By April Gornik
Guest Columnist
North Haven, Long Island, NY, USA

Elizabeth King combines precisely movable figurative sculptures with stop-frame animation in works that blur the boundary between actual and virtual object. Her work is in permanent collections nationwide including the Hirshhorn Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Hood Museum of Dartmouth, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Awards for her work include a 2014 Anonymous Was A Woman Award, a 2006 Academy Award in Art from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a 2002-03 Guggenheim Fellowship, and a 1996-97 Fellowship in the Visual Arts at the Mary Ingraham Bunting Institute, now the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.

She is Professor Emeritus in the Sculpture Department at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she taught for 30 years and is the subject of a new documentary entitled Double Take - The Art of Elizabeth King. I had the opportunity to visit with her when she was in New York for this Conversation.


Double Take – The Art of Elizabeth King (Courtesy of Floating Stone Productions)


APRIL GORNIK: I recently saw a show at the Met Breuer (that you should have been in!) called “Like Life.” Of the contemporary sculpture included, quite a bit of it was hyper-realistic (Duane Eddy, John De Andrea, Ron Mueck). Oddly, that is not represented much in contemporary painting exhibits. Do you think of your work in terms of “realism?”

ELIZABETH KING: Did you see a show a few years ago that traveled to the National Gallery in Washington, titled “The Sacred Made Real?” Curated by Xavier Bray, then of the National Gallery in London, it borrowed a number of extraordinary 17th century Spanish polychrome sculptures from cathedrals in Europe, and exhibited them in a state-of-the-art museum setting, lit with superb theater. It was one of the most sublime shows of sculpture I've ever seen (I wrote about it in a short essay for The Art Bulletin). I think that show helped break all remaining early modern prejudice against painted sculpture, long labeled church illustration for the illiterate. The current Met Breuer show extends the challenge both backwards and forwards in time, spanning centuries, and it welcomes onstage not just paint, but wax, hair, fabric, glass eyes, jointed limbs, and the anatomical representation of viscera. I've not seen the show yet, but it surely combines art, science, and spectacle in a way that has long been wanting…rolling in ecstasy at our feet. “Realism” itself demands three dimensions. 

But realism is such an old-fashioned term now!  



APRIL GORNIK: More profoundly, at the same show at the Met Breuer I was impressed that most artists were represented by a single figure confronting the viewer, allowing for, and inviting, a high degree of intimacy in the experience of each piece. Your work absolutely has a laser-like effect of one-on-one involvement for the viewer. Is this something you think about?

ELIZABETH KING: Many of the historical works will have been extracted from context for this show; and contemporaries, like Segal, De Andrea, Hanson, Ahearn, and sometimes Mueck, deliver explicit or implicit narratives. The sculptures are actors on a stage, the figures are all busy doing things. Perhaps the curators designed the show to orient solo figures towards direct contact with viewers. But your question is so essential and interesting for any figurative sculptor. Even if a figure is doing nothing, and baldly faces you: it is close to impossible to make a sculpture convincingly look at the viewer. Painters can do this, especially with self-portraits, and it is thrilling, but sculpture can't choose the angle from which it is seen. I used to spend all kinds of time trying to step into the line of sight of a portrait sculpture, especially Jean Antione Houdon's portraits, with their astonishingly carved gazes and eyeballs, catchlight and cornea rendered in stone. Nothing stony about those stares! But you are right, I want this confrontation in my own works, or at least the promise of it. The figure waits for you. The great Egyptian Old Kingdom tomb portraits are famous for their eye-following illusion. But one of the frontiers even today's robotics has yet to master is sustained line of sight. Even when you look at another person, is she really looking back at you, or is she lost in thought, eyes only turned your way? If we sculptors can't make a piece that looks back, we can try and make one that has a strong enough illusion of an inner life that you think it might look back, and you want it to.

More simply, my works are small, and you step in close to see them. I think right there, in intimate space, springs a theater for an audience of one. 


APRIL GORNIK: One of your sculptures is just an eye. Do you think this metonym has the same power as a single figure, or bust, or do you think of it as a metonym? What do you think is the difference?
Eye Sculpture

ELIZABETH KING: That eye is movable, around an internal brass ball-and-socket joint, so it can be posed on its stand to look in any direction. I made it in collaboration with an ocularist, Earle Schrieber: he created the eyeball in cast acrylic, and I made the mechanism. Then I added eyelids, two thin shells I carved in wood, attached at each side of the eyeball with tiny springs. Could I have a movable eye with separately movable lids? It was a study piece, a design I thought I could scale down and incorporate in a small posable head. But the mechanics interfered with the sculpture in too overt a way (my best problem - not losing the coherence of the form to the machine). Instead, I discovered my test eye made a perfect model for stop-frame animation, and I got carried away with capturing its blink and its gaze on film. Only later did I appreciate that the eye alone could conjure a presence. Such a tiny motion, and only a fragment of the body, and we still grant it agency. The metonym came of its own accord. 


APRIL GORNIK: The contemporary history of figurative sculpture is full of perversity. How do you feel about this? Does it go with the territory? Could people interpret your work in that fashion, or would that be a misinterpretation? I’m thinking of work that collages bones or bone-like armatures with more realistic heads, e.g.

