Linda Lighton sculpture
Bulb Show: Hybridize
March 3-31, 2006
Missouri State University
Art and Design Gallery
333 East Walnut
Springfield, Missouri

Dangerous Beauty

by Elisabeth Kirsch, Review magazine, August 2006

Why does the Kansas City art world have such a hard time with Linda Lighton's art? This is an artist who has an international reputation in the ceramic world and whose work is in museum collections throughout the United States and Asia, yet her art still lacks the respect in her native town that it has garnered elsewhere.

Could it be because all the boobs, dicks and smorgasbord of genital orifices that rise expectantly, and sometimes menacingly, from all of Lighton's skillfully glazed and sculpted clay figurines make people a little uncomfortable? Could it be that the natives here are equipped with visual filters when it comes to such material, and that we prefer it stay invisible? Could it be that Kansas City still has a problem with overtly sexual art and with the women artists who make it? We all like to think Kansas City has the hottest art scene in the country now, but could it be that even the art world here continues to be plagued by an excess of good taste and that we still deserve the title "cupcake land?"

Diva Aretha

Just asking.

With its overt sensuality, sexuality, and sheen, Lighton's art might be more at home in Los Angeles than Kansas City, but I thank the art gods her home base is Kansas City. We need Lighton's peculiar brand of vulgarity and gorgeousness to shake it up here.

Lighton's most recent show, Hybridize, was at Missouri State University's new Art and Design Gallery. Her installation at MSU consisted of almost 40 sculptures from her Diva series, two per pedestal, as well as hanging wall pieces. While the lustrous china glazes she painstakingly creates cause the works to virtually glow in the dark from long distance, their small scale requires that they be seen up close. This, in turn, pushes the viewer into an intimate personal space with the sculptures. Which is when the discomfort begins.

All of Lighton's newest ceramics bear an actual, if fanciful, resemblance to exotic living forms, particularly those found in marine life. Tubeworms, sea cucumbers, and underwater snails are just a few of the startling and somewhat creepy creatures that inspire her work. The majority of these entities are hermaphrodites, spouting cavernous vulva and tumescent penises all in one self-contained, cheerful organism. They beckon seductively to anyone who comes near as they simultaneously threaten to slurp one down whole. If RuPaul could be a ceramic sculpture, she/he would want to incarnate as one of Lighton's Divas.

Early on, Lighton's brightly hued floral and aquatic clay extravaganzas, with their seductive petals, suggestive orifices and fiercely beckoning tendrils, earned her the label of feminist artist, a kiss of artistic death in these days of cultural backlash.

Hybridize show

A genuine flower child, Lighton lived on the Nez Perce Indian reservation in the 1970s and is also an arts philanthropist and a Japanese tea ceremony practitioner. She does not shy away from the tag of feminism and has written that her sculptures "are defined by their sensuality, fertility and empowered sexuality." But in Hybridize, Lighton makes it clear she has pushed beyond the feminist movement of the '70s into a totally contemporary, multi-layered, trans-gendered zone that would have Darwin scratching his head. Behind the decorative subterfuge of her newest ceramic bonbons is a heady visual discourse ranging from gender politics to the environmental, the erotic and the mystical.

"I like choosing big subjects for my art," Lighton explained simply in a recent interview.

Lighton cites numerous influences on her work, the first being her grandmother Gertrude, a wealthy sophisticate (she started the Friends of Art at the Nelson Museum of Art) who also owned "300 to 400 sets of fabulous dishes." Those delicately painted objects eventually became the inspiration for some of Lighton's earliest ceramics — large-scale, three-dimensional flowers, some with lipsticks shooting out from the center. Lighton also created installations that combined ceramic lipsticks and bullets on the same pedestals. "These works were about the landscape of war," Lighton explains. "No one has to make lipsticks that look like a dick or a bullet. Women are using weapons oftheir own. One [bullets] get you an oil field, and the other [lipstick] bags you a man."

Although these installations were overtly feminist, political, and humorous, Lighton's essential interest is in what she calls "the life force." This has pushed her into more environmental concerns that, of course, involve issues of sexuality more than ever.

Lighton began paying close attention to the organisms growing under the docks at the harbor near her home in upstate Washington. "We can't believe the things that wash up on our dock there. They're like ancient cellular structures, and the color schemes are to die for. And these things change sexes all the time. An oyster begins as a female and after two years switches to a male and then switches back and forth whenever it wants." Tubeworms, which live under the dock, are equally salacious, as well as tricky. As the artist relates: "If you touch the [tubeworm's] dick-like thing it then transforms itself into a saggy boob."

In Hybridize, Lighton points out, all of her hermaphroditic creatures are interacting, and they almost have faces. They resemble drag queens extraordinaire on a wild night out on the town.

Tubeworm, Stinger

Another important reference for Lighton is her favorite book, Art Forms in Nature: The Prints of Ernst Haeckel, originally published in 1862. Haeckel was an important German biologist who supported Darwin's theories of evolution. His elaborate illustrations of underwater organisms had a substantial influence upon European design and architecture, notably the German Jugendstil movement. Although Haeckel's drawings (which he artfully embellished) highlighted the visual symmetry of various kinds of marine life, the species he depicted also had the potential to morph into multiple paths of development.

It is this capability, so brazenly and wittily exploited by Lighton's figurines, that plops her art in the political center of today's gender wars. Her art asks: What is okay sexually and what is truly erotic?

As Dr. Sander L. Gilman has wrote in Making the Body Beautiful, (Princeton University Press, 1999: Princeton, New Jersey.): The erotic is a quality that seems to be rooted in the body, but it is also perceived as a quality of the mind or the psyche. Bodies are what we make them to be, and when we change the rules as to what body parts can be altered and how they should appear, when we alter what orifices of the body should be entered, we change the erotic nature of the bodies themselves."

Lighton's art raises more questions about sexuality and identity than it answers — which is also why it seems so contemporary, given the political hysteria swirling around contemporary gender issues. It may not be nice to fool Mother Nature, environmentally speaking, but, as Lighton's clay figures illustrate, Mother Nature has been fooling around with reproductive boundaries since the beginning of time.

In uniting the anima and animus or her figures into brashly confident independent entities, Lighton's clay sculptures become artistic touchstones for our time.


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