Infinity: Chain, 2017. Ceramic, 19 x 19 x 5 in. Photo: Jeff Mclane

Without Definitions: A Conversation with Julia Haft-Candell

An artwork is an odd kind of cipher—by the time viewers see it, it’s all veneer, divorced from the studio, stripped of the labor and history that went into its production (as well as its synergistic relationship with its creator), and polished up into an end product. Julia Haft-Candell, who lives and works in Los Angeles, manages to bypasses the cipher while never losing sight of the cultural definitions attached to her chosen medium of clay. Her work retains all the traces of its history, revealing itself as a sum of processes that dovetail with larger conceptual concerns. Marked by candor, humor, and a total belief in the object as a vehicle for ideas, Haft-Candell’s body-oriented sculptures erase binaries but also forge a specific and intimate relationship with the viewer. Her craft-based process merges highly developed technical ability with intuition, giving a spontaneous, even casual appearance that belies the intensity of labor and acute attention to detail that went into the work.

Kay Whitney: In “the infinite,” your 2017 exhibition at Parrasch Heijnen Gallery in Los Angeles, one of the things that caught my eye was a zine that you produced, the infinite: Glossary of Terms and Symbols. This Glossary, which appeared in expanded form in “Carrier Bag of Fiction,” your recent solo show in New York at Candice Madey, allows you to do several things: it provides a generous introduction to your work and combines two languages often seen as being fundamentally at odds—the written word and the visual device. It’s diagrammatic without being didactic, and the epigraph comes from Ursula K. LeGuin, acknowledging the slippery, often gendered meaning of language and symbols.
Julia Haft-Candell:
The Glossary marks the first time that I’ve written about my work creatively—my intention was to replace the artist statement with something that equaled a body of work, combining my ideas and my work in one place. It’s systematic, expansive, and very generative; it runs alongside my studio work, and I’m always adding to it. The Glossary connects people to my work and my ideas through writing. Writing has become part of my practice and thought process. One of the tricky things about language is that it makes differences into oppositions; I’m trying write without definitions, working against fixed structures.

The drawings illustrating the Glossary present the basic imagery that I work with—knots, braids, and combs. All of these images have double meanings, multiple identities. I think of the dash as masculine, the torus as feminine, and the symbol for infinity stands in for all the genders. It’s a way of making space for different definitions of gender and holding two seemingly opposing truths together at once. I’m interested in where binaries get disrupted because that’s where there is the greatest potential for movement and change.

Expanding Dark Blue, 2020. Ceramic, 10 x 12 x 10 in. Photo: Ed Mumford

KW: How do these ideas play out in your work and why use clay for them? Why choose such a labor-intensive material, one that demands so much physically and comes already packed with cultural meanings?
JH-C: The thing about clay is that everyone already knows what it is—it’s your mug. It’s familiar, but when it’s used for sculpture, there’s an unsettling shift in expectations. I’m always thinking about what the material gives to the meaning of the work. I’ve found clay to be the best medium for working with an intuitive style and the idea of change. Clay allows for a direct response to thought and feeling. It responds physically to varying speed in touch and has limitless possibility in terms of finish. Clay itself has multiple, changing identities; even after firing, it can be re-glazed and fired again. If it breaks, it can be epoxied into a new shape. I like that clay is both very fragile and very resilient.

I tend to work in series because I like working through all the potentials and possibilities. My work takes a shape and morphs it, changing it through small gestures. In “the infinite,” I accepted the limitation of a theme so I could fully address the idea of infinity. There were 24 infinities presented on shelves on the wall and opposite them, on a large pedestal, were heaps of the clay I carved out of each one as I worked on it, the part that was left over.

I start with a rough sketch—sometimes I make very rough clay maquettes. Almost all of the pieces start with a base and are coiled up. If I incorporate a slab, I’ll make it on the floor, using my body weight to compress and punch; then I flip it over and do the same on the other side, repeating and repeating, until it is thoroughly compressed, and then I bend it into a shape.

Installation view of “the infinite,” Parrasch Heijnen Gallery, Los Angeles, 2017. Photo: Jeff Mclane

In the last few years, I’ve been working with primarily dark clay, in part to decenter whiteness. In ceramics, there is a fetish for the whitest porcelain as a symbol of luxury, and I see connections between this thinking and colonization and white supremacy.

I do a lot of carving, and I apply underglaze to the works wherever I plan to carve. I carve a motif into the surface, removing the negative space and revealing the black clay under the white underglaze. After the first firing, I glaze the uncarved areas, fire again, and repeat with more glaze if necessary. I am trying to use glaze like watercolors, with layers, washes, and subtleties. I want some glazes and textures to be layered and thick. The areas that have these “mushy” glazes are meant to reference primordial muck, something complicated, sometimes abject, sometimes beautiful.

I have been making the chains for several years. I like the absurdity of a ceramic chain. It’s a mechanism of holding, constraining, or restricting; but if it’s made out of clay, it becomes useless, purely symbolic or decorative. I also like its kinetic aspect; it’s lightweight and not fixed in the same way as a voluminous ceramic form.

KW: It’s clear that there are many references within your work—indicators that point to nature and to the body, to specific and invented forms. Your work can be seen both as formal and intuitive, descriptive and associative. These add up to a very particular kind of abstraction. Do you consider yourself an “abstract” artist?
JH-C: I’m not comfortable with the term “abstract” because it’s too vague, and that vagueness then becomes limiting. My work is not clearly categorizable, yet, like most humans, I like to categorize things to make sense of them. I want to speak to these limitations and expansions, drawing attention to these categories and the problems and necessities of systems and patterns. My work takes on this conundrum as I create patterns and definitions but then argue with myself and present contradictions within the definitions.

Defying categories is a recurring theme in the different ways that I practice art. I make objects to be shown in galleries, and I make work to be seen in public spaces. I also don’t want to choose between being an artist and being a teacher. Within teaching, I also resist categories. I teach part time at USC, but I’ve also started my own school out of my studio called TheClayLA in which I offer an alternative to the academic model of ceramics education.

Swim, 2019. Ceramic, 51 x 32.5 x 15 in. Photo: Ed Mumford

KW: Your work centers on issues of the body: sexuality, femininity, and beauty. I can see you’ve thought quite a bit about the beautiful—because your work isn’t. It is poetic, but it has a kind of bluntness, a quality of unapologetically being in your face that doesn’t add up to beauty as it’s conventionally defined.
JH-C: I’m interested in the body and pieces of the body—I’ve done a series of large sculptures that depict various takes on the image of interlocking hands, and I’ve used images of hands, arms, legs, and hair in many of my smaller pieces. Certain actions really interest me: bodies swimming, hands waving or gripping. I was a gymnast as a kid, and I continue to be very conscious of how a body moves and balances, how weight shifts.

Beauty is more interesting when it’s complicated and messy. I’m not concerned with superficial beauty, in part because I’m interested in abjection, in the blood and guts interior, the symbolism of the body. I don’t refine the surfaces because I want them to record my processes and mirror what’s clumsy or tentative or uneven in the body. My work embodies the multiple possibilities and appearances of “femininity,” anatomy, and body language, while still making a space for differences. Beauty is a binary term, and I want to disrupt binaries. The idea of the “feminine” is an arbitrary cultural system; questioning it creates the possibility of change.