Following up, are you familiar with the concept of the uncanny valley? Is this something you find compelling? It may not work for broad audiences in popular animation, but it certainly activates a powerful response.

ELIZABETH KING: As infuriating as Freud's essay “The Uncanny” is, it contains the best close analysis of “classes of frightening things” of any text I know. The field of Artificial Life, working to close the gap between human and machine, calls the uncanny valley that sudden drop in certainty about whether a thing is alive or not. The human-machine interface breaks down when the uncanny valley appears, but literature and film revel in it, don't they. We fans have come to savor it, for the ways it lets us dissect our fears in the guise of theater and fiction. But I don't see my own works operating in the uncanny valley, for their pretense to life is overt and this is the subject of the work. There is another writer who has articulated something that has meant everything to me. Donald Keene, the great scholar of Japanese art, and honorary Japanese citizen, wrote about the evolution of the Bunraku puppets. He said: “Each step in the direction of further realism [was] accompanied by a simultaneous step in the direction of non-realism, as if those responsible for the fate of Bunraku knew of the dangers of surfeiting the public appetite for verisimilitude.” The contradiction hypnotizes us.


APRIL GORNIK: How did you come to be fascinated by articulation and movement as a sculptor?

ELIZABETH KING: As a kid I made puppets, and in art school I got interested in making puppets that could move in more subtle ways. Could I make a puppet shrug, or look askance, or be embarrassed? It wasn't the puppet show I was after, but the puppet as a thing in itself, a movable sculpture. Inventing movable joints, I studied the puppet traditions, and all kinds of anatomical manuals and orthopedic textbooks. One day, back in 1974, walking down the street in San Francisco, I saw a small jointed horse in a shop window, an antique wooden artist's mannequin. I couldn't take my eyes off it. I went in and asked the price. One thousand five hundred dollars, a sum beyond dream. It was awkwardly and badly posed in the window; only I could rescue it. I raced home and gathered all the family silver and jewelry that had been entrusted to me from childhood – my estate. Arms full and heart pounding I took the bus downtown to a high-end auction house for assessment. $200 max for the lot, the man yawned. In shock, I tried to take out a loan at a bank, my first lesson in failed collateral. No credit cards in those days. Finally I begged the shop owner for a one-year monthly payment plan, and walked out with the horse.


French Horse Mannequin (19th Century)

What it could do! Four sliding wood pieces for the withers, you could change its pose without losing its form. The neck a stack of slats around a flexible lead rod. Even the ears could be rotated. Wood-on-wood friction, part to part, held each pose without effort. No strings, no set screws to tighten. You could tilt the head just a quarter inch, and it would stay there. I posed and reposed it for hours. The smallest adjustment, and I would stand back and marvel at how the force and meaning of body's language could shift. 

I learned to carve wood, and copy some of these joints, and I got rid of the strings on my puppets. Years later, I repaired antique wooden mannequins for dealers around New York, and learned even more. I couldn't afford to buy them, so I fixed them instead, rebuilding arms and fingers and joints, and I made drawings to possess them in my mind. My own works developed apace. Each show, I would pose a figure differently. I thought of this as a performance of sorts, just a very slow one. In 1991, through my friend Richard Kizu-Blair, a first chance to make a stop-motion animation with a sculpture….


What Happened (Silent Stop-Frame Animation - 1991)



Eidolon (Silent Live-Action Animation - 1998-1999)

In a show last year at MASS MoCA, I worked with stop-motion animator Mike Belzer. For seven days in front of viewers, on a vibration-proof stage the museum built, we set in motion a pair of jointed boxwood hands I made, and people could see a bit of the painstaking film process. Twenty-four poses, and you get one second of animation. This time in front of our eyes, those same tiny but momentous changes, now on view for visitors. Putting a film studio in a gallery, crazy as it was, allowed the sculpture's motions to be seen in real time, too. This is my passion, to do this again with a new sculpture.     


APRIL GORNIK: I feel a profound sense of time in your work that’s both disturbing and calming. Do you think of your automaton’s movements as being rhythmic (almost musical)? I’m thinking specifically of “What Happened”, e.g., the first of your works I saw that flabbergasted me. And how did you like working collaboratively in that case?

ELIZABETH KING: Peter Schjeldahl, reviewing the current C├ęzanne show in Washington, wrote the most exquisite definition of Cubism, conjuring the mind and the body in time: “Each daub can seem to record a discrete look, at a moment isolated in time. Sometimes the eyes in a portrait peer in different directions, evidence of the discontinuous process. Picasso and Braque adapted the effect to create Cubism: visual reality fragmented in fealty to how our eyes take it in before our brains compose the illusion of having seen it whole.” (I swoon over the word “fealty.”) He reminds us, in this lovely phrase, of the paradigm shift in our very definition of “realism” that Cubism brought, dissecting the act of looking into its temporal leaps and reverse-engineered summations. Maybe this is why I loved shooting an animation in the gallery. On a nearby monitor we showed Mike's computer screen, where he was viewing the animation up to that moment over and over again, to compose the hands for the next frame. So you could see the film in progress, back up and forward, back up and forward. And then you could turn your head and see the sculpture in real time and real space, and see Mike manipulating it in micro-fine increments, the pose changing every few minutes. Film time, real time. Two kinds of time, two kinds of advance, and two kinds of looking. 

