The Clay Lady’s Campus | June 20–22
WORDS Margaret F.M. Walker
Recently, I visited Gray & Dudley, the restaurant in Nashville’s 21c Museum Hotel. I was struck by large, curious, skillful sculptures of animals installed on the walls. There was something compelling and complicated about them, but I was unsure what.
After speaking with Beth Cavener, their creator, and becoming more familiar with her oeuvre, I realize why they were so striking. Cavener’s focus is on human psychology and emotions, but animals are the vehicle for carrying her messages. She has worked in sculpture for the majority of her career, and her undergraduate majors in astronomy and physics seem a natural academic companion to creating three-dimensional forms on such a large scale. Her majors were supplemented by many art classes, all spent modeling the human form in clay.For many years now, she has focused on animal forms, but the archetype is in fact still human. Cavener found difficulty creating a universally relatable human form—if it is not the same gender, shape, or race, we may subconsciously distance ourselves from the ideas communicated. Human struggles such as fear, apathy, aggression, and perseverance are at the core of her work, and she discovered that people empathize more universally with these ideas when they are conveyed by animals. What better way to remind viewers of their more primal, instinctive selves?
Scale is important to Cavener. A sculpture on human scale such as L’Amante is one we are meant to identify with closely; at two- or three-times size, A Second Kind of Loneliness should evoke feelings of smallness in the viewer; diminutive, child-sized sculptures stir protective and sympathetic instincts. As someone interested in the object-ness of art, I find it so important to consider scale when working with images. Medium is the other element often obscured by pictures. I had never before seen sculpture of this size created as a ceramic, which requires incredible finesse of technique to execute.
Cavener is generous in sharing her wisdom in great detail in workshops and on her website. The daughter of two educators, it was instilled in her that “teaching is the most valuable thing you can do with your life.” She is coming to Nashville for a few days this month for several events: a lecture at 21c, a workshop at the Clay Lady’s Campus, and a workshop at the Appalachian Center for Craft.
The artist’s scientific mind again shows in her willingness to problem-solve and experiment, with the firing of each new project still leaving her anxious. She blew up everything for the first few years and now, she says, can at least usually see the difficulties coming. Ceramic allows the clay in which she works, with all its texture, fluidity, and idiosyncrasies, to be the final product rather than something translated into another medium like bronze. The immediacy of fired clay, she finds, makes her sculpture more present and empathetic.
While the process is remarkably impressive, it is the final, evocative work that has brought Cavener recognition. Cycles of four to eight sculptures all revolve around a particular idea and are designed for a particular installation. While the work has roots in her own life, providing the drive for a complete vision, she also has the community, history, location, and audience of the installation inform the idea, creating the greatest potential for it to resonate with others. Her current work revolves around self-doubt, which may manifest in behaviors as diverse as withdrawal and bullying.
I inquired, “What happens when they get sold, presumably not as an installation set?” Nashville, in fact, has the only full set, The Four Humors, designed for Art Basel Miami and now at 21c. Cavener aptly used the analogy of a family to describe the dispersal of her sculptures after an exhibition. “We grow up in distinct families and locations that we carry with us as we spread out and live our lives. That is what my sculptures do. They take on a new meaning by themselves but always have a tie to the other works.”
The sculptures from the 2017 cycle are at first perplexing. Kept, a hare about to break free, is incredibly tense. Beloved (Rearing Deer) has its antlers wrapped in twine but a patiently enduring look on its face. Caress maintains tension but in such a tender manner, and Tribute is truly curious, with two unlike forms linked by a slack chain, the power dynamic between them unclear.
(Rearing Deer) has its antlers wrapped in twine but a patiently enduring look on its face. Caress maintains tension but in such a tender manner, and Tribute is truly curious, with two unlike forms linked by a slack chain, the power dynamic between them unclear.
“Cavener’s focus is on human psychology and emotions, but animals are the vehicle for carrying her messages.”
The theme for this series was human relationships, which I began to see in all their variety in these animals. The fox, Through an Empty Place, also from 2017, is about the process of mourning. This animal’s intense stare but timid step out of the shadowy place speak to the wide range of emotions encompassed by this season in life.
There is a continuity over time between Olympia, 2006, a suggestively posed, blindfolded goat; L’Amante, 2012, a tattooed rabbit staring us down with the sex appeal and windblown “hair” of a model; and Unrequited (Variation in Peach), 2016, another suggestive rabbit, though not conventionally appealing. The first is modeled after Manet’s groundbreaking 1863 painting of the same title. Yet Manet’s Olympia looks right back at the viewer gazing upon her nude form, whereas Cavener’s Olympia is blindfolded, her sexuality a vulnerability. While L’Amante’s form is less overt, her gaze matches the strength of Manet’s Olympia, challenging the viewer and in charge of her languid form. Unrequited looks for beauty in an awkward pose and a fleshy form. Together, they speak to the not-so-effortless longing to be sexually desirable that many women experience.
There is another consistent feature in Cavener’s sculpture: Despite the deep, usually dark, human emotions and struggles they engage, they are executed with great skill and, overwhelmingly, beauty. Cavener calls them her “beautifully baited hooks,” appealing to our instinctual draw to the visually pleasing in order to engage our minds. They are luscious and tactile but also serious, engaging painful ideas, and in a broad sense, the human experience.
Beth Cavener will give a three-day demonstration class at The Clay Lady’s Campus June 20–22. Register at www.theclaylady.com. Cavener’s artist lecture is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 21, in the Main Gallery on the lower level of 21c Museum Hotel. Find out more about the artist’s workshop at Appalachian Center for Craft at www.tntech.edu/craftcenter/workshops. See more of Beth Cavener’s work at www.followtheblackrabbit.com.