I was introduced to Elizabeth King’s work by way of an article in Art in America, October, 2000. I remember when I first saw it because it was so explicitly dramatic and the photographs were so lush and warm that I instantly wanted to have an opportunity to see how she would have it installed in a show. I got that chance eight years later (last week) on my way home from the Atheneum, here in Providence.
The Sizes of Things in the Mind’s Eye is a mid-career survey of Richmond-based sculptor Elizabeth King, whose work combines sculpture, film, and installation. Her uncanny self-portraits are meticulously crafted in porcelain, wood, and bronze, and are often exhibited with stop-frame film animation in installations that blur the boundary between actual and virtual space. Intimate in scale and distinguished by a level of craft that solicits close viewing, this work reflects her interests in early clockwork automata, the history of the mannequin and the puppet, and a host of literature in which inanimate or artificial figures comes to life.¹
What struck me the most was a stop-action video called, “What Happened?” (1:44m, 1996) in which the video starts with an image of the artist merging into the skeletal mannequin and then in which the mannequin embarks on a journey of self-discovery: first by the movement of one digit and then the interaction between all fingers with two hands. The photography is exquisite; utilizing classic cinematic effects between two depths of field, the video reads smoothly and specifically. Joint by joint, the mannequin recognizes certain qualities of her nimbleness and ability and in turn gives these actions a sense of contemplation. I didn’t care so much for the artist-merge, but I found the rest of the video brilliant.
The installation of the work was lit in a careful and considerate way using short, focused lights in an otherwise darkened space. Everything was lit in a very specific manner and with intense care for detail. It allows for exceptionally close examination. Often times, the seams for the heads were left untouched, or the shine from a bare pin holding two joints might catch one’s eye that in some other case of lighting would certainly be missed.
There were several very interesting pieces, but in some cases the presentation of the work proved even more interesting that the work itself. For example, a piece called “compass” was composed of two wooden mannequin hands in a glass box. Occasionally, the hands would move slightly – slight enough, really, to hardly notice the movement. Don’t get me wrong: the hands were cool, but upon further inspection we realized that the hands were hooked up to a system powered by magnets and gears. A small fan kept the magnets in motion and the negative force of the magnets turned the gears, which were hooked up to opposite magnets. Really cool.
Additionally, there were at least two pieces where a video was set in a box with a curved lens so that if the viewer comes too close to the work, it renders itself invisible. I particularly enjoyed this barrier effect, especially after so much consideration had been given to bring the viewer closer.
Outside the main gallery were many of the objects King keeps in her studio: old rag dolls, maquettes, boxes of glass eyeballs, small effects like miniature chairs or ragged doll clothes (turned simply to cloth), magnifying glasses, hair, clay studies, ears, noses, eye sockets. I mean, seriously, everything. One object that stuck out from the rest of this collection was aptly placed inside the gallery: this tiny piece of what looked like it could have been cheesecloth, maybe 2 inches high by 1.5 inches wide, anchored by a thin wire on a small base: it held a shape somewhat like a flyswatter, except rustically elegant. Pushed through the mesh was, maybe, one hundred individual strands of hair. I don’t know what it was about this little, understated piece that I enjoyed so much, but it really left an impression on me.
Dolls, mannequins, clowns, rags, darkness: all of these things lend themselves to a little bit of social anxiety deeply rooted in childhood fears. Some really scary stories are made with these sort of objects and ideas, and while the King exhibit isn’t scary, it is a tiny bit creepy. King uses her own hair (and at very least, human hair) as adornment to the dolls. Using human hair culls memories of headhunters, scalpers, witches and all the other taboo animistic religious practices. Simply put: it places a bit of freaky on our plates; but I think we also understand that these are simply ideas and, after all: hair is hair is hair; there is no transference of souls in the process of moving hair from my head to the salon floor when I have it cut, just as there is no real anthropomorphic qualities inherited in King’s dolls.
There are so many things about the show that I enjoyed, but specifically, I liked her choice of materials for employment: porcelain, wood, glass, aged fabric and wire. These are refined versions of our natural environment, yet in man-made context they resonate historic functionality as well as the role of women and crafts moving from the functional act of play into a different setting. I recognize I could be reading into the work more than she wishes to project, but I hardly think the choices were random. They are warm on the eye, suggesting a flesh-and-bone relationship and while using the wire and pins, they also suggest a mechanical undertone that questions the purpose of man.
slideshow: Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery
¹ “Elizabeth King Exhibition at the Bell Gallery” Brown University News. 27 Oct. 2008,. 4 Dec 2008. link.