Gloria Carlos: Enveloped – MOCA London – Dr Michael Petry

Photo © Gloria Carlos

Two of the main schools of art practice in the early 21st century are dominant. The conceptual school, which draws its inspiration from Marcel Duchamp and traces its lineage to Warhol, Koons, and Goldsmith’s School of Art, sees the concept of the work as primary. Perhaps the second or equal in terms of production and scholarship is the school of making.

This is a continuation of a historic making of art and craft objects that returns to the earliest forms of human construction and painting. Painting has transformed from depicting preexisting forms by the Russian Constructivists and American Abstract Expressionists. It has valued the making process of hand and brush against the canvas, of paint as colour, form, and object in itself. There are other ways of making (digital, etc.), but these two schools of thought dominate, and Gloria Carlos firmly sits in the making camp.

© Gloria Carlos
© Gloria Carlos

Carlos leaves her figurative as well as actual fingerprints all over the sculptures she makes. Her works look haptic, and while with the larger pieces, the viewer is not allowed to touch or handle them, her smaller work, seen in a craft context, is wearable, haptic art. Her larger works are made from metal, plaster, and found objects, while her jewellery pieces can be made from silver, gold, brass and hand-beaten iron. She can weld and use a forge and anvil and is known for hand-beating the works into creation. Her jewellery work has found its way into Hollywood. It can be seen in the Mamma Mia 2 movie around the neck of no less an icon than Cher and on the hands and wrists of Daenerys Targaryen in the Game of Thrones television series. Her aesthetic is timeless or would not look out of place in many other previous times. One circular bracelet called Square Point is made of hand-forged iron with a 22k gold tip that comes to a sharp point. The point touches the other end of the same piece of metal, but that is a large squared-off end. Visually, the work tells of a journey from one form and language to another, from mean (iron) to rich (gold), from seemingly natural (square like the structure of a crystal) to highly worked (the golden point, and back again. The work is cyclic; the eye travels around it again and again without interruption.

You can wear it, or at least pick it up, feel the weight, and try it on.

This work makes me think of her larger sculptures and those, back to the jewels.

© Gloria Carlos
© Gloria Carlos

Carlos’ larger sculpture have an organic feel to them, they often look a bit like they might be living creatures, startled for a moment, stopped, so that they can assess the situation and the viewer. They seem to look back at us. She often mixes odd materials as in Envelope, where pink painted clay is pierced by a huge rusty nail she found in the Thames, or has the clay slowly surrounded and enveloped the nail? It is hard to say, and the tension between the two elements is what holds our attention. Her Wiggly Squiggly Series of roughly shaped clay objects have been coated in different colours of humbrol paint look as if they are huge living worms that are dancing to some mysterious rhythm. They look sweet but also deadly as if they were the creatures in the Alien series. They look like they might slip down your throat whether you wanted that or not. You might want to pick them up, or at least hold them by their neck to keep them at bay. But don’t touch.

She says her sculptural work is based on the concept of ‘Voids’, in that what is not there, is as much at play as what we can see. Certainly many works are airy and spill out into the space, sending fronts or tendrils out from a main body, and while these works speak to a physical void, Carlos says the works are more infused with an emotional void, or a relationship to such a felt void. The haptic is not as strong as the physiological. Each sculpture has some distinct personal meaning or memory for the artist, but one she does not share with the viewer so that they can come to the work clean as it were, fresh and ready to engage it on its own physical terms. Red Thing with Nails, is just that but it also clearly has a meaning for the artist that we are not privy to. Pillow Talk is pink and a bit girlie, which goes against so much of her other work, and yet it obviously has a very distinct story which we can only guess at. And yet, it does not seem to matter, as the shapes are so inventive and the combination of elements that are so clearly at odds with each other (found wooden planks, plaster, tempera paint) are often magical.

Photo © Gloria Carlos
Photo © Gloria Carlos

They charm us; they are charming, and that is a good thing.

The newest works she plans to exhibit at MOCA London take these concepts further and have all the haptic appeal of her jewellery. She says “I work with plaster and found materials and objects. I love the versatility and immediacy of plaster, of applying it directly with my hands, and its tactile and textural nature. My use and choice of objects is done with intention and purpose and becomes an integral part of shaping the piece as a whole.” In one of the new works, a white plaster form curls in on itself while sitting on a green metal industrial lampshade. In another work, a shiny silver-shaped form envelops an antique

base, which flares out. It looks like it might be a candle holder or the base of some Victorian lamp, and the silver form complements and complements it. It also looks like its biomorphic neck has been snapped in two. It has the sad feel of a dead animal. In another work, a black-painted plaster object tucks its head and long neck into a found object. Here it laces itself into the handle of a beaten-up aluminium colander. This object looks alive and might carefully pull its head out and fly off yet I wonder what it means to Carlos, what void does it either fill or allude to.

Photo © Gloria Carlos
Photo © Gloria Carlos

What’s happening here? Carlos says “All my work is conceived from life experiences that my brain translates and expresses into shapes. Though I begin with a specific visual and emotional context in mind, the joy for me is when the creative process leads me to new and unexpected places.” The viewer also finds joy in the works, they often make you smile, or feel possessive about them. The new works long to be stroked, the haptic allude is strong and I imagine many will touch them when they think no one is looking. You long to know if the surface is hard or soft and yielding. Will your finger go in deep if you push it hard? Can you pet them like a domestic animal, do they bite, are questions that flicker across our subconscious mind.

Such thoughts surface, and we know that the protocol of a gallery space is such that doing so would see us ejected at best and arrested at worst, but Carlos’ works seemingly demand to be handled. The sculptures speak of the hand as much as the jewels. It is easy to get emotive about them, as they are conceived in and made of that domain. The works remind us of Eva Hesse’s fragile works from the 1960s. Hesse’s use of latex and other non-permanent materials has meant that many (most) of her works have aged, discoloured and very much fallen apart. They do not look like the work she presented then, but she has said Life doesn’t last; art doesn’t last(Arthur Danto, 2006).

One looks at the sculptures of Carlos and wonders if they, too, will disappear, unlike her strong, timeless jewellery. It seems perfectly possible that her sculptures will dissolve in a hard rain, the plaster melting away, the painted-on colour running like water down a drain. Carlos has said of the new works, “My sculptures begin with the concept of enveloped and the images it evokes on a personal level: love, loss and family. Each piece then developed its own path during the making process.” – Dr. Michael Petry

Top Photo installation shot © Gloria Carlos

Gloria Carlos:  Enveloped MOCA London 16 June – 20 July 2024 Opening Sunday 16 June, 2 – 4 pm

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