Working from Home: Kristen Cliffel, at William Busta Projects

Kristen Cliffel, Trousseau, cast glass, handmade velvet pillow. Photo by Grace Carter.

Kristen Cliffel’s delightfully textured ceramics are familiar around northeast Ohio in group shows, galleries, and museums. At William Busta Projects, Cliffel’s solo exhibition, Working from Home, occupies two rooms and is poignant in all the right ways

Cliffel’s work is an exploration of what she calls “domestic mythologies.” According to her website, “our culture surrounds us with pervasive archetypal myths and fairytales…I find myself at odds with prescribed routes to ‘happily ever after’ and ‘success.’ Being a wife and mother, I find myself wedged into roles that both trouble and delight me. The emotional concept of ‘home,’ belonging to someone and someplace, seems integral to human fulfillment. The perilous and circuitous routes to these goals are what I investigate in my sculpture.”

She’s right. In the United States, we live in an era where us women have more rights than our predecessors—but that doesn’t mean we aren’t still living in the shadow of deeply rooted patriarchal ideals. While women can vote, work, and open a line of credit, our rights remain in flux. Moreover, the internal battle between stewarding tidy homes and raising well-behaved children or “leaning in” to the career-driven girlboss persona is pervasive. I’m not saying it’s impossible to do both—and I wouldn’t know from lived experience—but it’s no easy feat. These gender roles (and the shifting perspectives around them) are exactly what Cliffel confronts through her art.

Kristen Cliffel, Home Work, ceramic. Photo by Grace Carter.

If this exhibition could be described in one word, it would be “labor.” Cliffel presents “work” as happening both within and outside of the domestic sphere. A recurring motif is the hammer. Hammers typically evoke the assertive and the masculine. Here, they are presented in a manner that is passive and delicate. For example, Trousseau, comprised of ceramic materials, kiln cast glass, and a handmade velvet pillow, is a nearly translucent hammer resting on its side. Home Work depicts a hammer that is surrounded by pink flowers, gathered in the shape of a heart. By presenting the hammers in a more feminine context, Cliffel elevates labor in the domestic sphere that has traditionally been fulfilled by women.

Kristen Cliffel, Domestic Operations Badge Work. Photo by Grace Carter.

Several of the works are maquettes for larger, mandala-like Scout badges. Domestic Operations Badge- Work is the bluntest. In monochromatic blues, Cliffel writes, “before you have children, adopt an eleven year old girl” and “it’s called labor for a reason.” The phrases are obstructed by other designs, making them feel more private. To read the script, you must stand up close and wade through Cliffel’s myriad designs. It is like a secret being shared between the artist and the viewer.

Kristen Cliffel, Foundation. Photo by Grace Carter .

Through Foundation, Cliffel presents the idea of “the nest.” Interestingly, the golden nest, placed upon a velvet pillow, is surrounded by a house frame (or foundation) without walls. While the gold luster could signify security and stability, the lack of solid surroundings points to the fragile nature of family and childhood.

Cliffel has also incorporated her signature cake ceramics into Working from Home. Cakes typically evoke celebration, but placed in this context, they again reference the work involved with baking and decorating a cake. In this way, we think not just of the person being celebrated, but the person who spend the time and labor planning the celebration.

Cliffel weaves in tranquil moments that represent the quieter side of domestic life while continuing to hint at overwhelm. Slow Going is a vessel filled with deep blue water. A tree grows from a small island at the bow. While the ripple effects in the water feel peaceful, there is nothing relaxing about a boat with pooling water on the inside. I view this as an artistic statement on keeping collected on the outside while dealing with turmoil on the inside.

In Working from Home, Cliffel’s experience as an artist, wife, and mother is bundled into moments of both joy and struggle. Refreshingly honest and heartfelt, this exhibition is a triumph.

Working from Home: Kristen Cliffel

March 3 – April 8

William Busta Projects

15517 Waterloo Road

Cleveland, Ohio

Thursday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m.

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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