Gabriela Vainsencher: Unfolding Motherhood

Gabriela Vainsencher in the studio with “Mom”, 2021

Gabriela Vainsencher works in photography, video and drawing, while merging all of these forms in her porcelain sculptures. Her sculptures and wall reliefs are as far off the smooth perfection we traditionally associate with porcelain – twisted forms merge into each other or repel, forming a fiery existential dance that sometimes invokes symbiosis and sometimes pulling apart.

You were born in Buenos Aires, raised in Tel Aviv and are currently based in the NYC area. Tell me a bit more about yourself and what brought you to art.

I am a third-generation Jewish immigrant: my grandparents fled Eastern Europe before WW2 and arrived in Uruguay, my parents fled political and economic crises in Uruguay and arrived in Argentina, and after my brother and I were born, our extended family fled the dictatorship and arrived in Israel. I grew up in Tel Aviv, did my undergrad in art in Israel, and arrived in New York City in my 20’s. I got my MFA at Hunter College in 2017. We left Brooklyn when the pandemic started and are currently looking to move back to the area.

I’m one of those people who always wanted to be an artist. It was a childhood dream that I was never disabused of. I remember thinking at 14 that art is the hardest thing to do well, and that seemed to be a good reason to choose it as a vocation! This is of course true- being an artist is one of the hardest things I’ve done with my life, and something I have sacrificed a lot for. On the other hand, every day that I get to spend in the studio is a fulfilling day. My father is a translator, and my mother is a psychoanalyst. They are both extremely interested in their professions, even passionate about them. It never occurred to me to pursue a career that I was not intensely passionate about.

You are working in multiple media – sculpture, photo, video, drawing. Let’s start with your sculpture. In your series El Objeto Que Se Acuerda, which roughly translates as The Object that Remembers Itself, you say that the series is inspired by your own failings as an object-maker. Can you elaborate on that?

That statement is a little provocative, but I’ll explain: I’m interested in the tension between craft excellence and making good art. In ceramics that tension is especially heightened by the medium’s history of creating objects that run the gamut from functional objects to abstract art. The sculptures in El Objeto Que Se Acuerda are a series of simple, quickly made porcelain objects. They start out as cylinders which I made to be too thin, too tall, or too uneven. I then allowed the forms to collapse, twist, buckle, and lean into their final position. So in terms of craft, these were badly made – they are cylinders that failed at staying upright. But of course, that was the point- I didn’t want to make perfectly upright cylinders, instead I wanted the endless variation of failure to stand up straight.

Porcelain is a material known for its smoothness and whiteness, and is culturally associated with perfectly made objects. The way I work with it runs against all those attributes: I allow the clay to fold and wrinkle as I create my forms, and I then rub underglaze into the bisqued clay, further revealing and highlighting all the imperfections in the surfaces, like mascara running into the wrinkles around the eyes.

The title of the work refers to how in these sculptures each wrinkle and fold is a direct result of something that happened to the sculpture, in the same way that our own scars and wrinkles are the ways physical and mental events leave their traces on us.

Five sculptures from the “El Objeto Que Se Acuerda” series

Three “Sitter/Thinker” sculptures from the Objeto Que se Acuerda series

You say in reference to your series Props that your work is signified by a constant translation between 2D and 3D, language and image. How is that reflected in this body of work?

Those sculptures were all made to be props in the video Negative Capability, which was my thesis project at Hunter. They were three-dimensional objects made with the specific intention of never being shown in real life, but only as they appeared on camera in my videos and photos. It’s an oblique way to approach sculpture. They included ceramic sculptures as well as photographs of these sculptures which I printed and wore as masks. I am very interested in the process of toggling between a 3D object, its translation to a photograph, and then re-translating it into an object. Maybe it’s being trilingual and an immigrant- I am not only constantly aware of the ways to say the same thing in different languages, but also just as keenly aware of the untranslatable- that quality all immigrants know.

Stills from “Negative Capability”, 2016 (view full video here)

You started Collapsed during the first trimester of your pregnancy. You say that you felt like these pieces: floppy and weak but also full of life at the same time. Tell me more about the genesis of this body of work and what would you like to share about the process of making it?

I was working towards a two-person show in Chelsea, at what was at the time Crush Curatorial and is now Hesse Flatow gallery. The show was curated by Nicole Kaack, who is an incredible curator and writer. I was making a series of perfectly flat, almost paper-like porcelain cutout sculptures, which would also stand upright on tall pedestals. They were these mash-ups between ancient amphorae and the female body- breasts, muscles, hips. But I was also finally pregnant after many months of trying, and found myself intensely exhausted: I had about two hours of energy a day, and I planned my schedule meticulously so that those two hours would fall on studio time or working at my day job each day.

