Woman, Red, 2021. Glazed ceramic, 4.5 x 8 x 9 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Salon 94, New York

A Conversation with Natalie Frank

Natalie Frank is a multidimensional artist who plays in the arena of the figure. After first garnering attention with ribald oil paintings, she expanded into drawing, illustrating such books as the unexpurgated Tales of the Brothers Grimm. More recently she has directed her explorations of power, sexuality, gender, and feminism into ceramic works. New ceramics, along with drawings and paper paintings, will be on view in her simultaneous two-gallery solo show, “Cross-dressing for the Battlefield,” on view at Salon 94 and Lyles & King, both in New York, from April 29 through May 23, 2021. She is also looking forward to the publication this spring of her fifth book,The Island of Happiness: Tales of Madame D’Aulnoy (Princeton University Press) as well as the June PBS premiere of Jar Full of Bees, a newly commissioned opera incorporating Frank’s drawings, composed by Paola Prestini and starring Met Opera soprano Eve Gigliotti. Here she sits down with Sculpture to discuss the leap from two dimensions to three.

Sculpture magazine: Although you are a painter, you have long worked in three dimensions, for instance with your cut-out painting. Do you have thoughts about that in relation to your practice as a painter?
Natalie Frank: I’ve always been interested in building the figure out to a three-dimensional vision on a two-dimensional page, so that it sort of makes sense transitioning from oil painting to ceramics. But I think, also, having taken a detour into drawing and then moving with drawing into making these books and then of course ballet, there was a very strong pull to the three-dimensional. Moving into other dimensions allows me to think about building the work in a painting, practically, because that’s what these ceramics are, they are paintings come to life—taking it out of a flat surface and into a kind of world-building. The books really afforded me the beginning to experience other worlds, where a drawing could exist on the page, and it could reference texts but also work in real time in amalgamation through the experience of reading a book that is highly illustrated. Then, with Grimm’s Tales, taking it to the stage in my collaboration with Ballet Austin, bringing it literally into three-dimensional life. I applied painting to all the props and head pieces and worked with an artist to design and hand-paint all the textiles, and all of the characters came out of flat, two-dimensional drawings. So, strangely, looking back over this trajectory, moving into ceramic sculpture makes a lot of sense.

When I started building these ceramics, I noticed there was a template I was very interested in, which was a painted image of a woman on a slab (I do slab hand-building) that’s been shaped to become like a handle of a bowl. I really like the associations with domesticity, religious connotations of a woman as a chalice, and these sorts of symbols that are really embedded in the history of art, and blurring the line between functional objects and painting, and their different gender associations. So, I started building these women cups—the women are the handles, and you have to grab them to pick up the object. They became this surface I could make a painting on, but then, as in my paintings, I’m drawn to the figure and the rest is kind of noise to me. With ceramics it gives me a chance to play with the materiality of the medium, and I can experiment with drawing on these surfaces, glazing, underglazing, dip glazing, mixing glazes, and am able to explore my love of painting and feminist portraiture but also materiality at the same time.

Woman, Green, 2021. Glazed ceramic, 3.5 x 6.5 x 4 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Salon 94, New York

Sculpture: How did you get into ceramics in the first place?
NF: I’d always wanted to try to make them, and during the pandemic there was a lull in work and I just started going to this studio that had an opening, Choplet Ceramics in Williamsburg. It’s run by this woman, Nadeige Choplet, who is just sensational. She has this old house, and it’s converted into a ceramics studio. It’s so nice to go where you get to meet people, see their friendly faces, and yet there’s not forced interaction. You’re all working in the same space, and people are very generous about sharing knowledge. I started last November or December. I took a class and quickly realized I couldn’t throw, so I’m taking another class. Because of that, the majority of the work is hand-built. I was just sitting around a good 14 hours per week in the studio and I would just teach myself, watch some YouTube videos, and experiment, see what cracked, what worked. I fell in love with underglazing but also with glazing.

Sculpture: You’re building the forms and then painting on them?
NF: Yes.

Sculpture: What comes first, the form or the image?
NF: Usually the image first, and then the form accommodates the image. But unlike with drawing, where you make something, you leave, and you come back and it looks the same, in ceramics you never know how something is going to turn out because overnight it’s going warp or in the kiln it’s going to crack or your glazes are going to turn different colors, glazes may drip off entirely, and what you thought was going to be blue is no longer there. For someone who makes tightly controlled work, I enjoy that element of menace.

