Book of Poems, 1987–2021. Original poems, glazed raku, stainless steel wire, and video, 42 units, 70 x 372 x 1 in. overall. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Sculpture Eats Iron: A Conversation with Catherine Lee

Catherine Lee has explored abstraction in painting and sculpture, language and writing. Emphasizing materiality and process through idiosyncratic combinations of painting, installation, and sculpture, her works gather in large, familial groups placed on floors or walls. These primal forms, reminiscent of ancient masks, shields, weapons, or standing stones, are complicated by surfaces enriched with incisions, color, patina, or glaze. Lee’s emphasis on materiality has its origins in her choice of transmutable materials—“anything that has been in a liquid state,” as she puts it—which she then subjects to processes that radically transform them. The surfaces of her ceramic works testify to the rigors of fabrication that they have undergone—glazes have fissured and bubbled, metallic origins lie exposed, surfaces have been stained by reduction firing, with edges deeply cracked and sometimes warped. Mutability interests her, as well as chanciness and instability.

Lee is particularly concerned that her work communicates meaning through the metaphorical uses of abstraction. She has been writing poetry for decades, a practice that along with video, comes to the fore in her current bodies of work, Obsidians, The Bardo, and Book of Poems. These expansive, multipart works, which serve as a setting for social critique, literary narrative, and personal revelation, incorporate poems she has written about the climate crisis, relationships, making art, and nature. One, from Book of Poems, describes how sculpture exists in the world: “sculpture / eats iron / & spits out fetishes / to be retooled / & labored / over & found & / lost & sold or / bought or just / thought on / in the dark / by the skulls / of ancient outliers / as the light / grows dim / fails / more recent makers / feel the heat of light / hear snow drifting into / windscreens or waltz / a snow borne song / the river cradles / the weight & / draft of barges / & these briefest / days careen / one into another / colliding / tuesday / into wednesdays / as the world / slides / furtively up alongside this / pale sun / tethered beholden kin / all / are outlanders here.”

Copper Clad, 2008. Patinated copper, wood, and screws, 96.5 x 66 x 9.5 in. Photo: Johannes Knauf, Courtesy Annely Juda Fine Art

Kay Whitney: In some ways, your objects are reductive and restrained, but your processes enrich them with detail. It’s an interesting mixture of sensibilities.
Catherine Lee:
I love turning the minimal to the maximal—not just staying within that minimal state but trying to bring a complexity to a minimalist aesthetic that resonates in some way that’s not just about purity or calm, but does something more robust. I appreciate things that are stripped down. In poetry, for instance, I don’t gravitate toward Wordsworth, I’d rather read Basho’s very minimal poems. Everything is fairly reductive in my life and my way of thinking. I try to bring everything to something basic and clear, that’s how I make sense of things. It’s one of the reasons why I’m attracted to using a grid—the end result becomes woven and deeper, with more layers of meaning.

KW: Is that one of your reasons for working in relational groups? Is that a way of adding complexity through repetition or a way of getting closer to the basics?
CL: For me, repetition is a kind of insistence. I make a thing, and I make it again and again until I know it as completely as I’m able. If there’s one fundamental thing that propels me forward every day in the studio, it’s that I have this need to make, to generate something—repetition is the thing that allows me to do that in a very muscular and profound way.

The idea of repetition also reflects something else that’s endemic to our environment, which is that there’s an insistence, a consistency of matter in the world—like birds, for instance. They’re 100 percent identifiable by species, and there’s no deviation from that—if there is, it’s a different species. They’re perfect little units of birdness, all identical in the wild. You could name any number of things that have motion and power on the earth, and you’re describing repetition. I’m reflecting that concept in my work. What I’m saying is that having one bird, a cardinal, for instance, is amazing. But who wouldn’t be even more moved by a flock of cardinals?

