Linda Lighton sculpture
In Kerameiki Techni's beautiful 4-page 4-color layout more than a dozen of Lighton's 2003 sculptures were highlighted.

Linda Lighton's Predatory Petals

Kerameiki Techni International Ceramic Art Review
issue 44, August 2003
by Glen R. Brown
Used with permission.

Pulsing vivaciously with blood and sap, looping in anguine coils, and splaying their multipartite jaws in an efflorescence both enticing and venomous, the flora-and-fauna hybrids of American ceramist Linda Lighton are fantasies of seductiveness and aggression. They work their influence over the viewer through a combination of alluring color, carnal and glistening, and fluid forms that beckon like a wave of a hand or the evocative curl of a finger. They exploit the allure of a partly exposed exterior, exerting the kind of hypnotic power that compels one to gaze with lurid fascination upon an open wound or persuades the hapless fly to propel itself catastrophically into the maw of a carnivorous plant. If these assertive sculptures do not actually menace the viewer, they present themselves as, to say the least, problematic sources of gratification.

Linda Lighton article

Although there are numerous historical precedents for the sculpting of ceramic flowers, Lighton's quasi-floral forms have little in common with the daintiness of the Vincennes objet d'art corsages of Madame Gravant or the cool detachment of Hirado-ware chrysanthemums. Their stems are tough and ligmentous, their petals beak-like. Far from delicate emblems of ephemerality, they seem confident declarations of the intention to endure. Like serpents hissing their warnings from the flat of a disputed path, they are unyielding. At the same lime, they are far from wholly repellent. Along with their fractious disposition they possess the strange attraction — perhaps what could even be called a species of beauty — of the glabrous scales, ductility and sleekness characteristic of reptiles.

As if to emphasize a less intimidating side of their nature, Lighton has fashioned some of her organic composites with a greater emphasis on the softness, even vulnerability, of flesh. These forms have a pulpy visceral quality, as if drawn from the inner body through excision. Still vaguely floral, they are in fact, influenced by sea anemones, tube worms and other aquatic creatures. Unlike the more dynamic, serpentine pieces that break along the horizontal like waves on a beach, these latter forms appear vertically suspended in an aqueous environment deep beneath the surface. Distended lazily into their watery world, they seem nonetheless capable at any moment of retracting themselves with lightning speed, sucking inward any unlucky little creatures in their vicinity.

This predatory aspect is only one distinguishing characteristic of Lighton's work. More pervasive, although not always as overt, is the allusion to sexuality inherent in her forms — a figurative consequence of modeling the sculptures that leaves them implicitly gendered. The sheath or enclosing hollow metaphorically links the forms to the female body. Both vaginal and womb-like, this formal trait suggests not only the material characteristics of the biological female, but also those conceptual aspects of eroticism and reproduction that are part of a uniquely feminine experience. Concerned with a sense of self as gendered, Lighton projects a personal vision onto the sculptures. At the same time, recognizing that gender marks broad classes of beings, she has conceived of her works as vehicles of a more amplified feminism.

A self-proclaimed spirit of the seventies, Lighton has drawn her feminist vision from the essentialist philosophy espoused by the founders of the Women's Movement in American art. Artists such as Judy Chicago and Joyce Kozloff saw in ceramics a reflection of the general condition of craft as a traditionally, even fundamentally, feminine mode of expression and consequently one that had been systematically marginalized by the masculine devotion to isolation, austerity, and suffering in Modernism. The work of these feminist pioneers emphasized not only the communal and traditional nature of craft as opposed to the avant-gardist and individualist tendencies of Modern art, but stressed the value of the decorative potential of pattern and color as well.

If pattern does not figure significantly in Lighton's work, her color is tendentiously decorative. Not only does she select floral hues which in nature serve explicitly to attract the eye, directing pollen-carrying insects from blossom to blossom, but she also makes prodigious use of colored lusters to add gloss to her surfaces. As a consequence, the process of coloring her hand-built earthenware forms — a process that she equates with "dressing" the pieces — can be complicated, requiring multiple firings.

In Lighton's work these subtle transitions of color collaborate with the roundness of forms to prevent an overly sculptural rigidity, a formal rigor mortis. At the same time, Lighton is not concerned to achieve a slavish detailing and heightened sense of naturalism characteristic of trompe l'oeil representation. Her interest lies exclusively in the symbolic value of form, and she consciously avoids passages of excessive realism that might compromise the potential of her work to communicate on a figurative rather than a literal level. The hybridity of plant and animal features the mingling of blood and chlorophyll in tissues that are both leaf and skin, the enveloping action of forms that are simultaneously blossoms and genitalia, the curly stems turned snakes or intestines serves to distance Lighton's sculptures from the mundane spaces of earth, air, and water, raising them to an abstract plane.

On this plane, a distinctive vision of femininity emerges from the cohesion of a warm, sensuality, a voluptuous carnality that adheres in soft, embracing forms and coalescent rushes of florid color and an ostensibly antithetical impulse to aggression. The tensions of this apparent contradiction remain conspicuously unresolved in the works themselves, suggesting that Lighton envisions them as essential to the femininity she seeks to express.

For Lighton, the feminine is obviously complex, even ultimately irresolvable into a single archetypal form. Clearly, tensions, hybridity, even apparent contradiction characterize it as a concept. Her vision of the feminine does not acquiesce in stereotypes of frailty, but neither does it reject them in exaggerated favor of ferocity. Perhaps most importantly, it does not strive to achieve a neatly balanced unity of the two. Rather, Lighton's emblems of femininity seem calculated to express a certain openness, a fundamental freedom for the concept that they engage.

If there is an essentializing impulse to their service as symbols, they are obviously not overwhelmed by it. They appear, in other words, fully willing to assume ambivalence as an aspect of their definitive role, a strategy within their capacity as art to lay claim to the meanings of things.

Glen R. Brown, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Art History at Kansas State University and a specialist on contemporary ceramics and craft theory.


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