Sculpture: With the images, do you work the way you do on paintings?
NF: I work from a combination of photographs, imagery I find on the Internet, and imagination. With drawing I sit down and if I’m going to think of a scene in a book, I know what’s going to happen on that page, the action that’s going to occur. But with ceramics you think like eight steps ahead, because first you’re going to build the form, then it has to dry, and if it survives that process without cracking, then I use underglazing and I paint it, then it dries, then it has to be fired, and if it survives that then I use dripping glazes on top of the underglazes, and so it’s a whole new process of refining and changing what I’ve already done, and it can radically change it. You can paint a figure and dip it in a transparent blue and not only will it probably become blue but it will become red or another color from all of these other interactions that you had no way of knowing would happen. By the time it comes out of the second glazing, there are so many steps that have happened.

Woman, Blue Sky, 2021. Glazed ceramic, 9 x 7 x 7 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Salon 94, New York

Sculpture: And the imagery itself?
NF: It’s feminist portraiture. The women are always looking out at the viewer, kind of confrontationally, direct stares, a little carnivalesque, a little bit of drag. I really love the color you can get with ceramics. With the underglazings, there’s such a wide range of color you can use. And specialty glazes: there’s one I’ve been using called the Texas Two Step, and it’s a two-part oil glaze—I’ve been using red and white—and you do multiple layers and they become like polka dots. It’s almost like upholstering furniture around oil paintings, that’s kind of how I think of it. I felt like in drawing everything I was bringing to the table was coming from my hand, and in ceramics there are so many other supporting players that it almost takes the pressure off of trying to put everything into each figure. 

The underglazing can be so bright, and then you dip it in a transparent yellow and it becomes even weirder. I think with my synesthesia there’s this extra level of richness that I see and feel, it’s like there are so many more ingredients in the kitchen. It’s like using a language that you’ve never been able to use before. 

Sculpture: When you began with ceramics were you purely experimenting or were you looking at other artists?
NF: In the beginning I was playing ,and then I started to become obsessed with ceramic artists. Tony Marsh, who is the master, has been incredibly supportive and has taught me a lot. I was supposed to be out last summer at Long Beach working with him in an artist residency program—so my desire to learn ceramics predates Covid. But that was canceled. We talk sometimes and whenever I have questions, I bombard him. Brian Rochefort has been fantastic and I really love his work. And there are tons of artists I’ve connected with on Instagram. Of course, Francesca Di Matteo is someone I love. I bought a piece of Chris Hammerlein’s a couple of years ago, and I think that’s where the seed of trying to start making ceramics was planted—I looked at his work and was extremely jealous. I wanted to make work that looked like that. 

Woman with Crow, 2020. Linen paper pulp on cotton base sheet, 27 x 21 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Salon 94, New York

Sculpture: Are you going to play with scale? What are your ambitions for ceramics?
NF: The work now is under a foot but yes, I would like to play with scale. There is something I like about these smaller objects. I want to keep learning and playing, but I have to take a pause because of these other performing arts projects and a new book, on E.T.A. Hoffmann, but of course I’m hoping to continue. I mean, I’ve started to dream about ceramics—I have nightmares about glazes. I’ve started to mix my own glazes too.

Sculpture: Can you tell us a bit about the shows?
NF: It’s two gallery solo shows. Salon 94 will have a more straightforward presentation: a wall of ceramic works paired with paper paintings I make at Dieu Donné. There are a lot of similarities between those and the ceramics. Starting with the paper paintings, I was moving outside of the traditional rectangle. I would start with the rectangle and then add elements, a handmade paper base sheet and then paint on top of that. It’s interesting to see them side by side because the figures are really pushing out and the edges are really celebrated through the medium. Because I’ve been a painter for so long, there’s something about my hand that translates in an interesting way when it’s not a hospitable material or medium. Forcing my oil-painter hand into handmade paper-making or into ceramics does something more interesting to me than just straight oil painting. It perverts it, changes it, in a way. The show at Lyles & King will be these large wall vinyls made from my drawings. Women’s heads will be paper paintings, and the bodies will be drawings on vinyl. It will be nine women looking out at the viewer—dominatrices, ball gowns, different races, different types of women, almost all seated, almost like a Last Supper or Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party. There will also be three wall paintings, one of which will have a paper painting as a head, with her skirt blowing up to reveal her crotch, which is a ceramic piece, and an image of Joan of Arc, with a paper painting as the head. The show is called “Cross-dressing for the Battlefield,” and Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for heresy and for crossdressing.