Ceramic Arts & Perception — Ceramics Technical
Ceramics Art & Perception



From the Inside Out - Two Views on the Creation and Experience of Cristina Cordova's Clay Sculptures

Articles by Katey Schultz and Linda Hillman




IN 15TH CENTURY EUROPE, IT WAS NOT UNCOMMON FOR towns to drive madmen outside their limits, expelling them to roam in vacant fields or set sail on aimless ships. In his investigation of the metaphysics of this banishment, Michel Foucault purports in Madness and Civilisation that this set the stage for the madman’s paradoxical existence, which later became a subconscious symbol of “a great disquiet, suddenly dawning on the horizon of European culture at the end of the Middle Ages”.1

A madman cruising on a ship of fools is at once free and shackled. The vessels, set atop water, a symbol for purification, are relentlessly pushed and pulled in unknown directions, trapping the madmen in eternal passage. It has more recently been observed that by our nature, we cannot embark on a journey and return to our homeland the same as when we started. By extension, we never again return to the ‘same’ homeland, as we once knew it. A madman trapped in passage does not have the luxury of landing and therefore, the luxury of measuring himself against any known quantities. He is forever in between, a “prisoner of his own departure”.2

Cristina Cordova’s clay sculptures capture the upheaval of similar journeys, as evidenced in La huida, which was shown in May 2005 at the Ann Nathan Gallery in Chicago. “My work is meant to address people who thrive in environments of emotional density. People who are used to walking through moments of intensity can relate to my work because I think the symbolism I use is generated from these places,” she says.

The emotional density of the madman’s psychological endeavour rubs completely raw on his journey, which is why he can appear both vulnerable and completely mysterious to an outsider. The fact of his banished existence pushes our conception of him to the outer limits of our minds, but his presence is still felt in this geo-psychic parallel. Like the echoes of an unsettling dream upon waking, we cannot fully remember but we never fully forget. Foucault’s analysis could serve us well: What beasts of our selves ride the Ship of Fools in our own minds? For what reasons were they banished and to what end can we serve them now?

“We physically witness the journey of these madmen,” Cordova explains, “but not the journey they have on the inside.” The inside, however, is precisely what she is speaking to through her work. “There’s something gratifying about finding something outside yourself, that allows access to something inside. Something that maybe was undetermined or undefined or inaccessible before.”

For Cordova, who relates to Foucault’s text, the boats have a place in her history as well. “Even though the boats are about a mental space and things than stimulate search, they are also a common image in island life. In the past 10 years there has been a huge diaspora of Dominicans to Puerto Rico. They come in the boats through a narrow deep passage called el pasaje la Mona. People have died along the way. Many who make it move to the cities and they build their lives there. When I was 12 a woman came to my house from one of those boats. It was such a brave journey.”

Originally from Puerto Rico, Cordova moved to the US in 1999 to attend Alfred University in order to continue her own journey. She emerged with a distinct haunting sculptural style that is the offspring of slab building techniques. The slab is pushed, pulled and added to in order to articulate features. Less than three years after completion of her MFA. from Alfred, Cordova’s work sells out regularly to collectors at SOFA Chicago, SOFA New York, Ann Nathan Gallery and Pamil Fine Art.

Standing face to face with Cordova, who appears paradoxically vibrant and uplifted by her human and animal sculptures, one cannot help but wonder where the source for her work originates. “I think there’s an embedded historical device in my work but I am not drawing from it consciously.” Earlier sculptures, such as El regalo (2003) and De amores y dolores (2003), invoke the Crucifixion. Feet dangle and slump in the air, figures are pinned or entangled, and hands are pegged. While Cordova acknowledges the likeness, it is clearly other-directed. “To me the spiritual and the emotional are related so I am attracted to that type of positioning. It is designed to suggest something beyond physicality, a psycho-emotional space my audience can relate to.”

Cordova has explicitly stated that her sculptures are not characters nor are they objects, because they do not exist as concepts in and of themselves. Without a viewer, they are without essence. The physical form of her work simply serves as a container for abstract concepts. These concepts, Cordova explains, do not come to life until the viewer engages with the sculpture, whereupon he or she could become entrenched in the emotional density of the piece. At this juncture, the creative process extends from the piece into the personal experience of the viewer, and the two momentarily haunt and fill each other.

Cordova’s work is unfailing because this process, which brings her work to full fruition, parallels the process by which the forms come to her in the first place. “It is mental. I have a vague image that creates a jolt of excitement at the prospect of that image becoming part of this world, becoming something material,” she explains. Additionally, these images are often accompanied by faint colours that Cordova harkens back to for glazing. At this stage, Cordova says, “It’s almost like acting. I feel the sculptures through myself. I stage a situation and then I fill it with myself.”

