the figures. As a result, the surface is dynamic, ever changing and disorienting. I am making works that combine glazed and unglazed sections, to contrast the raw, more rustic surface with the oil -spill psychedelia. I do most of the building and glazing in Hungary where I have access to in glaze luster techniques and do some of the building in my studio in Brooklyn.
I don’t mind working alone in the studio, but I prefer being around other artists and craftsman. I have had the fortunate experience of working in factories, both at Kohler and in Hungary, and recently have been able to use a studio at the University of Pecs. These environments are inspiring and nurture community which is integral to working in clay. I would not have been able to complete the work in this show were it not for my friends in Hungary.
You have wall pieces and free-standing sculptures. How do you see the relationship between them?
All of the pieces in Mechanical Ballet are portraits in different forms, whether they be free standing sculptures like After Amerigo Tot, or small rectangles like Vasarely Eyes. My daily walks to and from the factory where I worked in Pecs, gradually became folded into my sculptures. For instance, I often walked by Amerigo Tot’s memorial to Viktor Komarov, the cosmonaut who was on the 1967 Soyuz spaceflight. Upon landing, Komarov’s parachute did not open. I was drawn to the spacecraft-like form of the sculpture with its concentric barrels and strong abstraction. Much of Tot’s imagery made its way into my work as I became more interested in combining the body, the machine, and some elements of Art Deco. For me, Tot’s sculpture symbolized both progress as well as a failed utopian vision.
Vasarely Eyes is a bawdy portrait with breasts and eyes, incorporating some of Vasarely’s imagery of the circle in the square, made to look three dimensional by using optical illusion. The clay arabesques and obsessively repetitive curvy lines pay homage to the nature inspired patterns seen in Art Nouveau. This psychedelic imagery goes back to the turn of the century (19th -20th), enhanced by the shifting color of the glaze.
Queen of Mars, a 59 inch high relief wall piece, takes its name from the 1924 early science fiction film by Yakov Protazanov, Aelita, Queen of Mars, which I adore for its constructivist costumes made by Aleksandra Ekster. Here I had so much fun integrating drawing and mechanical devices to create a layered body that is both architectural and otherworldly.
Photos by Jeffrey Scott French, and the artist and the gallery.
Julia Kunin at Kate Werble Gallery thru March 4, 2021 136 East 73rd Street, 2nd Floor
Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: email@example.com