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From a Sister’s Closet: Recent Sculpture
by Nava Atlas
The postcard announcing the current exhibit of Judy Sigunick’s recent clay sculptures depicts a woman’s hands clasped behind a billowy skirt. At first glance, the image recalls Degas’ graceful ballet dancer sculptures — but a second look hints at a darker reality. For unlike the dancers, who strive for a kind of perfection (unattainable as it might be), Sigunick’s figures reveal a sense of brokenness with surface cracks and fissures, though these only add to the beauty and wonder of the pieces in this exhibition.
The Chicago-born and bred artist, a longtime resident of Cragsmoor, NY, returned to art studies at SUNY-New Paltz after raising a family. There, the artist “discovered” Shakespeare during theatrical rehearsals in an adjacent discipline in the college’s School of Fine and Performing Arts. The Bard’s trademark themes of mutability of identity (particularly gender identity) through costume and other forms of disguise have inspired Sigunick for some years now. “Mysteriously and magically, Shakespeare’s people have become studies for my work and in the process reveal stories of my own.”
Titled “From a Sister’s Closet,” the seed from which the emotional component of this exhibit grew was the clothing closet of the artist’s older sister. As a child, she envied the space for its sheer size and vast array of apparel of every color within. Entering it, she recalled, “I would hunt that special something for an altered identity, an imaginary disguise to eventually become myself.” Decades later, in her embrace of a Shakespearean theme of becoming someone else, if only temporarily, the parallel was clear.
Sigunick’s sub theme for the show is “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Viola.”, taken from a poem by Wallace Steven, “Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Blackbird.” Viola (a central character in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night) serves as the muse who inspired the recent series, six of the works, on view. Upon surviving a shipwreck, Viola hides her female identity, presenting herself as a man to become less vulnerable. Inevitably, complications ensure. It was the tension created by Viola’s transformation from woman to man, not in terms of who she knew herself to be, but by how others saw her, that the artist found intriguing.
Sigunick’s work involves a complex array of ceramic modeling techniques she describes as “coiling and slab building, wheel throwing, and carving. Once the form is completed. I cut it down to fit inside of my electric kiln, fire it and apply clay slips and glazes, firing it once more in the electric kiln. Afterwards I may decide on a reduction firing in sawdust — akin to traditional pit firings.” Happy accidents like cracks and breakage are welcome, as they allow for reassembling pieces in unexpected ways. “The surface is then approached as one would a painting, with mixed media such as paints, tinted epoxies and metals.” Richly hued with earthy tones and layered with a master’s hand at texture, any viewer without knowledge of Shakespeare’s, Twelfth Night, or Viola will be able to appreciate these works for their aesthetic merits alone, either individually or as an entire installation.
A central piece in the exhibit ostensibly departs from the Viola theme but shares strong similarities. “Untitled With Roses,” a figure standing at nearly eight feet pays homage to Rachel Corrie, a young American woman who died in 2003 while attempting to block an Israeli bulldozer aiming to destroy the home of a Palestinian family who had hosted her. Sigunick drew inspiration from Corrie’s published e-mail correspondence with her mother. To “dress” the large metal and clay structure, she used coffee filters, painstakingly sewing them together resulting in a cape for this figure that’s “beautiful and awkward” at the same time. Reflecting the reality of human experience, the work portrays grief mitigated by bravery and hope.
What might Rachel Corrie and Viola have in common? Both women, the flesh and blood and the fictional one, found themselves alone and unprotected in lands and situations foreign to them. That both Viola and Corrie plunge into male-dominated worlds “highlights the limitations of boundaries,” Sigunick observed. “Whether confronting a CAT bulldozer with an Israeli soldier at the helm, or a Duke manipulating his affairs through a ‘boy’ servant, each of these women conjure speculations on the strengths of humanity – as the Bard’s language seems to find his way around social mores into the very heart of our lives.” She calls Shakespeare’s handling of contradictions “generous,” gratified by how Viola’s conundrum is resolved “with utter joy.” Rachel Corrie, of course, was not so lucky.
The boldness of the forms and surfaces of the handsome works in this exhibit belie underlying notions of the fragile nature of life — and clay. But, as Sigunick aptly observes, “At the edge of fragility, there is great strength.”