La gran corrida, also featured at Ann Nathan, writhes with potential. It appears both airy and weighed down, frozen and moving. “If you’re addressing emotion, you need to have a sense of what unifies it. I think emotion is just an energy. If you can bring some of that energy into a physical shape, then you are setting the stage for a recognition of that emotion,” Cordova says.

Recognition, it turns out, is not at all what the madmen of old Europe were given. And the recognition of the dark lunatic caverns in our own minds is not explored in modern society, either. Perhaps this is why, centuries later, echoes of the madman’s inner journey can resonate with us. Cordova’s sculptures appear timeless, yet they hinge on profoundly deep places inside the modern viewer; it is as if one experiences them in a cloud of nutrimental dust from past lives. That which is not given its due will make its own in time.

REFERENCES: 1. Foucault, Michael. Madness and Civilisation. New York: Vintage Books, 1965 2. Ibid.

Katey Schultz is a freelance writer living in Celo, North Carolina, US. Her current projects include a memoir about adolescence and critical essays featuring female artists.


BEING IN A SPACE WITH CRISTINA CORDOVA’S figurative sculptures is a mesmerising and mystical. experience. At first encounter, the space is full of figures rendered and fixed in time. All is quiet. The viewer recognises these low-fired clay beings as human and imagines that each has been living a gritty, or even intellectual or privileged, but melancholy life. Cordova has caught them – frozen them – in a singular position with their odd limbs striking limp yet fixed poses to accentuate thin and delicate hands. These figures’ hands are expressive and delicate, almost as if they had been injured and laid, always palms down, on an invisible pillow to rest. They radiate a mixture of calm serenity and poise. If Cordova’s figures’ hands are one focal point, the eyes are another. Glassy shiny eyeballs, like those of excavated Roman busts, stare straight ahead to a spot or landscape the viewer can only imagine. We are not part of these figures’ lives, past or present. What history they have we can’t know for sure. They recline stiffly, sit oddly in boats, dangle from the wall or sit astride animals. Some recline on pillows. Their mouths are slightly slack showing porcelain teeth. Some carry or are accompanied by smaller creatures. These are men. The women, whose bodies are strong but bloated and sagging are far from Cordova’s own lithe frame, and they are much older too. She is not yet 30. The figures wear large headdresses suggesting ancient and melancholy stories that Cordova has sought to unravel and understand for herself. “Through these objects I investigate and begin to grasp the indeterminate and ever-changing aspects that make us human,” she said.

Puerto Rican-born Cristina Cordova arrived in Alfred, New York, in 1999 to attend New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. Having received her MFA in 2002, she moved to Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina where she has completed her three-year artist’s residency (September 2005). During this time, her growth and the demand for her work has become strong and many of her pieces are sold before a show opens. At SOFA Chicago 2005, her sculptures in Ann Nathan’s gallery space were sold in a day.

Tiny in stature and build, yet passionate and determined – even driven – Cordova, handles this state of affairs with thoughtful maturity. (When she moved to Penland, her monetary situation caused her to have to pick and choose what to buy at the grocery store.) With the success of her first exhibition in Puerto Rico at Galleria Pamil, Guaymnabo, in 2003, and with the new security of being collected, Cordova has no small plans. Her commitment to her contemporaries and to the artist community is strong. She lives her values, which include structured and dedicated studio work struggling and trying to make ends meet. We’re all trying to do our best and we work hard.”

Transforming an amorphous and entirely pliable material into something permanent and eternal is the most powerful draw for Cordova to continue working. She likes being the creator; she feeds on the back and forth in her mind as she makes her work. Her intuitive agenda in addition to the questions that evolve from the creative process itself challenge the distinct and clear gender roles from her upbringing in terms of politics, what one does, how one earns a living, and how one lives her life. She finds other people’s choices on these matters irresistible material to contemplate and grapple with in her work. “It is not an elegant process,” she says, but what finally resonates as truth in her sculptures will be given permanence. A piece is finished when it strikes this chord. “Making can be painful and frustrating,” Cordova explains, “especially at times when I feel confined to the context of my medium. I am often cast as a ceramic artist or as a craft person rather than a sculptor. One day, when I have more knowledge of other media – wood or metal casting – clay might not be so important. Right now it is a tool.”

