Claire Ashley: The Evolution of Surprise


*An edited version of this interview was orginally published in the January-April 2016 issue of Chicago Gallery News. Top Image: Claire Ashley, Installation shot, distant landscapes: peep dyed crevice hot pink ridge, 2013, Icebox Project Space, Crane Arts, Philadelphia, PA. Photo courtesy of IceBox Project Space. 

Claire Ashley’s work blurs the lines between painting, sculpture, installation, and performance. It evokes feelings of playfulness and curiosity; a desire to touch and feel and interact. It’s fun. The artist has stated that contemporary art takes itself too seriously, and her work is the perfect antidote for this plague.

Her well-known inflatable forms resemble almost-familiar bodily shapes and cartoon-like figures. Other pieces are worn as costumes or operate as gigantic fluorescent vessels powered by people. Her work has been exhibited extensively throughout the U.S. and beyond within renowned art institutions, as a part of residency programs, and in site-specific installations and performances.

Ashley hails from Edinburgh, Scotland, and she currently lives and works in Chicago where she teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Grays School of Art in Aberdeen, Scotland, and a Masters of Fine Arts from SAIC. She is represented by Galleri Urbane Marfa + Dallas (TX), and has an ongoing relationship with Oak Park, IL-based Terrain, an exterior exhibition space run by Sabina Ott.

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LM: You are from Edinburgh, Scotland. Tell me about your journey to Chicago - what led you here?

CA: I came to Chicago in the fall of 1993, when I was 21, to attend grad school. The previous summer I met Martin Prekop, Dean of SAIC at that time, and Susan Kraut, SAIC Faculty in Painting and Drawing, at Hospitalfield House (a summer school for eight Scottish art students) in Arbroath, Scotland. That meeting and subsequent mentorship changed my path entirely.

In Chicago I was introduced to the Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists among many other artists. The idea that art could include humor, irreverent imagery, and absurdity as content blew my mind. Coming from Scotland, with the dark and somber influence of the figurative social realist work of the Glasgow Boys, the Hairy Who’s work opened up a whole new universe for me. It allowed me to bring the self deprecating sarcasm of Scotland, and the humor of my family in particular, into my thinking, and subsequently into my abstract-based but oddly figural work. I should also mention that working with Phil Hanson, Steve Beal, Ray Yoshida, Susanne Doremus, Michiko Itatani, and Jim Lutes among others at SAIC in the mid-1990s, was an incredibly important part of my introduction to the wondrous possibilities of figuration and abstraction in contemporary practice.


Thoughts on Chicago's art community? 

Chicago has been my home now for almost 23 years. I love the friendly openness and generosity of the people in this city. I love its work ethic and working-class roots and I am excited about the energy and vitality that the next generation of artists, curators, and critics are bringing to the city.


How has your work evolved over the years? Describe what your work is about. 

My work is about odd bodies and ecstatic life – humanity’s largess, variety, procreative power, and the possible anthropomorphic mutations that occur when mashing up amoebas, cartoons, animals, vehicles, and human bodies. I want humor, absurdity, empathy, and play to be integral to the work as a foil for the monumental scale and abstract pattern (people always want to touch or hug the sculptures or throw themselves onto them like a bounce house).

I think contemporary art takes itself way too seriously - so much so, that we lose viewers. I am interested in creating democratic access to my work by utilizing a deliberately egalitarian and generous collection of humorous, visceral, and empathetic connections between the viewer and the object, as well as formal entry points for multiple communities to engage with the work.

I hope to create a sense of the uncanny within the sculptural forms, where they are recognized by the viewer as abstract and figural at the same time. The audience is an active participant in the exhibitions and performances I produce. They push against the forms, touch their surfaces, laugh at their incongruity, and sometimes enter into or dance within the forms themselves. In short they complete the work. In general, my particular relationship to painting makes me want painting to push against its immense history, to use its essential power (color, surface, mark, image – all forms of communication) to infiltrate other media and material to create hybrids, to procreate without reserve, and in some mangled Darwinian way continue to exist forcefully in the universe, even if its existence is more like something out of an absurdist play (i.e. Ionesco’s The Rhinoceros).

My work has evolved from the experience of having kids and being a parent into an examination of domestic objects of comfort and play. This impetus led me to explore forms that included: things in my home; things related to my kids; and things related to protection. I began by cutting silhouette shapes taken from fragments of architectural photographs of my home and shapes loosely reminiscent of cartoon characters as a starting point or pattern from which an inflatable form was then stitched. These architectural fragments once inflated became figurative: a reference to the people who dwell inside and the thing that makes a house a home. This discovery process led to my current body of work.

I work with inflatables for a number of reasons. My first introduction to the form was through watching my kids play on numerous bounce houses when they were little.  The second introduction was through a co-teacher here at SAIC who taught a short inflatable exercise years ago which inspired me to think about it as a solution to art making. I was excited about the potential to make large-scale sculptural forms that were soft and lightweight, that could be folded up when not installed (I have a very small studio, so storage is a premium), and that were implicitly playful and humorous. That initial interest led to discoveries in the studio about how they could then also become surfaces to paint on. This was a very important discovery for me, because even though I am trained as a painter I have never been content with painting on a flat surface, or with a straight edge. So this new hybrid painted form was exciting to find. I should also say that I have an equally hard time with the traditions of monumental sculpture i.e. heavy, static, monochromatic form. So all of these factors made it feel like a pretty perfect solution to the demands for my work. I find the inflatable form compelling, as it exists in two states: both as flaccid skin and taught volume. I like to think of the polarities of form within these objects as metaphors for our bodies: inhaling/exhaling; taught/wrinkled skin; flaccid/erect organs.

I also work with a number of different materials in addition to the large-scale inflatables. I make small stuffed and plaster forms that echo the color palette and forms of the larger inflatables – they act like the offspring of the large mother forms. I have also made miniature sculpey forms that I use as props or characters for video and photography (I think of this work as somewhat like family photographs or home videos of one’s offspring), and large scale bound and wrapped sculptural grids that act as skeleton-like forms – the interior structure of the mangled bodies of the large inflatable mother forms. I think of all of the work as being connected somehow.


Tell me how your work is made. How many of these works are constructed with a clear vision of their end form? Do you ever start a piece without a specific plan for its final shape, and just figure it out as you go?  What are the steps in your process?

I use the materials, practically speaking, because they are cheaper than traditional fine art materials, and when you work at the scale I do, you really have to take cost into consideration. On another level, I use readily available materials because I want the philosophical underpinnings of my work to be embodied by the material itself. Using PVC-coated canvas tarpaulin (house painters use this to protect floors), Rust-Oleum spray paint, duct tape, kids backpacks, and personal blower fans, becomes one way to do that. On a third level, I am interested in the magical, transformative alchemy that happens when these relatively unconnected, and very mundane materials are brought together to make my particular version of painting and sculpture. 

I make a lot of drawings and sketches of possible silhouette shapes that might become sculptural objects but I don’t make models or macquettes. There's always an unknown component to the forms as I make them because going from flat to volume isn't a science (the way I do it anyway) so I usually consider the piece a success if there is a surprise when it get's inflated and if there is something that happens in the painting of it I didn't expect. This creates an energy or presence that is beyond me and my control. I get bored pretty quickly, so I often change the way a piece is installed each time I show it, such that I see it with fresh eyes and I get a few varieties of form or presence within one piece. I value each part of my process immensely for different reasons.

There are four parts in my mind: drawing (a.), constructing (b.), painting (c.), and performing/installing/site-ing (d.).

a. The thinking through drawing period is less physically taxing and more peaceful in some sense. It is a place for a combination of intuitive shapes and mark making to occur, for observed fragments of things from my surroundings to be made, for cultural source material to be appropriated, and quirky pairings of shapes to be invented. This discovery process, with a simple pencil and paper, is the bedrock of the work. 

b. Constructing the form itself is an incredibly laborious, physically challenging, and often mind-bending task to imagine how the pattern pieces will come together into the final form. The sewing happens on the concrete studio floor because the material is relatively heavy so it’s literally back breaking work. I sew the pieces in panels that become each side of the form. Each facing side is usually constructed to have a particular silhouette that matches, in order for there to be a symmetry of sorts (often interrupted) in how the piece comes together as a volume. The image I have in my head is not a static thing, and the process of construction is constantly being tweaked. These forms are never quite known to me until the last seam has been sealed and the fan turns on. I should say that sometimes I am not totally enamored with the form's essential shape, but I know that in the next step of the process that can be wrestled with using paint.

c. Once construction is complete, the painting and color invention on the surface begins. This layering process happens over the course of a number of days. Each pass of paint is a relatively quick process, but a deadly one. I wear a full respirator mask and enclosed goggles. Sometimes the form is gathered flat on the studio floor and painted while deflated, and at other times the piece is inflated in my yard and painted using stencils, and ladders to reach high enough. I often turn the fan on/off to inflate/deflate the form while painting. This increases the number of folds the spray paint picks up to complicate the surface of the form, and camouflage its shape ostensibly. The painting allows me to pull sections of the form out into the foreground of the visual encounter and push other areas back to recede into the background of the encounter. The shape can change immensely just because of the location and intensity of the painting on it. In this way I’m often able to resurrect a form that I am not particularly persuaded by and surprise myself in the creation of each new work.

