Guilty Bystander
Guilty Bystander (detail), 2018. Jelutong wood, enamel, and oil paint, 51.1875 x 11.8125 x 16.5 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

Relationships Between Figures: A Conversation with Claudette Schreuders

Claudette Schreuders is a South African artist based in Cape Town. Her work has been exhibited in many institutions internationally, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Smithsonian Institution, the British Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “In the Bedroom,” her sixth exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery, is on view through June 22, 2019.

Sculpture: What originally led you to begin carving figures?
Claudette Schreuders: I started carving figures as an undergraduate at Stellenbosch University. We had a project carving polystyrene covered with plaster, and then my lecturer suggested that I try wood. It was basically a self-taught process—I got the hang of it as I worked. We didn’t specifically have lessons in how to carve wood, but I eventually learned how to use the grain. The first one was a flop, but the second one was fine.

Sculpture: Were you looking at a lot of other wood carving at the time?
CS: I was looking at copies of medieval sculptures in the art department and also at Colon figures, West African sculptures. And there were quite a lot of black artists in South Africa then, self-taught artists whose work was being seen for the first time. Their works were also carved and painted wooden figures. They were suddenly visible at that time, in 1994.

Sculpture: And were they the same scale as the figures that you carve?
CS: It’s quite funny, I did a lot of preparation before making my first full-figure sculpture. I did a drawing, I even made a little painting, and it was kind of more realistic proportionally, but then the head ended up much bigger than it would be on a person. A lot was dictated by the wood. You have one solid piece, and then I start carving that block or log.

Claudette Schreuders
Burning Secret, 2018. Jelutong wood and enamel paint, 25.625 x 11.8125 x 9.875 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

Sculpture: Do you find the figure in the wood, or do you find wood that suits your designs?
CS: I find wood for a figure I have in mind. I know what I want to make before I make it. I do drawings, but not too detailed. I used to work in logs, but that comes with some risks—there’s much more chance of cracking. If you take planks and build your block and then carve, it’s much more stable. But I used to always work in jacaranda logs, and they were pretty stable. I used to keep a lot and then look for what I could use when I needed one. Now I buy wood and make the size I need.

Sculpture: What kind of wood do you use?
CS: I work in Jelutong and limewood and camphor; I don’t work so much in jacaranda anymore because it’s not so nice to carve once it’s cured, and I haven’t been working in logs for a while. I’ve got a sculpture in teak right now, and that is very, very hard.

Sculpture: Your work is characterized as narrative. Do you conceive of narratives for the figures, or do other people just project onto them?
CS: I think a lot of it is projection, but I make them in such a way that you would maybe want to project onto them. It’s more that I think of a group and how the relationship between each individual would suggest a narrative. It’s relationship between figures—the context gives them a kind of, I don’t know if you’d call it a narrative, but a potential to be interpreted in a certain way, because everything is so loaded anyway. I try to keep it quite open.

Sculpture: Do you think of your pieces as characters or just figures?
CS: I use references for faces, almost always, because I tend to be a little unspecific if I just think of a face. If I’m trying to make a portrait of someone specific, which I also do, then I use references all the time and make drawings from different angles, so I know how the face is put together. Otherwise I just take a face and have one view, and I use it to help me get the face, but it doesn’t have to look like the person, it just has to be a convincing person.

Boy, 2018. Jelutong wood, enamel, and oil paint, 17.6875 x 12.1875 x 11.8125 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

Sculpture: When you do portraits, are they commissioned or simply people you want to depict?
CS: I just choose who I want to make. I made a sculpture that’s a mother figure, and I used an artist’s face, just because I like her painting and I like the face, and I wanted to see if I could get that in the mother’s face. You don’t need to know that it’s her face, it just needs to look like it is possibly someone.

Sculpture: Do you conceive of whole shows or primarily individual works?
CS: I have two or three ideas, and then I build around them. Often I have one sculpture that gives the show its name, and then I build up around that, first in drawing. I was looking through my notebooks the other day, and I thought, “Oh, I made drawings for this show three years ago.” But then lots of the drawings that I made were scrapped, and others were added. Every now and then I think of only one figure, but mostly I think of them in groups.

Sculpture: Can you tell us how this show, “In the Bedroom,” came about?
CS: The oldest piece is The Guilty Bystander, one of three single female figures I’ve shown in South Africa before, the others being Spent and Hair. After I showed them, I came to feel that The Guilty Bystander is a loaded kind of thing. South Africa has a very loaded political atmosphere at the moment, and I thought I’d like to move away from something too political into something more private. And then I thought, “Retreat, retreat, retreat,” until I came up with the bedroom. I have a female figure climbing out of the chest of a man, like the creation where Eve climbs out of Adam’s chest, and two female figures standing really close together, so you can’t see the one behind the other: sex is really like two people being one person. And then, I had drawn this image that I didn’t know quite how to resolve technically, how to get two figures out of the same piece of wood, and it’s the next step of this thing that interests me, which is a person being part of another person. I think it’s always about the relationship between figures, and sometimes they completely become one. So, “In the Bedroom” has all these little domestic scenes, private scenes, scenes with children and animals.

Guilty Bystander, 2018. Jelutong wood, enamel, and oil paint, 51.1875 x 11.8125 x 16.5 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

Sculpture: Do the politics of being a white artist in South Africa affect you greatly?
CS: Yes. I spoke at Princeton recently, and one of the students said, “I see you have all these black figures. Are you allowed to carve black people?” That’s an interesting question. Because whites are a small minority in South Africa, is it more unacceptable to depict black people or to completely ignore them? Whatever you do is really loaded, and it’s become more so recently. Everything has become quite politicized and confrontational and, really, unpleasant, in part because it’s the run-up to an election now. I think it’s something that all artists are dealing with at the moment. I know white artists who say that they prefer not to work figuratively at all, it just seems to be a minefield. But, to me, this also makes it interesting. I don’t believe you can let people tell you what you can and can’t do. It kills any possibility of conversation if there are lots of things you can’t do; it just doesn’t seem that art is the place for people to say that.

One of the sculptures in the show is a bust of Cyril Ramaphosa, our president, and it’s included because it’s so jarring, so completely out of place. But it felt right because politics has infiltrated everything, and I thought, “This is where he belongs, in the bedroom, because you can never quite escape politics in South Africa.” You’d like to move on, but we haven’t been able to.

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