From the Inside Out
- Two Views on the Creation and Experience of Cristina Cordova's Clay
Articles by Katey Schultz and Linda Hillman
1. ARTICLE BY KATEY SCHULTZ
IN 15TH CENTURY EUROPE, IT WAS NOT UNCOMMON FOR towns to drive madmen
outside their limits, expelling them to roam in vacant fields or set sail
on aimless ships. In his investigation of the metaphysics of this banishment,
Michel Foucault purports in Madness and Civilisation that this set the
stage for the madman’s paradoxical existence, which later became
a subconscious symbol of “a great disquiet, suddenly dawning on
the horizon of European culture at the end of the Middle Ages”.1
A madman cruising on a ship of fools is at once free and shackled. The
vessels, set atop water, a symbol for purification, are relentlessly pushed
and pulled in unknown directions, trapping the madmen in eternal passage.
It has more recently been observed that by our nature, we cannot embark
on a journey and return to our homeland the same as when we started. By
extension, we never again return to the ‘same’ homeland, as
we once knew it. A madman trapped in passage does not have the luxury
of landing and therefore, the luxury of measuring himself against any
known quantities. He is forever in between, a “prisoner of his own
Cristina Cordova’s clay sculptures capture the upheaval of similar
journeys, as evidenced in La huida, which was shown in May 2005 at the
Ann Nathan Gallery in Chicago. “My work is meant to address people
who thrive in environments of emotional density. People who are used to
walking through moments of intensity can relate to my work because I think
the symbolism I use is generated from these places,” she says.
The emotional density of the madman’s psychological endeavour
rubs completely raw on his journey, which is why he can appear both vulnerable
and completely mysterious to an outsider. The fact of his banished existence
pushes our conception of him to the outer limits of our minds, but his
presence is still felt in this geo-psychic parallel. Like the echoes of
an unsettling dream upon waking, we cannot fully remember but we never
fully forget. Foucault’s analysis could serve us well: What beasts
of our selves ride the Ship of Fools in our own minds? For what reasons
were they banished and to what end can we serve them now?
“We physically witness the journey of these madmen,” Cordova
explains, “but not the journey they have on the inside.” The
inside, however, is precisely what she is speaking to through her work.
“There’s something gratifying about finding something outside
yourself, that allows access to something inside. Something that maybe
was undetermined or undefined or inaccessible before.”
For Cordova, who relates to Foucault’s text, the boats have a
place in her history as well. “Even though the boats are about a
mental space and things than stimulate search, they are also a common
image in island life. In the past 10 years there has been a huge diaspora
of Dominicans to Puerto Rico. They come in the boats through a narrow
deep passage called el pasaje la Mona. People have died along the way.
Many who make it move to the cities and they build their lives there.
When I was 12 a woman came to my house from one of those boats. It was
such a brave journey.”
Originally from Puerto Rico, Cordova moved to the US in 1999 to attend
Alfred University in order to continue her own journey. She emerged with
a distinct haunting sculptural style that is the offspring of slab building
techniques. The slab is pushed, pulled and added to in order to articulate
features. Less than three years after completion of her MFA. from Alfred,
Cordova’s work sells out regularly to collectors at SOFA Chicago,
SOFA New York, Ann Nathan Gallery and Pamil Fine Art.
Standing face to face with Cordova, who appears paradoxically vibrant
and uplifted by her human and animal sculptures, one cannot help but wonder
where the source for her work originates. “I think there’s
an embedded historical device in my work but I am not drawing from it
consciously.” Earlier sculptures, such as El regalo (2003) and De
amores y dolores (2003), invoke the Crucifixion. Feet dangle and slump
in the air, figures are pinned or entangled, and hands are pegged. While
Cordova acknowledges the likeness, it is clearly other-directed. “To
me the spiritual and the emotional are related so I am attracted to that
type of positioning. It is designed to suggest something beyond physicality,
a psycho-emotional space my audience can relate to.”
Cordova has explicitly stated that her sculptures are not characters
nor are they objects, because they do not exist as concepts in and of
themselves. Without a viewer, they are without essence. The physical form
of her work simply serves as a container for abstract concepts. These
concepts, Cordova explains, do not come to life until the viewer engages
with the sculpture, whereupon he or she could become entrenched in the
emotional density of the piece. At this juncture, the creative process
extends from the piece into the personal experience of the viewer, and
the two momentarily haunt and fill each other.
Cordova’s work is unfailing because this process, which brings
her work to full fruition, parallels the process by which the forms come
to her in the first place. “It is mental. I have a vague image that
creates a jolt of excitement at the prospect of that image becoming part
of this world, becoming something material,” she explains. Additionally,
these images are often accompanied by faint colours that Cordova harkens
back to for glazing. At this stage, Cordova says, “It’s almost
like acting. I feel the sculptures through myself. I stage a situation
and then I fill it with myself.”
