“Filtering Noise,” Susan Clinard’s solo, mixed-media sculpture exhibit at Westville’s Da Silva Gallery until March 2, is a testament to the artist’s restless and sensitive spirit and “reflects the challenge,” she said, “of keeping myself inspired each and every day.”
Gabriel Da Silva, the gallery’s co-owner and director, said that gallerygoers could be for forgiven for initially thinking they might have walked into a group show, given the variety of mediums and the strength of the different series on display. Viewers are, however, quickly disabused of the group-show notion.
The soulful essence that infuses each of Clinard’s figurative pieces also binds them as a collection. Her deftness with three-dimensional materials is a common thread throughout the exhibit, regardless of the medium.
“I want to grow. I would suffocate if I had to do one medium, one subject matter. The art comes from an honest place and is the most honest way I can approach art making — It feels good to keep trying new things,” she said.
The show’s title, “Filtering Noise,” refers to the artist’s role as a receptacle of the emotional zeitgeist. “Artists are usually sensitive people. We absorb all kinds of outside stimuli: politics, life issues, raising children — it can feel overwhelming,” said Clinard. Her job as an artist “is to filter the essence of what is real, what is important.” Sometimes that means filtering out the external noise to bring inward focus to her work.
At times, tragic events compel a response” from the artist. For Clinard, the Sandy Hook massacre that claimed the lives of 20 schoolchildren and six protective staff members was such an event. Her translucent paper sculpture “Twenty,” depicting the 20 children nestled in a canoe-like vessel, was both haunting and healing in its presentation, and was later displayed in Newtown as part of a larger exhibit by many artists.
Clinard’s empathic nature and strong propensity for revealing the human condition were present decades ago, even before committing herself to art as a full-time practice. For a period she worked for DCFS (Department of Child & Family Services) in her native city of Chicago as a case worker for foster children, parents, and families in some of Chicago’s most challenging housing projects and disenfranchised neighborhoods. Clinard recounted her strong concern for clients; she often spent her own limited resources to help meet some of their most basic needs. After three years, she had reached a level of burnout and decided, then, to turn to her artistic talents full time as she pivoted her focus, but not her humanitarian predilections.
In making her “Kinetic Figures” series of simplified human forms created in the manner of her “Twenty” sculpture, she applied paper over plasticene clay sculptures. The clay was later removed after the paper and its binder dried, creating the figurative outer shells. Suspended from mobile-like arms, the airy figures appear to be in free-fall. Some respond to their situations with great athletic aplomb, while others appear resigned or out of control.
The largest installation in the gallery is Clinard’s Waiting Room. The partially rough-hewn, frontal sculpture of four seated figures and an infant is an assemblage sculpture with a folk-art rawness that recalls the work of Marisol, a Venezuelan-American artist born in Paris, whose work was influenced by major abstract Expressionists and Pop artists during their mid-century zenith. Her work embodied those movements in spirit, while expressing her own visual vernacular through her mixed-media sculpture.
Clinard said that creating Waiting Room “felt like I was baking bread. It was the culmination of the way I’ve been working for 20 years.” The piece, “a metaphor for our own lives,” poses a question: “What are we waiting for in life?” On the faces of those seated, one could read a range of emotions: a sense of anxiety, fear, love, and hope. “Many of us live in fear — fear of our neighbors, and of those coming from other countries,” said Clinard.
One of the figures, of a younger woman, is actually a self-portrait. She nervously picks at her fingers, her feet turned slightly inward — both telling gestures. “Face and hands are the most expressive parts of the human body; the hands can often tell more truth than the face,” she said. Of the child with the outstretched arms, Clinard said she was moved to the point of tears as she created him.
Another sculptural grouping is a ceramic and wood sculpture entitled Of the Same Branch, created from a branch of the old and historic Lincoln Oak, a majestic tree that stood its ground on the New Haven Green until 2012, when it was toppled by a hurricane. The piece depicts Civil War-era soldiers of the North and South with a slave family. It was exhibited in 2014 at the New Haven Museum. Clinard said she drew her inspiration from vintage photographs of the era “offering up their stories.” Hands and faces are expressively articulated, while bodies are represented as contrasting minimalist slabs.
A number of early industrial wood factory forms and artifacts which Clinard has explored in recent years …
… combine with figurative elements. Heads and hands, and complete figures, are found comfortably embedded in niches, or framed by the forms’ contours. Those shapes, particularly those that are circular, have their own rich symbolism of wholeness, infinity, and timelessness.
In “Threads of Serendipity,” a 2014 exhibit at Kehler Liddell Gallery, Clinard’s found-object factory-form sculptures were in abundance after she discovered a cache of the vintage wood forms.
The current exhibit is not a formal retrospective and excludes examples of her monumental and commissioned pieces. The exhibit does offer a window on Clinard’s most recent work — her wall-mounted, figurative wire pieces — “compositions with precious little bends” that also create interesting wall shadows.
The collection of elegant figures in motion are a form of spontaneous three-dimensional sketching for Clinard, though as she readily admits, “I don’t draw at all — I don’t feel secure drawing.”
Clinard’s studio, located in a barn opposite the Eli Whitney Museum on Whitney Avenue in Hamden, is a trove of her inspired work. For now, Da Silva Gallery provides a tasty appetizer of the work of this 21st century master sculptor.
“Filtering Noise” runs until March 2 at the Da Silva Gallery, 899 Whalley Ave.