The Bardo (detail), 1987–ongoing. Original poems, glazed raku ceramic, stainless steel wire, and audio, 86 x 320 x 1 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

KW: How does the very physical element of raku come into the mix?
The great thing about clay is that it will take on everything I put to it, every thought and emotion and mark. What I love about raku, both the material and the process, is that it’s tougher than me, more stubborn, more generous, and just indefatigable. It absorbs everything I throw at it; it almost never gives up, no matter how many times it’s reworked or refired. Best of all, it is wholly unpredictable and a force to reckon with. It always seems like a gift when a finished piece is finally pulled from the ashes. And if it does fail, at least it fails spectacularly by exploding into bits.

KW: I’m interested in how you developed your vocabulary of forms. Where did the modified shield shape you frequently use come from?
I don’t know if they’re tablets or shields or hearts or implements or all of those. It’s a very cryptic form, standing for a lot of signs relevant to mankind. In some works, it’s almost a heart shape; in others, it’s a kind of glyph. Or it can be very elongated with sharp edges, knife-like, or it might seem like an arrowhead, yet never exactly that. They also remind me of amphorae, another crucial tool for humans, a hung vase for holding precious water.

Finity, 2018–20. Glazed raku and nails, 131 x 93 x 1 in. Photo: Courtesy Galerie Karsten Greve

KW: When did you first start using text in your work?
CL: In 2009–10, while my mother was still alive, I made a work about her and named it Alice after her. It has 105 pieces, all with a similar kind of heart or shield shape, all in a bright, dragon-red color. The totality of it, its sum, is far greater than its parts. Any one of the units is interesting, I think, but their totality speaks more cogently to who she was. Written onto the sides are names of people who were important to her, all the people whom she loved and was loved by.

KW: Book of Poems, one of your most recent text pieces, consists of poems written over the course of several decades. How did you decide to use this other aspect of your creative life in your sculpture?
CL: I wrote the poems just for myself. I kept them tucked away in a box and rarely showed them
to anyone. Between 2020 and 2021, my mother died, my younger sister died, then my older sister died,
and it follows that I was confronted with my own mortality—as were we all during the pandemic. Early on in that Covid-time, I came across this big box of poems and thought, “Why are these in a box? What’s the point of that? Why am I not bringing everything that I have of myself to the work that I do, while
I’m still here?” That’s the moment when I decided to bring the poems into the sculpture.

Alice, 2010. Glazed raku and stainless steel wire, 93 x 270 x 1 in. Photo: Courtesy Dallas Museum of Art

KW: What’s especially interesting is the universality and urgency of what you’ve written. The poems aren’t just personal; they grapple with something larger. How did you structure them within the series?
CL: My poems run from the mid-1970s up to the present. When I began Book of Poems, I initially selected a very few poems that were about loss—loss of friends, time passing, relationships that end—eventually asking myself, “What is the greatest loss?” And the answer was clear: our world, the world as we know it. So, early on, I moved toward poems that were about climate change and fear for the longevity of the earth, the loss of a wondrous place. There’s a vertical line in the middle of the piece, with three poems about art-making and what that gives back to me. I set those poems as the central pivot because they signal that everything in my world revolves around the making of things. Toward the end of Book of Poems, it comes back around to personal loss. And more recently, The Bardo makes reference to a possible state of being after death; it’s darker in color than Book of Poems and maybe more forgiving.

KW: I think of the texts that you’re using as more than just the words because they’re so physical. Text is usually thought of as something superimposed on the top of a surface—not in it. Aren’t you interfering with that convention?
CL: But I begin with flat, unfired slabs of clay, just a page on which I am embedding typography that disturbs the surface. It’s a weird thing that happens, where you get a crashing of un-alike things—the physicality of the surface with the linguistic—and somehow the two have to come together and become one other thing.

Them Dinosaurs, 2010–20. Glazed raku and copper wire, 17 x 12 x 1 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist. Watch a video of the poem here.

KW: The letters that make up the text are uneven and sometimes illegible. Glaze has run into each indentation, and the surfaces have been completely altered by raku firing. When I saw all 38 of them up on the wall, I registered the surfaces first; I didn’t read right off the bat.
The stamping becomes a kind of landscape; the typography/topography is really important. I’m using preformed metal letters over and over, which should be neutral, unexpressive, but all the nuances, the unevenness, and all the fire and fury that they have to go through alters them completely. When we think about expression and writing, we think about handwriting; emotion is revealed when you write a letter by hand, after all. But here, I don’t have that luxury, I only have the amount of pressure, the glaze pigmentation, the time that it fires, the temperature—all technical things—and yet it becomes very expressive. Oddly, it’s an environment that can’t be manipulated, you can’t direct what exactly it’s going to do. Raku just does what it’s going to do, and I have to let it.