I choreograph the motion to be very slow and to appear involuntary. I am a minimalist of gesture, but a maximalist of time. This is extremely difficult in stop-motion, for it requires each incremental pose change to be extremely tiny, almost imperceptible. Twenty-four frames, twenty-four poses, to seamlessly raise a tiny finger one inch. I'm pushing the real-world limits of the skill. I can't do this without a master animator. I've collaborated with Mike twice, and it has been the great privilege of my artist's life. That he was willing to animate in front of an audience blew me away. His concentration and physical control over an eight- or ten-hour day was staggering. Imagine what it is to see this! He is a surgeon of time.


APRIL GORNIK: Your website is called thesizesofthings.com. We’ve spoken before about miniaturization and its potency. Can you speak to this, especially in your most recent work?

Elizabeth King's Studio - Works in Progress

ELIZABETH KING: I think when you change the size of something in art, metaphor rushes in. Plus, with a figure, if it is not life-size, you know it hasn't been just cast from life. It has to be made from scratch, with all the hazard and luck and strategy we want to see in art. (3D printing is changing this, but that's another subject.)

I read somewhere that your image in a mirror is always exactly half life-size, no matter how far from the mirror you stand. I couldn't believe this and put pieces of tape on a mirror for reference while I stood at different distances from it. About the small scale of my work, I've always told myself it is because there is a biological limit to how large a spot you can focus on at any one time. It's called accommodation. At arm's length, it's an area only about the size of a dime. Closer up, a little larger. Because I am looking closely, as close as I can, fate and anatomy seem to deliver a specific size in my hands. And your hands have their own fate, too. I've tried to work larger, and it sometimes freaks me out that this scale forces itself on me. Have I really so little say in it? Giacometti said that sculpture produced by early civilizations is commonly small, “… and,” he goes on, “I think this actually was the size that instinctively seemed right, the size one really sees things. And in the course of history, perception has been mentally transposed into concept. I can do your head life-size because I know it's life-size. I don't see directly anymore, I see you through my knowledge.”

The size one really sees things… what does this mean? That it literally could fit inside our head?


APRIL GORNIK: With few exceptions, I think of your work as autobiographical and usually self-portraits. Of course there’s the argument that all art is autobiographical…but do you in fact think of it this way?



Double Take (Silent Live-Action Animation - 2017)

ELIZABETH KING: There was a wonderful article in the Times years ago titled “What Really Goes On In There?” – it was a review by George Johnson of Daniel Dennett's 1991 book Consciousness Explained. I like the review title better than the book title, but the book is terrific and Dennett is famous for it. It is all about the “Cartesian theater” of our mind, and the illusion that we are in charge in this theater, that there is a tiny homunculus in there projecting the world on a screen and telling us what we think. Dennett debunks this intuition in a riveting way. Yet we persist in believing. We can't help it. Our very language produces the roominess of the mind. We profoundly feel we move the furniture around “in here” every day, ears to the door, eyes to the keyhole. In graduate school I made a theater that fit around my actual head, with a homunculus (a tiny puppet of a wizened old woman) inside on a stage. I think of it, now that I've read Dennett, as putting my head inside a model of my head. Later, when the puppets turned into a more complicated kind of sculpture, I modeled their heads in clay, and cast these in porcelain slip in multi-part plaster molds. You pour the liquid slip in the mold, let it sit for an hour, then pour it out, take the mold apart, and you have a hollow casting. I noticed how much time I spent inside those hollow heads after each of four firing stages, refining the orifices (nostrils go all the way in), cutting a hatch in the back so I can take it off like a cap, but perfecting the cap so it will fit back on and latch in place, installing springs and mechanics for movable eyes, and building the ball-and-socket joint at the top of the neck, just behind the jaw. I work from the inside out, as much as the outside in. The heads are real containers. For reference, I make life casts of my own face, the inside of my nostrils and ears, shave my head to find out its shape. The sculptures are small, so I wear 3X surgeon's loupes and look into the head through the empty eye sockets to guide what my fingers and tools are doing through the hatch or the open neck. The whole process is invasive. I can't ask someone else to let me do this! I would feel uncomfortable even with the sculpture, slicing off this and drilling through that. I look at the darkness inside another person's ear, and the mystery of our individual existence howls in my own ear. We are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139). Indeed I am terrified.  Moreover, what am I thinking all this time? The process of making a head becomes a practice for contemplating the riddle of our conviction of an inner life. It really isn’t about me. I hope viewers see the specificity and particularity of a given face, and understand that this is an individual, though one without a name. Can I make a figure that itself projects the illusion of an inner life? I don't know how to put it there from the outside. 




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April Gornik is best known for her landscape paintings. Her work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art and many significant private collections. She has been awarded the Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award from Guild Hall Academy of the Arts and the Award of Excellence for Artistic Contributions to the Fight Against AIDS from amfAR.





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