That’s when I realized I couldn’t bring myself to show these perfectly flat and upright pieces. It didn’t feel true to who I was at the moment. I was feeling both very strong and proud of having finally succeeded in seeding a life inside my body, but I was also tired like I had never been before, weak, and very nauseous. Nicole came to the studio about 2 months before the opening and I braced myself to tell her that I had decided to make a totally new set of sculptures for the show. As I was scrolling through my phone to show her some of my new sketches I accidentally scrolled to a picture of my latest sonogram. I hadn’t told anyone outside my family that I was pregnant, but this turned out to be the best way to explain what had changed, and it was the truth. Nicole was extremely supportive and had no problem with the work completely changing so close to the opening. The new sculptures were the same combinations of ancient forms and human bodies, but instead of being flat, white, and upright, they were curled up and scrunched, dark with black underglaze that accentuated all their cracks, and laid low on a large horizontal pedestal.

Installation view at Crush Curatorial gallery, Chelsea, NYC, 2018

Your work seems to be evolving from abstracted to figurative forms. But in either case, the gesture and the materiality resonate with the body. You say about Finger Tangles, the series of interlocking fingers you started just before the pandemic, that it is about “the sensuality and weirdness of the everyday, the familiarity and strangeness of our own bodies, about making shadow puppets.” Hands and fingers assumed new meaning during the pandemic. What are your thoughts about this series now?

That series was my first response to the very early days of the pandemic, when it still seemed possible that I was just being paranoid. I made the first one of those in early February 2020 in the studio in Brooklyn, when talk started about washing hands, not touching surfaces, but we were also being told we don’t need masks. It was a confusing time and I felt like a ball of nerves, both constantly worried and thinking that maybe I was overreacting. The rest of the pieces in that series were made in my father in-law’s suburban garage, where we hunkered down for almost five months once we felt we could not stay inside our small Brooklyn apartment with our toddler. The finger tangle pieces were a visceral and direct response to those feelings. When I look at them now I am transported to those first months of the pandemic.

”Has the meaning of fingers changed?” 2020, porcelain and underglaze, 14 x 8 x .5 inches

Mom, which is currently featured at the Bronx Calling, the Fifth Aim Biennial at the Bronx Museum (through March 20, 2022), is a 8×12 feet wall relief made of porcelain. Here you seem to develop the figurative drawing imagery we saw in your previous series, Finger Tangles, for instance. It’s complex, funny, hectic, urgent and organic. It reminds me at once of multiple mythologies and ancient reliefs from pre-Columbian to Sumerian and Greek. What would you like to tell me about this wall piece?

All those observations are spot-on. I love looking at ancient imagery, specifically Assyrian wall reliefs and pre-minoan pottery, which also informs a lot of my photographic work. “Mom” is a self-portrait as a multitasking mother-snake-monster. It’s a piece that was cathartic to make in many ways, and is the single largest sculpture I’ve ever made. It is also the closest I’ve come to marrying my drawing and my sculpture on a large scale. I am in a more figurative place these days, and that is somewhat due to the pandemic. Before the pandemic I was making work about my body, my experience with motherhood, about touch and connection to others, but I have to admit that there was an element of embarrassment for me in those subjects. Like many artists who are women and mothers I was worried that making work about that part of my identity would lead to being categorized and ghettoized, fearing I would be confined to group shows about those topics, not taken seriously, not collected, etc. I coded those topics in abstraction: instead of depicting a pregnant body I made abstract sculptures that were bulging and stretched.She’s Kicking was made when I was nine months pregnant.

“She’s Kicking”, 2019, porcelain and underglaze, installed at AIR gallery, Brooklyn, NY, 2019

“She’s Kicking”, 2019, porcelain and underglaze, installed at AIR gallery, Brooklyn, NY, 2019

The pandemic gave me a much-needed “fuck it” moment. Who cares if someone decides to categorize me this way or another? Who cares if there are people out there who are bored by the topic of motherhood? I am also bored by many subjects, but that doesn’t mean no one should make art about them. I was in a group show at Marisa Newman’s gallery when the Bronx Museum show was announced and Marisa asked me what I was planning to put there. She also mentioned that she was thinking about doing a group show about artists and how they relate to their kids in the studio. I decided to take a colored pencil drawing that I had secretly made during my daughter’s naptime and didn’t even think was “Art”, and blow it up into a massive sculpture. This was a drawing I had made solely to comfort myself, almost a private joke. But something about how the pandemic upended so many parts of my life, coupled with Marisa’s interest in how having children not only disrupts the studio, but also changes it and potentially makes it more interesting, gave me the guts to do it. When choosing the title, I went with “Mom”, and not “Mother” because I wanted it to reflect not the idealized “Mother”, as depicted in pietas and ads for diapers, but the quotidian “Mom”, the good-enough mother in the Winnicottian sense, the one who does what it takes to raise her child.

“Mom”, 2021, porcelain and underglaze, 8.5 x 12 ft. Installation view at the Bronx Musem of Art.

“Mom”, detail, 2021, porcelain and underglaze, 8.5 x 12 ft. Installation view at the Bronx Musem of Art.

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: