Out of the Mold and into the New: David Klamen’s "Life Trophies"
By ANNA DOBROWOLSKI
Enter Gray Gallery’s echoey warehouse on Chicago’s west side. As you approach three rows of stalagmitic sculptures on pedestals, you begin to recognize common objects–a deflated doll head, shoes, frogs, and vaguely familiar tchotchkes–intersecting each other as the sculpture visually tapers to a point.
At first glance, David Klamen’s Life Trophies may seem like a departure from his painting practice (or meta-painting practice, for the initiated). However, these ‘sculptures made of sculptures’ bring to the forefront the philosophical questions recurring throughout most of Klamen’s work: “How do we know what we know?” His Life Trophies ask a new question: of what stuff is life made?
About five years ago Klamen sketched the first prototype for Life Trophies. “When I was making these sketches I was thinking of myself as an accumulation of experiences, memories, and forgotten incidents.” The process of transforming his ‘sketches of heaps of ambiguous elements’ to life is what he ascribes to ‘overflowing gumption’, knowing which artistic rules to break without jeopardizing the structural integrity.
From the beginning, he knew that these drawings required a third dimension. “I envisioned them as made out of ceramics. I also knew that they needed to not be found objects.” Though ceramics was terra incognita for the painter at the time, Klamen soon found himself hiring a U-Haul to lug back tons of mostly unused slip cast molds to a COVID–vacated ceramic studio. There, using a combination of slip-casting–a technique of pouring liquid clay into plaster molds–and hand throwing, he began creating individual ceramic objects that he would later stack, fuse, or pitch like a ball. “They are formed in many ways by chance and gravity and contingent relationships,” he says. If a piece did not fit in a regular kiln, Klamen would modify a garbage can and unrestrainedly throw in slip cast pieces for bisque firing.
Because he was able to reuse some of the molds, we can recognize the same shape (ie. sparrow, asparagus, worm; one visitor remarked that the gaping frog crowning one of the sculptures was also a soap-dish) in a different piece, a new iteration, severed, reattached and so on–an artistic experiment of assembly akin to young Frankenstein fabricating his creature. “I'm not premeditating. I’m discovering it as it’s being made. I allow them to be constructed out of all of these broken and bent elements,” Klamen says. Sometimes it seems like the only thing fusing the objects together is the glaze, which ranges from a highly reflective chrome to painted greenware.
“The final resolution of these pieces takes place with trying to find the right answer to what goes on top,” he continues. “It’s usually something that has a sense of appreciation and commemorates the present moment of finishing the piece.”
Lodged in one of the sculptures, a candle drips wax over the sculpture's royal-icing glaze. At exactly 7pm on the night of the opening, a member of the gallery’s staff swiftly blows it out, a universal signal that the party is over.
CGN: Can you tell me more about your sketches for Life Trophies. How did they evolve into this new body of work?
DK: The first sketches were made 5 years ago, and the first piece was made somewhere around 4-5 years ago. Most of the works were made in the last two years when I had complete access to a vacant ceramics department in Indiana. Throughout this time I’ve continued my painting practice, but this has really grown into a meaningful part of my creative effort.
In my painting practice, I have experience visualizing things without needing to make sketches, but this was far enough outside of my artist vocabulary that they required me to sit down and sketch the idea. They solidified what was in my head and made sense. Once that happened I knew that I needed to make something.
CGN: You mention that your paintings tend to be more meditative, ‘almost quiet,’ whereas these sculptures require some degree of collaboration, spontaneity and looseness. What links the two practices together for you?
DK: In my mind all of my work revolves around this consistent interest I have in exploring answers to the question of ‘how we know what we know’ and then testing different historical answers. Some of my paintings have been linked to empiricism or Eastern methods such as daimoku that suggest that we gain wisdom and enlightenment through repetitive chanting or memory and introspection. Even Op-art, which might suggest that some knowledge is a purely optical experience. These sculptures derive from that, of me trying to answer the question: how do I reconcile the complexity of my thoughts with this one moment that appears in my brain and consciousness?
CGN: You take great care into what goes on top of the sculpture. What do we know about Trophies?
DK: I think of Life Trophies as a metaphor for accumulated experiences and memories that are incomplete—at times cherished, at times regrettable, at times uncertain—that coalesce in some ways together to create a sense of self. [With the trophy,] there's a sense of recognition for past accomplishments and a way to solidify something of your life for the future. It’s something that you can share with the people around you. In these cases it is the bittersweet absurdity of them—the humor of the past attempts and the shared optimism of the current moment.
CGN: A serious question: what was the strangest thing you found yourself doing or including in this body of work?
DK: I find myself laughing and smiling and feeling a sense of ridiculous accomplishment when I add something like this frog, which in some ways seems so kitschy and naïve and in other ways is destined to be one of the future elements to pile on top of. There is a sense of spontaneous discovery—I take whatever I have I put on top and then I walk away. Then there’s a sense of capturing it when it is right that isn’t a narrative, it doesn’t finish a story but it has a certain sense of hopefulness and appreciation and maybe naïveté.
When I ask Klamen about current projects that he is working on, he shows me some recent sketches with more Borg-like, or atomic, flourishes. “I would say I am a workaholic, but that sounds too disciplined. It’s more that I get up and do what I want to do–and what I want to do to work on my next piece.”
Even when we don’t know what’s next–in art, in life, in a sentence–it's reassuring to think that we can compound everything that is imperfect and uncanny into art. “I think that aesthetic experience and visual experience are one of the most profound things that convinces us that the things that we know are what we know.” Lately, he tells me I find myself wondering what a consolation prize would look like–the visual equivalent of ‘Congratulations, you’re here.”