Elisa Soliven is a sculptor, curator, and co-founder of the artist collective Underdonk. In her recent body of work, exhibited at the last SPRING/BREAK art show, Soliven experienced a turning point in her art. In our interview for ArtSpiel she elaborated on her process and shared some of the thought process behind her work.
AS: Tell me a bit about your art roots – background, becoming an artist?
Elisa Soliven: I was born and raised in New York City. Both of my parents immigrated to the U.S. and met in New York City. I would venture to say that something about the fact that because they came from two very different continents and cultures informs the way I try to fuse seemingly oppositional influences in my work.
My uncle is an artist and my parents loved it also, so I was lucky to be exposed to making things with my hands at a young age. Early on, I started working with clay, but was mainly throwing on the wheel, making bowls and plates. I am thankful to have met several people that showed me that it was possible to live a life in art.
For a few years at The Brooklyn Rail, I transcribed interviews and worked in the office. Painting until graduate school, I then gravitated towards sculpture in my last year. This interest continued to develop in terms of awareness and nuance ever since.
AS: You said in a lovely interview for Maake magazine that clay gives you process flexibility because of its durability and its limits. Can you elaborate on your process?
Elisa Soliven: The process of using ceramic glazes gives me flexibility and consistency. Ceramic glaze, when it’s fired, creates a fused surface and becomes part of the piece. Clay allows you to draw into it and you don’t need an armature. I turned to clay because of its tactility and its ability to record touch. It’s exciting to see all the possibilities happening with ceramics now.
AS: Your ceramic sculptures make me think of objects from some futuristic archeology, both ancient and new– as if time is compressed through your touch. Can you talk about the notion of time in relation to your work?
Elisa Soliven: I use a type of clay that allows me to work back into it, even though it’s completely dry. I reinvigorate a work by adding slip and water, making the clay pliable again. This adaptability allows me to work on several pieces at the same time. I add a lot of layers of clay so the surface has a residual quality. I use bits of ceramic from previous works that I embed back into a new piece, binding the fragments together.
This assembling process also brings another aspect of time, incorporating parts of former vessels with various textures. The way they are made shows the history of their making. This almost archaeological method defines the shape of the work, unifying the pieces together into a whole.
AS: Your work at the recent Spring Break art fair group show, curated by Nicholas Cueva, impressed me as a cohesive and incisive body of ceramic work. How do you see this body of work in context of your earlier work and how did it evolve?
Elisa Soliven: Thank you for seeing this show. I began working with the color gray and aluminum leaf. It was a turning point for me. Earlier I was trying out different color combinations. When I started using gray, my palette changed, becoming hopefully closer to reality. I then integrate the pieces with the structure of the grid and transform them into squarish formations.
AS: For me the tension between figurative and pattern / abstraction is at the core of your work. This description can easily apply to most contemporary art since modernism, but in your work it brings me back to some prehistoric era, somewhat shamanistic. Does this take resonate with you? Can you elaborate on your resources and thought process?
Elisa Soliven: The tension between the figurative and pattern/abstraction is what I am most interested in: how they can coexist together. I am also drawn to ancient structures with ritual and repetition as part of the process. My pieces are a combination of various repeated forms into one work. I build up the formation, letting the weight of the clay determine the shape. Using the format of the grid, I fuse the image into the structure.
AS: Color seems to play a central role in your work. What can you tell me about that?
Elisa Soliven: Recently, I started including gray and earth tones because of their neutrality. The majority of the sculptures are glazed with cool, or desaturated hues, while the ceramic modules in the framework of the grid lend a more variable sense of complexity to the overall work.
The last layer of color comes from aluminum leaf which I apply onto the fired surface with an intuitive sense of placement. The aluminum can seem decidedly reflective and opaque, but also refract its surrounding colors. I find it useful to work within a finite set of parameters, with variation.
AS: What can you tell me about your current projects and where do you see your work going in the near future?
The other month in Long Island, I participated in Untitled Projects with Crush Curatorial, a group exhibition curated by Karen Hesse Flatow and Catharine Haggarty, bringing together work by artists that run curatorial platforms and galleries.
For the summer, I will be showing in a group exhibition at the Reinstitute in Millerton, NY, curated by Susan Jennings. Part of the location is a farm and there are a few spots that I am looking forward to install in. It was once a dairy farm and there are tiles on the floor of the barn. I plan to remake some of the tiles and meld them with the original ones.
Currently, all my pieces are fifteen by fifteen inches, still small enough so that I can take it on the subway and carry it back and forth from the studio. Right now, I am figuring out how to construct my artwork in various scales, so that I can then build work in modular parts.
AS: As a curator and co-founder of Underdonk, the artist collective in Bushwick, you organized some pretty wildly imaginative mega shows. Can you tell me about one that in your view is most ground breaking?
Elisa Soliven: The most recent show that I organized, “The Giving Body,” had the artwork of twelve artists who all work with the body in some way. I was especially interested in a selection of pieces that all foregrounded an individualistic material and formal approach to representing the body. In doing so, the works presented the body as a vehicle for formal and material investment and transformation.