Brian Molanphy: clay man on fire.
To transmute is to change some thing's form, properties or nature. It is not quite the same as 'transmogrify' which implies change into something completely bizarre or 'transform' which is limited to changing tangible properties. 'Transmute' could comprise 'transmogrification' and 'transformation' and of the three is more sophisticated, without doubt, for its broad range of influence and subtle innovations. Like fire, transmutation is performance that celebrates change for the sake of change but not without honouring things certainly lost and hopefully gained and, while doing so, it demonstrates critical/creative thinking by revelling in the space between known and unknown realms. Molanphy's ceramics champion the idea of transmutation.
Molanphy's performance consisted of him entering Gallery 371 and immediately throwing his body into the task of transmuting an empty, open-topped square box of white-slipped red clay (5'x5'x3') into an empty tube (of similar scale), what Molanphy refers to as The Squircle. The off-putting nature of the performance was due to a reek like faeces caused by the fermenting slip covering. Squircles, squares with rounded corners, are rarely considered offensive in an olfactory sense but Molanphy's Squircle was meant to defy conventional understandings. It appeared as a clay square surrounding a circular void that would be transmuted into a clay circle surrounding a square void. The performance was to be seen as a play in action, trying out and testing new relationships and seeing relationships that come about by chance.
The ceramist arrived clad in an all-white uniform with white leather clogs, like a surgeon ready for operating, although he did not tie back his long dark hair. Once fully engaged with the wet clay Squircle, Molanphy's body quickly became stained and soiled. Along with the smacking and sucking sounds of mud in transmutation, bits of pink raw clay stuck in his hair and beard, as one might imagine giblets hanging in a predatorial maw. This performance was hardly ordinary and testified for the greatness of other primordial mythical battles, like Hercules against the nine-headed Hydra.
Because I arrived a little late and did not see Molanphy in the room and because I am a man of letters who is unfamiliar with the ways of ceramics, I honestly initially thought Molanphy's performance consisted of him defecating in the room and then quickly leaving. I certainly recall how the smell of decay drove some people away. But once Molanphy arrived, his laborious effort, in ways both systematic and brutal, interested others and gained their sympathy. He moved round and round, folding down the top edge of the blue-gray slip-glistening Squircle, peeling its bulk, like skin off of a void, punching fist marks into the surface, showing red beneath, opening corners to uncover ash and use it to dust the Squircle and finalize a dry gray finish. Transmutation as a death rehearsal? Perhaps.
But better and more than death Silly Fuss, perceived as an intrusive happening upon staring at shadows shimmering in the shade, represented a postmodern rendering of medieval imagination. Like a gargoyle working the cornices of a 12th century church or grotesque scholia (interpretative commentary and illuminations) inscribed in the margins of ancient manuscripts, Molanphy's labour and Squircle offset its host-show's pristine certainty, apparent univocal incisiveness, temporal continuity as a narrative and logical unity as a set of ideas. Silly Fuss bodied forth a marginalised voice boldly and ironically from the centre of Gallery 371 so that dynastic oration was compromised by dialogical conversation. Staring at Shadows's Purity and Isolation was revealed as illusionary as its apparent singular meaning was transmuted into a succession of fragmentary comments to be gathered and added to the detritus accumulating with the passing of epochs.
Molanphy's sisyphean solution to the circle-square dilemma was an effortful passion that suggested obsession of the highest order: so exclusive that it created a closed abstract system. But while manifesting a system based on a squircle's impossible hybrid geometry, the clay maker's obsession became a celebration of the absurd. While working the clay, Molanphy appeared to be thinking of a story to rival those that had excited him to the task. He spoke to the mysterious fears of his audience's collective nature and awakened in us a thrilling horror--one to make us dread to look round, to curdle our blood and quicken the beatings of our hearts. This performed absurdity became almost luscious, truly grotesque and yet retained its brilliance as something thoughtfully inventive by seizing on the capabilities of its subject (transmutation) and powerfully moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it.