La gran corrida, also featured at Ann Nathan, writhes with potential.
It appears both airy and weighed down, frozen and moving. “If you’re
addressing emotion, you need to have a sense of what unifies it. I think
emotion is just an energy. If you can bring some of that energy into a
physical shape, then you are setting the stage for a recognition of that
emotion,” Cordova says.
Recognition, it turns out, is not at all what the madmen of old Europe
were given. And the recognition of the dark lunatic caverns in our own
minds is not explored in modern society, either. Perhaps this is why,
centuries later, echoes of the madman’s inner journey can resonate
with us. Cordova’s sculptures appear timeless, yet they hinge on
profoundly deep places inside the modern viewer; it is as if one experiences
them in a cloud of nutrimental dust from past lives. That which is not
given its due will make its own in time.
REFERENCES: 1. Foucault, Michael. Madness and Civilisation. New York:
Vintage Books, 1965 2. Ibid.
Katey Schultz is a freelance writer living in Celo, North Carolina,
US. Her current projects include a memoir about adolescence and critical
essays featuring female artists.
ARTICLE BY LINDA HILLMAN
BEING IN A SPACE WITH CRISTINA CORDOVA’S figurative sculptures
is a mesmerising and mystical. experience. At first encounter, the space
is full of figures rendered and fixed in time. All is quiet. The viewer
recognises these low-fired clay beings as human and imagines that each
has been living a gritty, or even intellectual or privileged, but melancholy
life. Cordova has caught them – frozen them – in a singular
position with their odd limbs striking limp yet fixed poses to accentuate
thin and delicate hands. These figures’ hands are expressive and
delicate, almost as if they had been injured and laid, always palms down,
on an invisible pillow to rest. They radiate a mixture of calm serenity
and poise. If Cordova’s figures’ hands are one focal point,
the eyes are another. Glassy shiny eyeballs, like those of excavated Roman
busts, stare straight ahead to a spot or landscape the viewer can only
imagine. We are not part of these figures’ lives, past or present.
What history they have we can’t know for sure. They recline stiffly,
sit oddly in boats, dangle from the wall or sit astride animals. Some
recline on pillows. Their mouths are slightly slack showing porcelain
teeth. Some carry or are accompanied by smaller creatures. These are men.
The women, whose bodies are strong but bloated and sagging are far from
Cordova’s own lithe frame, and they are much older too. She is not
yet 30. The figures wear large headdresses suggesting ancient and melancholy
stories that Cordova has sought to unravel and understand for herself.
“Through these objects I investigate and begin to grasp the indeterminate
and ever-changing aspects that make us human,” she said.
Puerto Rican-born Cristina Cordova arrived in Alfred, New York, in 1999
to attend New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. Having
received her MFA in 2002, she moved to Penland School of Crafts in North
Carolina where she has completed her three-year artist’s residency
(September 2005). During this time, her growth and the demand for her
work has become strong and many of her pieces are sold before a show opens.
At SOFA Chicago 2005, her sculptures in Ann Nathan’s gallery space
were sold in a day.
Tiny in stature and build, yet passionate and determined – even
driven – Cordova, handles this state of affairs with thoughtful
maturity. (When she moved to Penland, her monetary situation caused her
to have to pick and choose what to buy at the grocery store.) With the
success of her first exhibition in Puerto Rico at Galleria Pamil, Guaymnabo,
in 2003, and with the new security of being collected, Cordova has no
small plans. Her commitment to her contemporaries and to the artist community
is strong. She lives her values, which include structured and dedicated
studio work struggling and trying to make ends meet. We’re all trying
to do our best and we work hard.”
Transforming an amorphous and entirely pliable material into something
permanent and eternal is the most powerful draw for Cordova to continue
working. She likes being the creator; she feeds on the back and forth
in her mind as she makes her work. Her intuitive agenda in addition to
the questions that evolve from the creative process itself challenge the
distinct and clear gender roles from her upbringing in terms of politics,
what one does, how one earns a living, and how one lives her life. She
finds other people’s choices on these matters irresistible material
to contemplate and grapple with in her work. “It is not an elegant
process,” she says, but what finally resonates as truth in her sculptures
will be given permanence. A piece is finished when it strikes this chord.
“Making can be painful and frustrating,” Cordova explains,
“especially at times when I feel confined to the context of my medium.
I am often cast as a ceramic artist or as a craft person rather than a
sculptor. One day, when I have more knowledge of other media – wood
or metal casting – clay might not be so important. Right now it
is a tool.”
