American artist David Klamen debuts a recent series of twelve ceramic sculptures in the solo exhibition Life Trophies. Constructed over the last several years, Klamen’s Life Trophies are an accumulation of visual fragments, mementos, and experiences that bring material reality to personal or forgotten history.
David Klamen: Life Trophies is on view at GRAY Chicago from May 5 through June 24, 2022.
On the occasion of his exhibition at GRAY, David Klamen joined Lisa Wainwright for a conversation at his studio in Chicago. The full conversation is available to read here and in the accompanying exhibition catalogue. Below is an excerpt:
Lisa Wainwright: It’s so exciting to be talking about this recent body of sculpture, since we have already spent many hours talking about your painting. This is quite the shift. Historically there have been painters who sculpt—Picasso, Matisse, or today, Nicole Eisenman, Huma Bhabha. In their cases they consistently go back and forth between painting and sculpture. You are known for these gorgeous and semiotically complex paintings created throughout the last forty years. What compelled you to turn to 3D assemblages now? It’s a pretty radical move.
David Klamen: Many years ago I became comfortable with the notion that my work would be in pursuit of the ideas and creative directions most meaningful to me. I don’t spend time trying to calculate a visually cohesive direction. I follow my inspiration, making the next work that I want to see.
In contrast to pursuing a specific visual structure, my work is informed by exploring the question “How do we know what we know?” and testing various answers. With this new body of work, I found myself sketching ideas that would only make sense as three-dimensional forms; they were meant to visualize sculptures. Ceramics was the most direct path to pursue this idea.
Once I began making ceramic sculpture, I found myself working in a medium in which I have no formal training or conventional skill. This, to me, is unlike my paintings, which are quite disciplined. I’m covered in clay and working far outside of my technical comfort zone when making these new works.
LW: It’s so interesting—some of these molds had never been used. It makes me think that you’re almost embracing a kind of Dada method of chance here. In that improvisation you’re letting go of control of it, and that’s not your thing, David. How does it feel?
DK: Yeah, that’s not part of my studio tradition, but I’m embracing it with these works. These are very consciously not sculpted to create part-to-whole formal relationships. I go out of my way during much of the process to make sure that I don’t focus on what the forms are. We don’t even look inside of the molds until we open them up and discover whatever was recorded by the clay. They are a surprise to me from beginning to end.
I’m starting off with hundreds of pounds of wet clay and ending up with a complex, multifaceted sculpture. Its creation is very much a physical record of my interaction with the material. Much like oil paint, clay is a material very capable of recording the physical record of its history. It contains every fingerprint, every external impact; it demonstrates gravity, viscosity, and the forces that manipulate it. Clay has a rich, ancient history with thousands of years of various traditions; it’s an elemental material that we all understand on some level.
LW: The history allows us to contextualize your work, yet there is also an elemental relationship: we all know what it feels like to try forming shapes out of clay. When making these works, you are translating found molds and assembling these handmade props in the tradition of Assemblage, of Robert Rauschenberg or Rachel Harrison. I see these relating to some of your paintings that are formed by accumulation.
DK: In many ways, the ceramics have a lot in common with my paintings—the multi-canvas pieces and multiple-window watercolors. They are sculptures made of sculptures, as many of my paintings feel as if they’re paintings of paintings or meta-paintings. Both disclose themselves very slowly. You can’t really see one of these sculptures quickly; they ask you to walk around them and discover imagery over time in a way that’s similar to my paintings.
When I think of the history of my work, I often imagine it as if it were sound; I have a degree of synesthesia, which has certainly influenced me in some ways. I’ve made most of my work as quiet as I can. But at times I have shifted and turned it on full volume. These sculptures are created with a kind of flurry of activity and physicality that, along with their heterogeneous elements, achieves something like a nontraditional orchestration.
The general conceptual framework in which I’m working is completely in line with my paintings. The ideas feel cohesive and consistent for me across my work. That said, the act of making is completely different.
LW: We were talking about their memento mori, their vanitas. Just like in still life painting, these ceramic works are richly beautiful, but it’s meant to get us to something metaphysical, something that transcends the physical.
DK: I can see the notion of transcendence being read into some of the pieces. Some clearly have a ceremonial feel. They present a self-conscious, meditative invitation to reflect on ourselves, our past, and our world.
LW: That’s the beauty of art, right? It can be many things. On the one hand, I could use your term “life trophies.” They are the accumulation of memory; they are object poems of a past and the accretion of memories.
DK: Right, life trophies. They are compilations of the experiences of life, comprised in part by constant accumulation and exposure to stuff. A collection of memories, collapsed attempts, past ambitions, and tchotchkes, topped off with a present moment of optimism and hope. A complicated visual world that discloses itself slowly, asking us to reflect on our experiences and to celebrate the perplexity of knowing ourselves.
David Klamen (American, b. 1961) is a contemporary painter whose work grows in conjunction with his interest in literature and philosophy, centralized around the questions, “How do we know what we know?” and “How do we come to know what we know?” Klamen paints both figuratively and abstractly, sometimes combining the two approaches by incorporating geometric lines or patterns atop his high finished landscapes. Klamen likens the abstract element to a fourth dimension in this setting. His work is meditative and quiet, engaging the audience with deep tonal values and extreme control, requiring the viewer to look more than once into the complexity of each work. In Klamen’s most recent series, Meta-paintings, he focuses in on the vision of other artists and of the viewer, isolating individual historically significant works of art in situ, turning them on sharp angles, and repainting them with foreshortened perspective. With each iteration, upwards of twenty paintings are arranged salon-style into a large-scale multi-canvas installation.
SELECTED PUBLIC COLLECTIONS
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago
The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco
The National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul, Korea
Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin