Michelle Laxalt uses ceramics, textiles, and other materials to create sculptures that serve as reminders of the body and its complex and vulnerable sensuality. Laxalt earned her BFA from the University of Nevada, Reno, and was a resident artist at the Vermont Studio Center in July of 2016. She has shown nationally in both juried and invitational exhibitions.
The body is a vessel on which and in which memories and experiences can be mapped and stored. But the body is just that: a vessel, a container, a finite—but infinitely captivating—material. Bones and muscles give the body structure, while skin blankets the body and hints at its interior systems. The body is expressive and revealing: it blushes, swells, softens, enfolds, leaks, and puckers. As the body ages, it expands, bulges, discolors, sags, wrinkles, and recoils. Ultimately, the body degrades, its structure continues to morph, and eventually, it fails.
I am interested in caretaking and the moments in which the body—be it the elderly, infantile, sleeping, or deceased body—is observed in its vulnerability, weakness, and exhaustion. A body at rest can provoke visceral reactions as well as questions about the metaphysical aspects of our existence. In my experiences with caretaking, I’ve reconsidered both my material existence and my immaterial spiritual assumptions.
Through the use of clay, fabric, and cast-off materials like hair, I make abstracted forms that reference the body and its absence in order to make sense of these encounters. The sculptures, vessels, and textiles I create invite empathy, embrace, reflection, and occasionally revulsion. Each piece is intended to serve as a reminder of the body and its complex and vulnerable sensuality. A reverence for the body hums at the core of my work.
Interviewed by Cynthia Farnell
Q: When I visited your studio you said that your work is rooted in corporeality: the aging body, the sick body, the strength of the body and so on. Can you talk about how these issues inform the work that you are exhibiting at Aqua?
A: My work is motivated in part by the experiences that I have had with caregiving. I worked for a few years at a daycare in the infant and toddler room. While I was working there, my father was living with his father and caring for him during the last year of his life. Shortly after that, my mother moved in with her mother to care for her during the last three years of her life. So, my parents and I have shared experiences in caring for bodies that couldn’t care for themselves. These circumstances were formative because they allowed me to experience and observe varying degrees of vitality, weakness, and exhaustion as expressed by infantile, elderly, and deceased bodies. While these experiences weren’t easy or pleasing, they allowed me to develop a respect and curiosity for corporeality.
I see my textile and ceramic pieces as reminders of the body. The ceramic vessels reference older bodies in how they pucker, pinch, wrinkle, sag and bulge simultaneously. These marks and textures suggest the body without illustrating it literally. Though the vessels reference aged bodies, they are triumphant in their vertical orientation and fecund color palette. As such, they hold abjection at bay by celebrating the body as a redemptive entity, despite its ephemerality and eventual failure.
Each of the textile pieces incorporate hair, materials that we cast-off and shed. This material is effective in making the body present despite its absence, and it alludes to the degradation and ever-changing nature of the body’s life cycle. The scale and materiality of the textile pieces also reference the bed space, which has been a source of inspiration for my work. I see the bed as a complex space in which we are confronted with our physicality, our sexuality, and our mortality.
Q: How does sculpture function as a vehicle for your ideas?
A: Since my work deals with the body, I am interested in creating works that are three-dimensional, like the body, and which require exploration on behalf of the viewers. Clay allows me to create likenesses and stand-ins for the body that occupy space on a scale similar to our own. Lately, I’ve been thinking about clay like fabric: I fold, dart, wrinkle, and crease the clay like a sheet of cloth to create fleshy textures and to record my tactile mark-making gestures in a three-dimensional medium. Through my use of specific materials, like hair, along with the incorporation of found and altered objects, I am able to create artworks that range from being odd and unnerving to comforting and alluring simultaneously. I am interested in the concepts of the abject and the uncanny and want to provide viewers with objects and scenarios that are visceral and unusual, but also hauntingly familiar.
Cynthia Farnell has an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, a BFA from Auburn University and brings her broad experience as gallery director, curator, arts writer, teacher and artist to her diverse projects in the visual arts. Farnell is currently the Gallery Director in the Welch School of Art and Design and a 1st-year MA Art History candidate with a focus in Contemporary Art.