Susan Clinard, in her sculpture exhibition “Places We’ve Been” at the Gallery at the Whitney Humanities Center, hoped to capture “points of time from our shared human narrative.” I found that many aspects of her art spoke powerfully to both the diversity and unity of the human experience.
Walking into the gallery, I was struck by the sheer variety of media Clinard used for her sculptures. Ceramic, wood, acrylic, wire and paper are just some of the materials she worked with, creating unexpected combinations. One of my favorite sculptures, “Collage Group Four,” consists of collages of four different women, one holding a child, each in a brightly colored wooden frame. Clusters of wooden frames segmented into various regions appear frequently in the exhibit. Each section can be consumed both as its own work of art and as part of a coherent whole. In “Collage Group Four,” the mixed media, various bright colors and variously sized and shaped wooden frames conspire to advance the work’s multicultural theme: The frames’ internal differences are clear, but they enhance rather than detract from the beauty of the whole. In one of the frames, speech bubbles saying “Me Too” in many languages float around an image of a woman, emphasizing the ubiquity of the struggle against workplace sexual harassment.
Another unique aspect of Clinard’s work is her frequent use of relief. Many sculptures employ varying layers of depth, allowing the viewer to perceive certain components as jumping out from or receding into the background. The power of this effect is illuminated by Clinard’s focus on hands and faces; both demonstrate a variety of emotions including agony, prayer, surprise, alertness and tenderness. The aggressively expressive faces and hands arrest the viewer, emerging from flat expanses of wood and disconnected from any visible body. One of the relief pieces I was most fascinated by, “Continuum #1 and #2,” depicts a scene of intergenerational tenderness with a sobering twist. The piece consists of two wooden boxes painted with black acrylic and stacked one atop the other. In each box, a mother cradles her child’s face while a grandmother looks on in a separate panel, pressing her hand against the wall that divides her from the others. The three ceramic figures stand out starkly against the black background. Another one of Clinard’s pieces, “History Repeats Itself,” depicts refugees from different times and locations. I couldn’t help but wonder if “Continuum,” with its sense of an insurmountable distance, was addressing the departure of a mother and child from their ancestral homeland. “Kinetic Journey Boats,” a monochromatic mixed media piece in which three boats — with passengers — hang from the ceiling, called to mind a similar theme of departure or escape.
Placed beside “Continuum” is a similarly composed work, “Our Song.” A shallow, black acrylic-painted wooden box contains an inverse V-shape of ceramic faces, the youngest at the bottom and the oldest at the top. All but one of the figures exhibits an open-mouthed expression, and their hands, again emerging bodiless from the black background, knit together in prayer or strain as if in search of an object to grasp. The matriarch at the top, however, wears a close-mouthed neutral expression, and grasps one wrist with the opposite hand. Unlike her ancestors, she seems resigned to her fate, whatever that fate may be. Clinard plays strongly on the intergenerational theme in many of her sculptures, perhaps to emphasize the universality and range of human emotions.
Clinard also employs relief technique in two wire sculptures, “The Prayer” and “The Hole,” which stand out strikingly from the backgrounds to which they adhere. Due to the minimalist nature of these works, the onlooker focuses solely on the expressiveness of the figures’ bodies. In “The Prayer,” a figure’s back bends dramatically, bringing his face towards his knees and the folded hands atop them. “The Hole” depicts an intense rescue scene, in which one figure kneels on a cliff-like black rectangle at the precipice of a deep white space. His or her hand reaches down to almost touch that of the figure who has fallen into the space and is attempting to climb out. The simultaneous simplicity and danger of this act of support made this piece, to me, one of the exhibit’s most compelling.
The focal point of the exhibit is Clinard’s work “History Repeats Itself,” which is inspired by the travel ban imposed by President Donald Trump and “explores both the current and past U.S. travel bans which have relied on fear mongering,” according to the exhibit description. The wooden sculptures depict six refugees: a Muslim woman carrying an infant, a Japanese-American woman from the 1940s, a European Jew circa 1941 and an African man and his daughter. At various times throughout history, these groups were all denied entry to the United States. By placing these individuals side by side and in conversation with one another, Clinard forces the viewer to face head on the extent of the United States’ racist, exclusionary history. The desperation and resignation on the figures’ faces provide painfully immediate and human examples of this history, which can often be dismissed as abstract.
Clinard’s exhibit is ambitious in its project to portray vast swaths of the human experience. But by working with an impressive collection of media, colors and styles while still grounding the collection in common facial expressions, figures and themes, she succeeds in illuminating both the overwhelming variety and underlying connectivity of our world.
Edie Abraham-Macht | firstname.lastname@example.org .