Judy Hoffman: Evolvers and Wildtypes at Sculpture Space

Hot Air

A person standing next to a sculpture

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The artist with Big Yellow, 18″ x 11″ x 7.5”; ceramic; 2017. Photo Credit: Linda Cunningham

Ten years ago, Judy Hoffman became enthralled with clay and hand-building. The current exhibition Evolvers and Wildtypes at the Long Island City Sculpture Space is her first solo show of these ceramic sculptures. Hoffman’s ceramics’ imagery and forms tap into a previous installation work made from sculpted paper pulp, natural materials, and man-made debris. Paper clay techniques permit the bonding of wet clay to fired forms, enabling the construction of diverse configurations. These components are conjoined to initiate a dialogue between organic and mechanical elements, yielding imagery that defies expectation. The artwork evolves through a rhythm of construction and deconstruction, encapsulating cycles of creation, deterioration, and renewal. Viewers are meant to encounter an elemental rawness, surprise, and a touch of humor.

Tell me a bit about yourself.

I’ve been living in NYC for most of my adult life. I’ve always felt at home here with all the diversity of people and neighborhoods. It was a safe place after growing up in the socially bland suburbs of NJ. As a child, I was always a maker but did not really find “my people” till settling in NYC. Over the years, I have had many jobs to support myself as an artist, including typist, receptionist, construction worker, and teaching artist. I’ve been a painter of landscapes and still life (after studying at the New York Studio School) and a maker of prints, sculptural paper, installations, and now, ceramics.

Several pieces of art on a white cube

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Evolvers and Wildtypes (Installation detail) @ Sculpture Space NYC – Center for Ceramic Arts;  April 2024. Photo Credit: Judy Hoffman

Let’s start with your show at the Sculpture space – what can you tell us about this body of work?

My exhibition, Evolvers and Wildtypes, features colorful, complex ceramic hybrids of fantastical structures. The pieces are variously—landscape, human figuration, and natural and industrial artifacts. They explore themes of regeneration, decay, and birth. The team at Sculpture Space created a brilliant installation presenting over thirty sculptures of varying sizes. Evolvers and Wildtypes represents a culmination of years studying the complicated, sometimes confounding, process of ceramics. It is an art form that demands discipline and control to achieve specific results. Finding my voice and a workable process in clay challenged my more freewheeling, intuitive art-making approach.

A close-up of a sculpture

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Rockin‘,  5.5″ x 10.5″ x 7”; ceramic; 2015. Photo Credit: Paul Takeuchi

Jackie Battenfield, the curator of your show at Addison/Ripley Fine Art in Washington DC, said you “use the malleability of clay to evoke ancient, caked, and encrusted organisms arising from the primordial ooze.” What can you tell us about the process of your work with ceramics and how it links to your fascination with nature and natural history?

Experiencing nature was a powerful influence in my early life. My father built a path through the patch of woods in our backyard, making it easier to travel to school. Through the seasons, it was the shortcut I took every day from elementary to high school. During those brief daily walks in solitude, I would see all kinds of birds, ferns, trees, mushrooms, jack in the pulpits, salamanders, and more. When I was small, I sometimes built little microcosms in the woods using rocks, twigs, and leaves.

My fascination with the natural world continued as my artistic eye developed. I continued to notice the distinctive and intricate structures, colors, and textures of natural forms and, for ten years, explored these through my installation work. In the studio, I often gaze at my collections of shells and natural specimens. This very spring week, I pondered the unique forms of developing buds and blossoms. Towards the end of that very productive ten-year period, I needed a change and yearned to use a more direct and pliable process. Sourcing the same language, I turned to clay and began building ceramic forms.

When I sink my hands into the clay, the sensuous feeling sets off a reaction of excitement and possibility. Often starting several pieces at once, I jump from one to the other to keep my process open and fresh. I create forms and textures using a multitude of techniques to manipulate the clay, including tearing, stabbing, and pressing, allowing the evidence of making to accumulate. To invite the unpredictable, I scour shelves for disparate clay elements to incorporate into the works. As parts are joined, an interplay between the organic and the mechanical begins to produce unexpected ideas and imagery.

