Anderson Ranch honoree Simone Leigh discusses aspirations for Venice
Leigh to be toasted Friday as Ranch’s 2021 International Artist Honoree
Sculptor Simone Leigh will represent the U.S. next year at the 2022 Venice Biennale, the first Black woman to be selected to show on behalf of the country at the prestigious pavilion exhibition.
Leigh on Thursday told a full house at Schermer Meeting Hall at Anderson Ranch Arts Center that she recently finished clay models for some bronze works she’s planning to show at the much anticipated Venice show — postponed a year due to the coronavirus pandemic — while attempting to balance the ups and downs of the past year.
“I feel like I’m reflecting on the last year, which has been so difficult but has also been really liberating and exciting for me at the same time,” she said during her public talk with cultural historian Sadiya Hartman. “I have mixed feelings about the year.”
Leigh — whose work will be celebrated Friday evening at the Ranch’s Recognition Dinner, where she is the 2021 International Artist Honoree — was otherwise tight-lipped about what she is planning for Venice, though she did say her work will not attempt to depict the tumult of 2020 and the end of the Donald Trump era.
“I decided to not reflect on the current moment we are in — it will take me 10 years to get over between Nov. 3 and Jan. 6,” referring to the stretch from Election Day 2020 to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. “I don’t feel like my thoughts and feelings are distilled enough to respond. … I decided it was more interesting to do some of the things I’ve been wanting to do for so long.”
Leigh is best-known for large-scale bronze sculptures that depict Black women and social history, forms that emerged out of years of work in ceramics when its traditions were out of fashion.
“Intentionally or unintentionally, I’ve been a part of a lot of change in art,” Leigh said. “When I came to New York no one was interested in figurative sculpture and no one was interested in ceramics. Those two things have really changed.”
Leigh said she never expected to be successful in art, so she didn’t fall into the “capitalist traps” of thinking about what would sell or what an audience would want. Instead she found a visual vocabulary in ceramics when nobody was paying any attention to the form, combining jugs or vessels — and eventually dwellings — with sculptures of Black women. Eventually it led to defining pieces like “Brick House,” exhibited on the High Line in Manhattan in 2019.
“When I came to New York I found none of my interests were shared and ceramics were in a difficult place — it was almost a forbidden material,” she said. “It might have been easier for me to make work out of garbage than ceramics at that time. I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be working in ceramics.”
At Anderson Ranch, of course, through its nearly six-decade history, ceramics have never fallen out of style.
Anderson Ranch curator-in-residence Helen Molesworth told the capacity crowd that hosting Leigh has been a dream of hers for the Ranch, given its legacy in clay: “The first thing I did when I got here was take a picture of the kiln yard and send it to Simone and said, ‘Do you want to come make work here?’”
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