The Clay Menagerie: Undine Brod in the StudioOctober 21, 2015
Down in the Ceramics Studio, resident Undine Brod blends rose-colored underglaze into her clay as she slowly builds her form. With the underglaze, every movement Undine makes is visible as she creates shoulders, an expressionless face, pointed ears. Markings hint at a mouth, a nose—but Undine leaves the figures without eyes, giving the viewer nothing to gaze into or project onto. They’re a blank slate, familiar enough to be accessible but vague enough to keep us guessing, and it is in this ambiguous space that Undine’s work thrives.
“My existence in the world is through an emotional connection,” Undine says. “The animals I use are stand-ins for people and an emotional content that isn’t specified.”
During her Ora Schneider residency at WSW, Undine created several clay busts of surreal animals, each balancing on a fine line between fantastical and unsettling. She made these almost familiar creatures without a reference, relying solely on the memory of what certain animals are supposed to look like to create new hybrid species. Undine’s creations are inspired by her surroundings and experiences, bearing names such as I’m here. and Ready, but Unable. “The animal works are tender, innocent survivors of manipulation and alteration,” Undine writes in her artist statement. “Through my work I aim to suggest that violence and vulnerability is not out in some far-off war zone, but rather at the very heart of our domestic lives’ chaos and disorder.”
Working in a Neo-Dadaist tradition, Undine’s sculptures emphasize the juxtaposition of hand-built clay forms with mundane found objects and throwaway materials. She credits her training as a ceramicist for giving her a fundamental understanding of material and the ability to think critically about it in her practice. In her series Trophy Heads Then, Undine’s creatures’ “skins” are composed of materials from everyday life, such as duct tape and fabric, which form an instant connection with the viewer through their unpretentiousness. “I spend a lot of time going to thrift stores and hardware stores for materials,” Undine says. “I don’t remember the last time I went to an art store.”
Undine’s practice deals with the domestic, in the objects she works with and in the spaces she creates. The trophy heads hung on walls suggest a home, but the unnatural colors and materials she uses turns that home upside down. Her imaginary animals are playful, but their pelts are from cannibalized stuffed animals, repurposed in a way reminiscent of feminist artist Annette Messager’s own dismembered children’s toys. Undine’s art works within this history of the domestic space and by using strange and uncanny juxtapositions, she asks the viewer to rethink what they consider familiar.
Though she embraces the domestic, Undine’s use of materials and space push away from making her objects read as decorative or “kitschy.” While working at WSW, Undine forgoes glazing and glossy surfaces, instead opting for rough, bare clay figures. The materiality of the object is immediate, not hidden behind a precious surface.
Likewise, Undine’s need to get work off of pedestals further complicates the relationship between the object and the viewer. “I didn’t want a hierarchy to be set,” Undine says, “which I think happens a lot when you have work on pedestals, or at museums with pieces roped off.” To get her work into the viewer’s space, Undine pushes her sculptures into the realm of installation. She gives her animals little chairs to sit in or long stilted legs to stand on and puts them in the middle of the room. Undine creates fragmented narratives through her fragmented figures that are both surreal and affecting.
Undine is using her time at WSW to explore and play with her animal figures, taking the time to fully understand and listen to the forms she’s working with. She’s accumulating parts and pieces which will sit on her studio shelf until she’s inspired by something around her—a conversation, a walk into town, an interesting item found in the trash— to put these pieces together.
“I’m realizing that my research is living,” Undine says. “I’ve come to understand that art is life and life is art and there’s no way around it for me.”
Undine Brod is an artist based in Rhinebeck, NY working primarily in ceramics. She has a BFA from University of Washington and an MFA emphasizing in Ceramics from Ohio State University. You can see more of Undine’s work at undinebrod.com and see more images of her residency on Flickr.