Further enlivening the forms, I apply oxides, slips, and glaze on the damp clay surfaces. Through several firings, I add clay forms and layer more color and texture. Sometimes, suggestions of colorful vegetation appear as if they are regenerating on top of or under human debris. I wonder as I go, are these natural or the results of toxic residues? What are these forms, and how did they come to be? I allow these questions to remain. In a process akin to natural evolution, I select imagery filled with possibility and resilience.

A close-up of a paper

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Natural History (detail); artist-made paper and scavenged materials; 2005.Photo credit Paul Takeuchi. 

Let’s go back to your past work and look at some series, like Microcosms, for instance. You work there with made paper and scavenged materials. What can you tell us about this series, your process, and how it is different from working in ceramics?

This series was a new path to art making. One day, during a period of creative blocks, I decided to listen to a craving, an impulse to touch materials. I began to take things I had collected off the streets and out in the woods and use my handmade paper to wrap and join different elements. I tried to bring forth my ideas before I could reason with them, chasing darting thoughts: twist that wire to that piece of weed; take that handful of pinecones and wrap them together; weave some paper pulp into that metal fencing. I would follow an idea for as long as it carried me and then set it aside. I began collaborating with the paper’s natural shrinkage, especially when making leaf-like and tree-bark forms. Eventually, I began to gather all the made and collected elements and build installations – room-size ecosystems like Growing Wild and smaller ones that became miniature landscapes or microcosms residing on shelves.

In many ways, sculpting with wet paper is as immediate as working with raw clay. Incorporating color is where the two mediums diverge. With paper pulp, pigmenting is relatively easy, and for the most part, “what you see is what you get.” Adding color to ceramics is more complex. One primary technique is via glaze application. The color becomes visible only after firing – one has to imagine what you will get rather than seeing it. Initially, this indirect aspect impaired my making. Eventually, I learned to incorporate slips and oxides, which present closer to their fired appearance. In this way, I reached the immediacy I loved in paper making. I am drawn to and embrace the unwieldy and improvisational process that allows me to follow impulses. It is who I am as an artist.

A close-up of a green plant

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Forest Floor Secrets,  6″ x 10″ x 5”; unique artist book; artist made paper: abaca; 2006. Photo Credit: Paul Takeuchi: Collection of Yale University Art Gallery

In your introduction to your wild books, Leaf and Tree Texts, you ask, how could a book, something so inherently human-made, appear instead as an unusual form of nature? What is your take on that?

At one time, I was part of a community of papermakers and book artists who pushed the boundaries of “book.” I was curious to explore and join in. I remember being inspired when I saw the early works of Andy Goldsworthy, especially his lines of spit-glued colored leaves flowing across a forest floor. In my case, I envisioned books that evoked a form of nature, picturing bound accumulations of pages made from leaves and branches.

A shelf with different colored objects

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Artist’s studio shelves; 2024. Photo credit: Judy Hoffman

What are you working on now?

As Evolvers and Wildtypes is in a gallery right now, I am busy meeting people to view the work. Seeing my sculpture in this setting is so instructional. The multi-level groupings of pieces play off each other while individual pieces also stand on their own. It has opened my mind as I am seeing my work in a new way. I’m wondering what is next. I do know that a lot of ideas are percolating and I can hardly wait to get back in my studio!

a solo exhibition of Judy Hoffman’s ceramic sculptures
at Sculpture Space NYC-Center for Ceramic Arts through May 4, 2024 47-21 35th Street, Long Island City NY 11101 Artist conversation with Graham Marks: April 20 @ 2 pm Closing reception May 4: 4-6pm

About the artist: Judy Hoffman explores themes of regeneration, decay, and birth in ceramic sculpture, installations, and artist books. She shapes a visual language through a practice of observing, collecting, and transforming specimens of nature and remnants of industrial waste. Hoffman has exhibited artworks in NYC venues, including Wave Hill, Lesley Heller Gallery, Sculpture Space NYC, BRIC, Kentler International Drawing Center, and Shirley Project Space; the University of North Texas; and the Bienalle Bonn/Frauen Museum and Kunstler Forum in Bonn, Germany. Hoffman’s artist books are in public collections, including the Brooklyn Museum Library and Yale University Art Gallery. A winner of the 2016 New York Studio School Art Critical Alumni Award and a 2017 fellowship at Greenwich House Pottery, Hoffman’s art has been recognized by critics from the New York Times, the Village Voice, Hyperallergic, the Washington Post and Sculpture Magazine. She lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.