KW: Given that you’re the writer, it’s surprising that you’re ok with it being difficult to read.
The poem exists elsewhere. It doesn’t have to exist everywhere and to exactly the same degree of accessibility. With the sculptures, I’m ok with it because they are performing a non-verbal feat that the printed poems don’t, and, in fact, can’t.

Installation view at Kunsthaus Wiesbaden, Wiesbaden, Germany, 2011. Photo: Johannes Knauf, Courtesy Galerie Karsten Greve

KW: The viewer’s physical relationship with Book of Poems is constantly changing: stand back and you see all 38 pieces as sculpture, come close and you’re given a poem. It’s interesting how the text is made coherent in the video of the piece. Do you think that the work changes when you hear the words read? As opposed to looking at it in silence?
CL: It’s a very eccentric form on the wall. There’s nothing in my work like it, making clusters that are maybe thematic or maybe not. Unlike my previous work, there’s a hierarchy starting to happen within the piece. In my mind, it starts on the left. The video tracks it from the left across, as we would read a book, and I read the poems one after the other—another kind of human rendering of all of those poems. The title, Book of Poems, is amusing to me, because it’s so obviously not a book, but a 30-foot-long sculpture. When it was installed in Cologne, there was a space adjacent to the work for screening the video so that the readings of each poem were audible while viewing the sculpture in real time. The audio—in fact, the video itself—is an integral part of the work.

When you experience Book of Poems as a video, you are presented with a third slant on it. There’s the raku poem on the left, the printed text on the right, and the voice. You can pick and choose—you can read the text, read the sculpture, listen to the reading, or any combination of those things. That’s the only way to give the words the dimensionality I want them to have. Without the voice, it stays either sculptural (the rakus) or two-dimensional (the printed text). Once you bring the voice into it, you’ve brought time, the fourth dimension, into the piece for viewers, who may or may not continue with their own readings. So, the video introduces something that I haven’t found in my work before. The work becomes a multi-dimensional thing, not just a two- or three-, or four-dimensional thing; instead, it fades in and out of those different ways of seeing, of being, which are defined by their dimensions.

KW: Color has been important in almost all of your previous work, but the range of color in Book of Poems and the related Obsidians is limited, and in some instances, it is clearly accidental. Why did you make this choice?
The initial thought was it’s a poem, it needs to have dark letters, either black or red, on a white ground. Later, I flipped that with the Obsidian pieces, which are black porcelain with white or red letters; it’s a reversal of Book of Poems, a blackboard instead of a whiteboard. Both address the textual nature of what I’m doing.

Immediate the Resonance of No, 1994–2021. Glazed cassius basaltic porcelain and copper wire, 16.5 x 12 x 1 in. Detail of Obsidians, 1990–2022. Photo: Courtesy the artist

KW: I hear so much metaphorical content in what you’re describing, something to do with truth.
Even the idea of the Obsidians being the negative of these other pieces seems meaningful.

CL: For me, there’s a sense of working out a problem—you could do it on a blackboard, like with
the Obsidians, or on a whiteboard, as with Book of Poems; they’re a vehicle for that kind of relationship to the poems, the making of the thing. I’m taking a poem and trying to transfer its energy, power, content, and yes, its truth, and embed all that in a sculpture. Abstraction is the definition of metaphor for me; everything I make is intended to be metaphorical in some way. When I’m cutting them and applying glaze to the letters, that’s where it starts to be something else, where it starts to become a sculpture as well as a poem. That’s where all the magic starts to happen for me. A poem is its own magic, but the conjoining of what’s verbal and what’s non-verbal is what matters here.

“A Poetics,” featuring Catherine Lee’s new raku/poem installations with video and audio components, will be on view at Galerie Karsten Greve in Cologne, November 4, 2023–January 6, 2024.