Cordova’s figures are not only the result of working through her
Puerto Rican Catholic female heritage, but also from her research –
a constant looking at other’s work – both contemporary and
historical. “An attraction to the scale, colour and materials that
another artist has used can become the lettering in your language –
new ways to bring forth your own work. We are all taking from a collective
creativity.” She notices, for example, the inspiration that has
come from artists as varied as Doug Jeck, Judy Fox, Jaime Suarez and Susana
Espinosa. Though she does not want to make indigenous African or Roman
art, Cordova is drawn to 12th century African terracottas from the Ife
culture. Early Roman busts have been powerful influences as well. Their
black patinas and the bright marble eyes appear in Cordova’s work.
“I find that if I do this research there are subtleties in my visual
language that suddenly come alive and speak at different levels. The language
is often more important than the figure itself. In this way the figure
stops being a figure as an end – it becomes an interface for something
further, like a narrative – one where boundaries between the sensorial
and psychological become obscured and where a language rooted in intuition
and archived experience dictates paradigms.”
Cordova strives for access to a new mental state through her work. Use
of colour and scale, gesture and proportion allow her to think about what
these formal aspects can transmit about a person’s internal nature.
For example: “What colour embodies aggression, or fear?” Cordova
says she works hard not to locate her work in any specific historical
time or cultural space but “I am Puerto Rican and Catholic. I have
this specific context, so I think it’s inevitable that those things
are ingrained in my aesthetic. I’ve been conditioned to gravitate
to certain things. My use of colouring is related to culture, and in an
abstract way I carry that sense of colour in my work.” She is drawn
to colour that is bold and that shows a relic-like patina of age. When
Cordova chose to live as a sculptor, she had a clear agenda: she wanted
to work from the female side. Feeling an incompleteness, she realised
that she needed to work more with the complexity of what Latin-American
women (on the basis of her experience in Puerto Rico) were experiencing
– a combination of the basic feminine urgencies and preoccupations
around motherhood and romantic issues and the issues of asserting their
ground, being matriarchal, being empowered enough to pursue careers and
interact with a strong and overwhelming male presence. “What would
that kind of woman look like?” Cordova came to make what we see
in her figures – women who are not slender and beautifully stylised
but imposing and somewhat androgynous. “I stopped trying to make
a figure and project things on to it. Instead, I let the figure itself
become the whole reality. I tried to make the figure abstract in that
sense. However, it is figurative so the viewer can read it literally and
stay there, but what I’m hoping is that every decision that has
to do with that figure is tied to a concept that carries its own weight.
And yes, these women are definitely tied to women I know. I am exploring
my ‘Mitomemoria’, my own memory myths.”
male figures seem less intense than the females; they embody narratives
about her perception of males in her Puerto Rican reality: stereotypical
Latin-American men – tall, elevated with the presence of a pastiche.
Like the men in her life, they are educated, privileged and powerful,
but they are not emotionally accessible. They’re not multi-tasking.
Their role is clearly defined and it doesn’t require them to overextend
their psycho-emotional boundaries. In La Aparicion (The Apparition) or
La Caida del Barquero Amarillo (The Fall of the Yellow Boatman), the boatmen
being carried with these little creatures don’t seem to be in control.
The male presence coming forth from water with ghosts and muses and erections
in Temporal (Storm) seen for the first time at the 2005 Chicago SOFA exhibit,
may be Cordova’s imagining of a male’s demons.
Cordova grew up surrounded by her parents’ large art collection
of contemporary art and antique religious Santos. She has also spent time
looking at paintings and sculpture in the spaces old European churches
create, so she always considers how a piece might live in a gallery space
and eventually in a home where one would encounter it everyday. Other
considerations too must push the boundaries of her comfort zones.
Testing surfaces by combining different materials and reinventing genres
in the studio feed her inquisitive and inventive side. “If I have
it too smoothly, I have a hard time appreciating the work I’ve made.
I want to make something that engages me in a more challenging manner.
If I can excite myself with hard work, hopefully someone else will respond
to it too.” That response is Cordova’s answer to what gives
art its usefulness, its raison ‘d etre. But art is more than that.
Everyone needs to know if his or her life’s work has meaning. Cordova’s
parents were doctors, people whose reason for being was clear: helping
people. Becoming an artist was one of the hardest decisions she ever had
to make. Living from one’s art means that you make it for others
– it goes from your studio to a space where it is shown briefly
and then to someone’s home. Cordova hopes that her works will transcend
this context and be a record of something complex and rooted in a specific
time and place. “Essentially my work is a record of an existence
that might influence how things will be seen in the future or, at some
level, even purely subjective, it just might provide a vehicle for the
viewer to understand himself or herself – to bring something amorphous
and random in that viewer to a context that can actually help her become
whole. Several times in my life I’ve seen somebody’s work
and I have understood myself through that work. I think that kind of understanding
is essentially what art is for.” Cristina Cordova’s sculptures
will draw many differing responses from their viewers – they will
leave an indelible mark.
Linda Hillman is a freelance writer and studio potter living in Oak
Park, Illinois, U.S.