Introducing Claire Ashley: She loves to explore and question the meaning behind our chosen mediums. Her works are constantly evolving, but here is a peak at an ensemble that is fun, playful and full of life–and helium!
Art, imitating life, imitating art…
Sculptures, imitating paintings, imitating sculptures…
Meet Claire Ashley…
Please tell us a little about yourself and your artistic background.
I am from Edinburgh Scotland, but I have lived in Chicago now for 23 years! I always remember my sister and I drawing a lot when we were kids. I had a really great art department in high school, which was entirely off campus and in a different building from the rest of the school. The light bulb went off for me there when I finally figured out how I could use color expressively rather than realistically in a painting. I was very much in love with Monet’s water-lily paintings in high school and took a trip to the l’Orangerie Museum in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris to see them in the flesh. I guess that’s when I became a colorist.
I got my undergraduate degree from Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen and my MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). I currently teach at SAIC in the Department of Contemporary Practice (Foundations) and Department of Painting and Drawing.
My work has evolved over the years out of a love/hate relationship with painting. I knew pretty early on in my career that I was unhappy with straight edges and flat surfaces, so I’ve spent 25 years testing out ways to make paintings without making paintings. Also, the experience of being a parent really influences my work.I came to the decision to use inflatables through watching my kids in bounce houses, and filling their beds with soft toys, and driving them around and realizing airbags had become incredibly important to my world view somehow.
So the work is about humor and odd bodies and humanity and play and amoebas and cartoons and absurdity and largeness and procreation and ecstatic life!
I love that the inflatable forms are living breathing beings of their own and metaphorical portraits of both myself and my offspring. Now that my kids are older, my inflatable forms need more care and attention than they do sometimes. I think of my art as vibrating beings where the combination of paint and form somehow embodies the energy, vigor, and quirks of humanity. I’m interested in the idea of paint as skin, as camouflage, as warning, attraction or desire. I’m also interested in painting as being free of traditional rules and free to be anarchic and challenge the status quo, or the idea that painting must take up physical space in an aggressive and obnoxious way: ebullient, full of pleasure and fecundity, etc.
In general, my particular relationship to painting makes me want painting to push against its’ immense history, to use its’ essential power to infiltrate other media and material to create hybrids, to procreate without reserve, and in some mangled Darwinian way continue to exist forcefully in the universe, even if it’s existence is more like something out of an absurdist play–Ionesco’s ‘The Rhinoceros’ for example.
What’s your creative process like when you start a new project? Do you like to sketch and plan or just wing it?
I tend to do both. I make a number of drawings of possible silhouette shapes and do site visits. I measure the spaces where the work will exist, then I have a pretty good sense of what it will look like in my head, but then when I begin the cutting and sewing process there are often moments when I wing it because of the way each panel comes together etc.
I value each part of my process immensely for different reasons. There are four parts in my mind – drawing, constructing, painting, and performing/installing/site-mapping.
The final part of my process is to decide how these forms enter the world. Is it through humorous eruption into song and dance, or obnoxious scale relative to site, or squeezing, stacking, piling into space? The forms I make do not need to be installed the same way each time they are shown, but some do exist as relatively static objects (even though they quiver with air) while others exist as wearable sculptures for the body, and often they can be interchangeable.
How long might a completed sculpture take to create?
It really depends on my teaching schedule, family responsibilities, and the scale and complexity of each piece and whether it is a form that will be occupied by a body or not, but usually a two-week window is sufficient.
What’s your studio/work-space like?
It is a small space for the scale of work I make. It is a small garage out back of my house that is about 13’ wide by about 25’ long, so about 325 sq ft. I use our back yard a lot to inflate and paint the forms when they are complete.
What inspired you to build such a complex, multi-media body of work?
Good question! I think there are a couple of reasons. I wanted to question the static quality of sculpture and the narrative theatricality of performance, so the work has been about making sculptures kinetic, and bringing humor into the work.
I think contemporary art takes itself way too seriously. …. so much so, that we lose viewers. I am interested in creating democratic access to my work by utilizing an egalitarian and generous collection of humorous, visceral, and empathetic connections between the viewer and the object. The audience is an active participant in the exhibitions and performances. They push against the forms, touch their surfaces, laugh at their incongruity, and sometimes enter into or dance within the forms themselves. In short, they complete the work.
What have been your influences for performance?
Rebecca Horn’s early sculptural prop/body extension work, Jana Sterbak, Nikki de Saint Phalle, Janine Antoni, Paul McCarthy, Felix Gonzalez Torres (go-go dancer piece) are all major influences for sure. I have also had this image stuck in my head for years of a cube with a pair of legs sticking out from underneath it – so that’s a major reason for trying to formally/visually manifest this odd vision and try to get it out of my head as it were.
Still trying to figure out why I’m so obsessed by it. I’m just trying to push painting and sculpture beyond its historical existence as something flat, still, and rectangular on the wall or solid, static, and heavy on a pedestal or in space.
Did you always feel destined to be an artist? Were you ever unsure?
Early on in childhood I considered being a veterinarian, and then an architect, as a compromise to my father’s desire for me to become an engineer. But from the moment I entered art school, at 18, I was serious about it and haven’t looked back.
When would you say you developed your current personal style of art?
In 2010, I guess, when I finally took the bull by the horns and began to paint directly on the inflatable forms I’d been making since 2007.
What are your favorite art supplies? Are there any that intimidate you?
Hardware stores are my main squeeze – I use PVC coated canvas tarpaulins, spray paint, and small blower fans. These materials, practically speaking, are cheaper than traditional fine art materials, and when you work at the scale I do, you really have to take cost into consideration. On another level, I use readily available materials because I want the philosophical underpinnings of my work (democratic access) to be embodied by the material itself.
In terms of materials that intimidate me – expensive ones do – I get way to precious about how they get used and therefore don’t take as many risks with what the material can do or how I can use it in a way it’s not supposed to be used.
What makes you happiest in life?
Hhhhmmmmm – probably surprising myself in a part of my making, painting process, or when performers activate the objects in a way that totally blows my mind.
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