Staring at Shadows Shimmering in the Shade came with a program of sorts that included Asekoff's poem, The Gate of Horn. The poem was read impromptu during Silly Fuss. The spontaneous verbal outburst may be understood as the witnessing audience's attempt to counterbalance Molanphy's intensely expressed physical relationship with the Squircle with the possibly more conventionally appropriate public performance of poetry reading. Somehow words can make safe a disconcerting viewing. This moment represented an act of public sublimation, where denial of emotional intensity informs the audience's collective narrative and becomes the basis for regaining safety at all costs. Here the audience was successfully caught in Molanphy's web of critical-creative genius, engaged in its own transmutative act and seen to be aflame in its own raw mix of carelessness and desire.
But The Gate of Horn offers more to Silly Fuss's profundity. Knowing that poetry lurked in the room while Molanphy laboured, it becomes impossible to not think that the transmutation of an absurdly monstrous Squircle represented a critical-creative reflection on ceramics itself and the craft of clay. The narrative voice behind Asekoff's poem may speak for Molanphy the performer. He says, "Forgive me if I seem a bit at sea / but you woke me from a dream of words / I was setting to music." Molanphy, the performer, is not happy about being awakened from his dream of words (he was late for the show, after all) and sees waking life as a potentially burdensome affair, like my Miltonic epigraph's speaker, Adam. Both appear grumpy about the prospect of having to face symbolic order's demand for meeting deadlines and acting responsibly in public. But Molanphy ingeniously corrects Adam's despair by showing how clay maker is no closer to heaven than the clay he makes. Creator and created, pot and potter, are considered one in life's Silly Fuss, burning brightly albeit briefly and pungently.
In The Gate of Horn's final lines, we imagine Molanphy, the performer, lamenting life's brevity and the loss of clear vision it seems to entail, "What do I miss most at my age?... / Seeing the stars." Milton's postlapserian Adam also complains about losing sight of stars. What we will miss most at ACAD due to passing time and the completion of Molanphy's residency is his active and engaging presence. Brian Molanphy shared his fiery critical-creative self in forms of ceramics, performance and teaching and while doing so he transmuted the college into a better place. Those of us left behind must keep the fire burning.
Did I request thee, maker, from my clay To mould me man? Did I solicit thee From darkness to promote me? Milton, Paradise Lost [X.743-5]
(1.) de Bono, Edward. The Use of Lateral Thinking. Middlesex: Pelican, 1977.
(2.) Brown, Glen R. "On the Margins: Ceramic Sculpture, Centering and Decentering." The Margins (exhibition catalogue). Phoenix, AZ: The Icehouse, 2009, pp. vi-ix.
(3.) Frey, Cecelia. A Raw Mix of Carelessness and Longing. Vancouver: Brindle & Glass, 2009.
(4.) Krauss, Rosalind. "Lewitt in Progress." October #6, Fall 1978, 46-60.
(5.) Perreault, John. "Fear of Clay." Artforum, April 1982, 70-1.
(6.) Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Johanna M. Smith. Bedford: Boston, 2000.
Article by Christopher Frey
Christopher Frey is a Professor of Narrative in the Alberta College of Art + Design's (ACAD) Liberal Studies department. Brian Molanphy completed a one-year residency as Visiting Artist/Instructor at (ACAD) in the summer of 2009. Along with teaching, the visitor publishes research, usually in the form of an on-campus exhibition near the end of the term. Molanphy presented Staring at Shadows Shimmering in the Shade from 12 to 18 April in ACAD's Gallery 371. The show was based on The Gate of Horn, a poem by Louis Asekoff, current coordinator Brooklyn College's MFA in Poetry. In addition, during the show's closing reception, a happening occurred, where Molanphy performed in conjunction with interactive ceramic projects created by Shura Galbraith and Desiree Shelley, students from the CRMC 222 Experimental class. The happening was called, Silly Fuss (a sisyphean solution to the circle-square dilemma) and filmed by photographers Dale Vandenberg, Joe Kelly and Larry Desjarlais.