Profiles in Courage: Kimberly Chapman, “hush”

“hush” is a tender syllable, beginning as an exhalation and ending with an onomatopoeic sound, like lips closing for a kiss. Yet like so many sentimental things, the word can also cast a somber shadow, hinting that all breathing will finally stop. When ceramicist Kimberly Chapman uses it as the title of her current show at the McDonough Museum in Youngstown, it warns of a need for caution. “hush” announces the beginning of terror, remembers that silence is the soundtrack of repression

Chapman, a recent Cleveland Institute of Art graduate, makes sculptural objects from porcelain. Sometimes she highlights certain features with molten gold, like patches of sunlight, or the beginning of memory’s consecration — or a spreading blight of malice. Her works, which depict a mix of conditions and fears, tell cruel tales about the historical mistreatment of women in a series of sculptural heads subtitled “shame”. Another series subtitled “A is for Active, S is for Shooter” are small busts of children costumed in phantasmagorical masks, donned as protective disguise. One, for instance, is a Mickey Mouse gas mask. These portraits are accompanied by a “reliquary,” a small schoolhouse-like box with windows and a door. A baby’s head, its face half-eaten by molten gold, rises through its roof, while within and just outside an open window, baby ears pile up, along with the three tiny bones, rendered in gold, that are the hardware of the human organ of hearing. Like bejeweled boxes made in the Middle Ages to house the miracle-working physical remains of saints, Chapman’s reliquary is a powerful object, honoring the dead as it conjures both the violence of school shootings (call it the martyrdom of democratic freedoms), and the overarching purity of spirit that they violate.

Porcelain is most often encountered as an ultra- smooth substance, shaped into delicate, uniformly thin plates, cups or saucers – frequently highlighted (as in Noritake ware) with elegant gold lines and rims. But Chapman works with it in much the same way that terra cotta was once widely used by European sculptors, to make portrait studies in the round that have a sensuous matte texture, with hair and clothing that reads much like chiseled wood. The child heads at “hush”, with their fanciful masks and headgear (one sports a high feathered head dress, another, titled “Sitting Duck,” has a duck’s bill and large webbed feet) make the most of porcelain’s textural ambiguity. Their extreme whiteness seems both cool and warm, at one moment dry and strange like bone, but a glance later reading as delicious — like sugary-smooth cake frosting. Most of Chapman’s work here is lightly glazed, but the dull texture persists, absorbent and somehow inviting. It’s interesting also to consider these sculptures in relation to the much admired works of Chapman’s CIA instructors, Judith Salomon and William Brouillard. Chapman’s ability and  willingness to render a wide range of forms and objects in porcelain paste, in pursuit of strongly conceived, socially or psychologically expressive works, combines Salomon’s exquisite, yet playful, sometimes slab-built form-driven technique, and Brouillard’s image-laden, socially responsive Majolica-type platters.

The word “hush” refers specifically to a number of slightly larger sculptures, displayed along the length of one of the McDonough’s interior walls. These are Chapman’s “Shaming Mask” series, which comment on a type of appalling punishment devices employed in Scotland and England in the Elizabethan period. Designed specifically to torture and shame women, they were called “Scold’s Bridles” and were bound around the head and mouths of offending wives, accused by their husbands of, more or less, anything. Extra-legal or even illegal, they were nevertheless commonplace. The four sculptures at “hush” speculate on possible designs, suited to different offenses. One has long ears, inferring the woman is an “ass”. Another has a pig’s snout, indicating obscenity or possibly gluttony. All are modeled on the controlling function of a bridle, and enforce the “guidance” they purport to give by means of a tongue-piercing, crushing mechanism, and by their sheer weight. These weren’t leather bridles, but iron cages, heavy enough to break a human jaw.

“Designed specifically to torture and shame women, they were called “Scold’s Bridles” and were bound around the head and mouths of offending wives, accused by their husbands of, more or less, anything.”

Elsewhere in the exhibit Chapman comments on matters somewhat closer to the present. “”Elsie’s Arsenal: Gilbert Was a Drunk” is the title of a small body of Chapman’s works that do some thinking about domestic violence.An early twentieth century house represented in black and white photo-enlargements,  in Willoughby, Ohio was her grandparents’ place. Chapman’s grandmother married an abusive alcoholic named Gilbert, and eventually divorced him. In the meantime she is known to have defended herself with household implements. This improvised “arsenal”, reproduced at the McDonough in porcelain and gold leaf, included a meat mallet, a rolling pin, scissors, and hammers. One of her actual screwdrivers (which has her name on it) is framed on the wall, for good measure.  Elsie ended up raising her three children alone. How many survival stories like this have most of us heard? Why is marriage so often more dangerous to women than any war, crime or disease? It’s a question women have been asking for centuries.

“Ghost Ships and Star Gazers” takes place on a larger scale, stepping back to think about the current refuge crises around the world, and all of those through time that are remembered partly through tales of shipwreck, or of ghostly, skeletal ships sailing eternally through their own darkness. Displayed on a long pedestal, a couple of feet beneath the salt-bleached ribcages of boats suspended by transparent line from the museum ceiling, Chapman’s “Stargazers” were inspired by the very ancient (ca 3000BC) statuette in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Like that figurine, Chapman’s single-eyed people stare upwards at the stars, as if from the bottom of the sea through the scattered bones, perhaps their own. Yet these works also carry a hopeful message, testifying to the transcendence of  human experience and to a shared perceptual richness beyond even the dreams of art,  an answer of a kind to injustice and cruelty.

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

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