Cordova’s figures are not only the result of working through her Puerto Rican Catholic female heritage, but also from her research – a constant looking at other’s work – both contemporary and historical. “An attraction to the scale, colour and materials that another artist has used can become the lettering in your language – new ways to bring forth your own work. We are all taking from a collective creativity.” She notices, for example, the inspiration that has come from artists as varied as Doug Jeck, Judy Fox, Jaime Suarez and Susana Espinosa. Though she does not want to make indigenous African or Roman art, Cordova is drawn to 12th century African terracottas from the Ife culture. Early Roman busts have been powerful influences as well. Their black patinas and the bright marble eyes appear in Cordova’s work. “I find that if I do this research there are subtleties in my visual language that suddenly come alive and speak at different levels. The language is often more important than the figure itself. In this way the figure stops being a figure as an end – it becomes an interface for something further, like a narrative – one where boundaries between the sensorial and psychological become obscured and where a language rooted in intuition and archived experience dictates paradigms.”

Cordova strives for access to a new mental state through her work. Use of colour and scale, gesture and proportion allow her to think about what these formal aspects can transmit about a person’s internal nature. For example: “What colour embodies aggression, or fear?” Cordova says she works hard not to locate her work in any specific historical time or cultural space but “I am Puerto Rican and Catholic. I have this specific context, so I think it’s inevitable that those things are ingrained in my aesthetic. I’ve been conditioned to gravitate to certain things. My use of colouring is related to culture, and in an abstract way I carry that sense of colour in my work.” She is drawn to colour that is bold and that shows a relic-like patina of age. When Cordova chose to live as a sculptor, she had a clear agenda: she wanted to work from the female side. Feeling an incompleteness, she realised that she needed to work more with the complexity of what Latin-American women (on the basis of her experience in Puerto Rico) were experiencing – a combination of the basic feminine urgencies and preoccupations around motherhood and romantic issues and the issues of asserting their ground, being matriarchal, being empowered enough to pursue careers and interact with a strong and overwhelming male presence. “What would that kind of woman look like?” Cordova came to make what we see in her figures – women who are not slender and beautifully stylised but imposing and somewhat androgynous. “I stopped trying to make a figure and project things on to it. Instead, I let the figure itself become the whole reality. I tried to make the figure abstract in that sense. However, it is figurative so the viewer can read it literally and stay there, but what I’m hoping is that every decision that has to do with that figure is tied to a concept that carries its own weight. And yes, these women are definitely tied to women I know. I am exploring my ‘Mitomemoria’, my own memory myths.”

Cordova’s male figures seem less intense than the females; they embody narratives about her perception of males in her Puerto Rican reality: stereotypical Latin-American men – tall, elevated with the presence of a pastiche. Like the men in her life, they are educated, privileged and powerful, but they are not emotionally accessible. They’re not multi-tasking. Their role is clearly defined and it doesn’t require them to overextend their psycho-emotional boundaries. In La Aparicion (The Apparition) or La Caida del Barquero Amarillo (The Fall of the Yellow Boatman), the boatmen being carried with these little creatures don’t seem to be in control. The male presence coming forth from water with ghosts and muses and erections in Temporal (Storm) seen for the first time at the 2005 Chicago SOFA exhibit, may be Cordova’s imagining of a male’s demons.

Cordova grew up surrounded by her parents’ large art collection of contemporary art and antique religious Santos. She has also spent time looking at paintings and sculpture in the spaces old European churches create, so she always considers how a piece might live in a gallery space and eventually in a home where one would encounter it everyday. Other considerations too must push the boundaries of her comfort zones.

Testing surfaces by combining different materials and reinventing genres in the studio feed her inquisitive and inventive side. “If I have it too smoothly, I have a hard time appreciating the work I’ve made. I want to make something that engages me in a more challenging manner. If I can excite myself with hard work, hopefully someone else will respond to it too.” That response is Cordova’s answer to what gives art its usefulness, its raison ‘d etre. But art is more than that. Everyone needs to know if his or her life’s work has meaning. Cordova’s parents were doctors, people whose reason for being was clear: helping people. Becoming an artist was one of the hardest decisions she ever had to make. Living from one’s art means that you make it for others – it goes from your studio to a space where it is shown briefly and then to someone’s home. Cordova hopes that her works will transcend this context and be a record of something complex and rooted in a specific time and place. “Essentially my work is a record of an existence that might influence how things will be seen in the future or, at some level, even purely subjective, it just might provide a vehicle for the viewer to understand himself or herself – to bring something amorphous and random in that viewer to a context that can actually help her become whole. Several times in my life I’ve seen somebody’s work and I have understood myself through that work. I think that kind of understanding is essentially what art is for.” Cristina Cordova’s sculptures will draw many differing responses from their viewers – they will leave an indelible mark.

Linda Hillman is a freelance writer and studio potter living in Oak Park, Illinois, U.S.


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