d. Now we have a painted form. The final part of my process is to decide how these forms enter the world. Is it through humorous eruption into song and dance, or obnoxious scale relative to site, or squeezing, stacking, piling into space? This contextual component of the work is a moving target depending on the parameters of the exhibition or event. The forms I make do not need to be installed the same way each time they are shown, but some do exist as relatively static objects, while others exist as wearable sculptures for the body, and often they can be interchangeable. If the form is to be worn, then I must make entry points for the body to fit. These openings I think of as udders, anuses, or birthing canals as much as a reference to putting on a sweater.


For your art objects that involve a human element - with one person or numerous people inside of them, bringing them to life - are these objects designed to be open for anyone to use? Are they designed for specific individuals in mind? Who are the mysterious beings inside them – do people approach you with requests to collaborate, or do you seek out volunteers?

Good question! I have had an array of people trained and untrained dancing in these forms. I don’t make them specifically for one individual. For the really large twelve person pieces (Ruddy Udder and My Little Pony) I ask for volunteers at the site, city, or event where it gets performed. I can teach twelve volunteers the simple (and hokey) line dance to the kitsch country song Good Times by Alan Jackson in an hour or so. These pieces have been performed in multiple venues across the country. 

For the two smaller single person forms I usually work with trained dancers to create a choreographed sequence of activity in response to a particular piece of audio. The most recent version was a collaboration with Joshua Patterson a sound and performance artist in Chicago for Double Disco: Aurora Borealis that was performed at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center in Portland, OR and here in Chicago at SAIC’s 150th Block Party event. For that event we also collaborated with Justin Deschamps (a dancer and member of ATOM-R performance group here in Chicago) and Jason Schroeder (an artist and life model here in Chicago).


Relating to my previous question about your wearable pieces, do you think of these as garments / fashion pieces, an interactive experience / installation / painting, a performance? Part of their beauty is that they overlap into all of these categories, but is there a particular genre in which you consider them to fall into more heavily?

Well, yes, as I mentioned earlier I want them to vibrate between all of those categories – as an implicit critique of what art making and painting specifically can be, as a way to bring pop culture and entertainment into a fine art conversation, and as a way to invite a larger public to contemplate fine art – but in essence I definitely think of them as monumental paintings.


I love your use of vibrant colors against the contrasting stark whites of the bare fabric support. Can you discuss the fluorescent palette that is present in your work?

I use fluorescent spray paint and generally quite an acidic palette as a sort of gaudy camouflage on the inflatable’s skin that has both a day time and a night time state. On one level I will admit to really just loving this palette as a form of visual pleasure, but on another level, the loudness of the palette is something I use as a way to attract (or repulse) the viewer, forcing the forms to yell out at the world. The painted camouflage is a warning system that is brighter than most other things around it during the day and glows at night in black light much like a night club scene, however it is a lumbering mass of wobbling flesh on the dance floor rather than a cool kid.

I think of the color palette and the monumentality of the forms as having a relationship to the story of the Trojan horse, as I want the work to take up a lot of space both physically, visually, and psychologically. The Trojan horse idea plays into my thinking around the position of women artists in the contemporary art world – I want to be a bull in a china shop, as it were, to make my presence felt - to be brash, and irreverent, absurdly large and colorful in an often austere and minimal setting unleashing the forms dancing frenzy once inside.


What’s in store for you in 2016?

I’m having a solo show at Cleve Carney Art Gallery, McAninch Arts Center, College of Du Page, Glen Ellyn, IL called Lumpy Morsels, Hot Rocks opening in February. I’m collaborating with Ish Muhammed on a project for Indiana Bicentennial Celebration at the Indiana State Museum in March. I’ve been commissioned to make a new work for the CAFKA Biennial of Art in Public Places in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada in June.

And the group exhibition BLOW UP: Inflatable Contemporary Art continues its two-year travel schedule to:
Huntsville Museum of Art, AL - thru January 31, 2016
Schneider Museum of Art, OR - March 1 - May 1, 2016
Benton Museum of Art at UCONN - June 1 - July 31, 2016
Elmhurst Art Museum, IL – September 1, 2016 – January 29, 2017