Photography by Zach Mazur, Museum of Art/WSU
PULLMAN – From monumental works that claim a piece of the skyscape to small sculptures that sit on a tabletop, Seattle artist Claudia Fitch is continually exploring an alternate universe where unexpected twists make the familiar new again.
Her work is both playful and unsettling, the cartoonish and the classical juxtaposed, or meshed, as the spirit moves her.
Starting Jan. 13, visitors to the Museum of Art/WSU will have the opportunity to see an entire exhibit of her work spanning more than 20 years. The colorful collection includes sculpted chandeliers, topiaries, pencil drawings, abstract paintings, fantastically shaped ceramic figures and installations that seem to grow from the exhibit walls and creep across the space.
Fitch will be in Pullman to give an artist’s lecture at 7 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 20. It’s a rare opportunity because most often her work, particularly public art, is experienced one piece at a time.
For instance, here in Washington state, there are the six “Colossal Heads” at Qwest Field; a grid of columns titled, “The Balance of One Order Within Another,” at the Eastgate Park and Ride in Bellevue; and “Shift,” two 30-foot-tall lamps at the Lynnwood Regional Express Transit Center.
While staging a survey of Fitch’s smaller work and installations is an opportunity, it’s also a challenge. Fitch said she is very particular about the context for her art, including how people approach it. When she’s creating or installing one piece, she can focus on that. But when she has more than 20 pieces in one exhibit, it becomes much more complicated to work out how they all fit together.
The works are theatrical and decorative and imply a story, Fitch said, but they do not “tell” a story other than what the viewer chooses to bring.
“They are the backdrops to a story of daily middle-class life that is so commonplace that it is often taken for granted,” she said. “When taken out of context, studied closely, reiterated and magnified, the merely decorative has a more potent influence than we usually give it.”
Furniture, guardian lions, hedges and jewelry displays speak of staid conventions and values, she said; but underneath, they have a beauty that is both horrifying and humorous.
“I try to let the whole gestalt of the experience lead me where I need to go,” Fitch said. “I try to let the materials tell me what to do.
“There’s nothing logical to it except a piece that is performing well,” she said. What does it mean to perform well? “It has animated energy,” she said. “It is compelling.”
Museum Curator Keith Wells said he was excited to bring Fitch’s work to WSU.
“I always look for range and diversity,” he said. Fitch’s work shows both, he said, but it also shows a unity of purpose.
Trained as a painter with degrees from the University of Washington and the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, Fitch is primarily known as a sculptor. Her materials are eclectic: ceramic, wood, steel, fiberglass, plastic and urethane foam.
On Fitch’s homepage, she writes that she was inspired to become a sculptor while living in Rome as a graduate student.
“I was fascinated by the power of good urban/streetscape design and its intentional enfolding of sculpture as a counterpoint to architectural rhythms, visually setting the stage for a rich social drama,” she writes.
She is still fascinated by the interplay of sculpture and architecture, she said, and she has explored that interest in multiple works, from large-scale public art to smaller pieces that spring forth in storefront windows or on traffic islands in New York City.
The WSU exhibit includes a series of topiaries she created using a steel frame and thousands of tiny plastic green leaves.
“I had a very strong image in my mind and I just wanted to see it,” she said, standing in front of a topiary shaped somewhat like a v. “There’s a world I associate with this.”
That world was inspired by row houses in Queens, N.Y., she said. Most front yards are not living spaces and so they have no furniture, only hedges and shrubs. Fitch said she decided to try to make plant life behave like a piece of furniture. For indoor exhibits, though, she uses plastic leaves, which adds another layer of meaning.
“It’s green but it’s not green,” she said. “That is the humor and the sadness of it.”