Clay Nation

“Clay Nation” by Raphael Risemberg, The New York Blade, February 23, 2007

Nowadays, especially with the advent of the digital arts, it is not uncommon for artists to work in more than one media.

But rarely does an artist mix three media as seamlessly and potently, while making it look deceptively easy, as does lesbian artist Suellen Parker, currently exhibiting her combination of sculpture, photography and computer art at Daniel Cooney Fine Art in Chelsea.

Parker begins by constructing human figures out of Plasticine, a putty-like modeling material. She photographs them digitally, then uses Photoshop to add color and attach design. The background images are derived from the Internet, and the finishing touch comes from layering photos of eyes and lips onto the characters, lending an uncanny reality.

But this exhibit of photos is more than just a technical tour de force—it consists of psychologically rich scenarios centered on the themes of health and body image.

For instance, the photo titled “Uplifting Smoke” shows a nicely coiffed woman sitting on the steps of a house, looking into her compact mirror. Amusingly, the smoke from her cigarette highlights a sign near the door identifying the building as a “Wellness Center” (we can all relate to this contradiction). The façade of the building, including vegetative landscaping, so skillfully appropriates photographic images to simulate three dimensions that it appears sculpted from the putty, though it is not.

The work titled “Life Preserver” consists of an older woman in a bikini, showing off her figure on the beach. However, it is clear that the scene is an elaborate sham, because she is really standing before a large photo of a beach (a photo within a photo) propped up against a wall. Here, and in a similar piece “Well Done,” which depicts another elderly woman sunbathing, the Plasticine’s lumpy effect makes it the ideal material to express the deterioration of aging. And yet the subjects’ dignity comes through, as self-deluded as it is.

The young do not escape Parker’s focus either. In “Awkward Stage,” an emaciated teenage girl stands in front of a wall, as gangly and unstable as a newborn fawn. The artist humanizes this frail subject so that her anorexia is but one facet of her persona. Nearby is a section of what looks like a pulpit—could Parker be linking religion to issues around physical and mental health?

A couple of scenarios are a bit too expected, such as one in which a man undergoes a Botox injection.
But the artist redeems herself with an intriguing image of a salon worker whose job it is to remove unsightly body hair. Her look is vacant, as would be expected from anyone who toils day in, day out performing such a fundamentally absurd task.

Then there is the radiant-looking motivational speaker, who seems to be conning himself as much as others. This piece made me most appreciate Suellen Parker’s use of the malleable Plasticine as the perfect metaphor for the exhibit’s overall theme: all-too-easy and almost certainly short-lived personal change.