The Shape of Yes and Other Musings: Malin Abrahamsson in the Studio

December 13, 2018 by

The week prior to Malin Abrahamsson’s arrival I listened to a TED Radio hour podcast  featuring designer Ingrid Fetell Lee, author of the Aesthetics of Joy.  In the episode, Lee poses the question “what does joy look like?” Malin’s work is a suitable response to this question: it is an embodiment of joy, and it is hard to look at one of her vessels without smiling. 

The non-representational sculptures are something otherworldly, alien and at the same time familiar. They are clothed in vibrant, neon colors and tantalizing textures, and their little appendages, wobbly legs and protrusions create an endearing, pet-like quality.

While she is able to maintain a playful and almost childlike aesthetic, the forms, textures, and colors she achieves are not the product of intuition and spontaneity alone. The second week of her residency I observe first-hand the complexity of her process as she carefully constructs one of her gravity-defying containers by bracing it with a precarious construct of glaze bottles and round pottery sponges. 

She gently caresses the interior body of the vessel with paper clay slip, working to eliminate small cracks which appear due to the pressure of the complex form. These painstaking measures are not felt in the final works which maintain a sense of freshness and delight. 

One morning I walk into the studio and Malin exclaims, “I finished a piece!” Gently she holds it up to for me to see. This is part of her newest body of work, a series of what she calls spaceholders. “What do you think of when you look at this?” she asks. I ruminate, while taking it in. A small roughly pinched stoneware pot sits within a bed of soft red yarn. This is nestled in a delicate flowerlike translucent porcelain vessel and bound to it with long strands of crimson yarn. “A spaceholder for broken hearts,” I say. I was initially attracted to the curious form, but now as a title materializes in my mind I have become sentimentally attached—there is something about naming the tiny sculpture that fills me with desire. 

After lunch I bring my 3-year-old, Aurora, down to the studio to see what she thinks. She doesn’t hesitate, “Definitely a volcano…a baby volcano” she says with certainty. I don’t know if either of our titles will stick, but I feel enriched by having been invited into the process. 

This way of naming is an integral part of Malin’s process. If you come over for dinner at her house she will inevitably bring out something new she is working on and ask for your feedback. She genuinely seeks out an honest, unfiltered assessment of her vessels and often uses these responses to give her creations a name. There is a simultaneous playfulness and profundity to these titles. They provoke a conversation. 

Take for instance the title of a recent exhibition “the shape of yes”. For me this title elicits a series of inspiring, amusing and somewhat profound questions: What does “yes” look like? What would it be like to make a sculpture or a painting all inspired by the word “yes”? Was this what the artist did? What are we saying “yes” to? To ourselves? To others? Is saying “yes” always a positive thing? 

Malin describes the title of “the shape of yes” as her attempt to craft her own version of a kōan. A Japanese Zen tradition, a kōan is an oft-paradoxical question or dialogue used by monks as a thought experiment (a famous example is Hakuin Ekaku’s “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”) Victor Hori writes: “…in the beginning a monk first thinks a kōan is an inert object upon which to focus attention; after a long period of consecutive repetition, one realizes that the kōan is also a dynamic activity, the very activity of seeking an answer to the kōan. The kōan is both the object being sought and the relentless seeking itself.” This truly describes my experience with “the shape of “yes”. It created a sense of intrigue and wonder which had me revisiting the title and its meaning long after having read it.

“Pretty Much Happy” While Malin was on a Buddhist retreat, someone asked author John Terrant the question, “what is enlightenment?” His answer, “you have an epiphany and after that you are pretty much happy”. Upon returning home Malin named this piece.

Despite the inviting dialogue inherent in her titling and the exuberance of her aesthetic, Malin’s introduction to clay came from a somber place. Her explorations with this material began on her kitchen table the day after the 2016 elections. Feeling disheartened to the point of not being able to leave the house, she felt that she needed to find a new language of expressionIt was in search of a new way of making that her journey with clay was birthed. Intuitively, without a plan, she began having a conversation with the clay, responding to it, finding out what it wants. Pushing back against the heaviness she let her fingers guide the way—attempting to defy gravity, creating space holders for things that words cannot express, musing on the shape of yes, and designing the form of joy. 

The central dynamic in Malin Abrahamsson’s work is transformation, which she describes as “equal parts survival instinct and rebellion against stasis.” A multi-disciplinary artist, she’s currently working on a series of small-scale objects that continue a formal exploration of color, space, and composition, with a specific focus on the transformative qualities of physical matter. The recipient of several residencies, grants and awards, Malin has exhibited in New York and abroad. She has completed a number of public commissions, most recently an interactive sound & sculpture installation at PS 377 in Queens, commissioned by NYC Department of Education and Public Art for Public Schools. Her animations have screened at Toride train station in Tokyo, Japan, as well as at MoMA and PACE University. Malin received a BFA with an honorable mention from The School of Visual Arts in 1998. She lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.