Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Elisa Soliven sees her dignified ceramic sculptures, now on display in a faultlessly curated solo show at LABspace in Hillsdale, as vessels containing the rich stuff of life – space, time, cultural tropes, history both grand and personal. Too eclectic and searching to be merely iconic, they are brimming with both old and new referents, and bear their weight with extraordinary grace. She takes her visual and structural cue from the figure, and then eases confidently into expansive abstraction. Epitomizing this pattern is Reclining Torso, a consummately witty piece that splices the titular idea into several interpretive options: a stretch of landscape hosting a small structure, a flat fish ominously approaching, or simply what is overtly described.
Owing to its consistently liminal status between figurative and abstract, all of Soliven’s three-dimensional work possesses a ready plasticity as to content. Like many a jug – she counts Giorgio Morandi as a strong influence – Infinity Amphora also resembles a figure with arms joined behind the head. But with the artist’s many adornments of color, line, texture, and ancient symbol, it can evoke much more, from rural meadows to urban grit, access to exclusion, level plain to unending cosmos. Analogously dichotomous observations – arms akimbo, folded, or splayed segueing to nature versus artifice, bounty versus austerity, or confrontation versus retreat – might apply to other sculptures. For all that allusiveness, though, Soliven’s baseline constituent of deep, speckled gray, her instinct for aesthetic stability, and her sharp sense of visual balance ensure that each piece coheres and firmly claims its place.
While her oil pastel drawings can function as studies for the sculptures, she suggested in an illuminating conversation with Jason Andrew at the gallery that they could just as well be retrospective gazes back at completed objects. Madonna and Aster Body Pair and Infinity and Aster Bust seem to be straightforward examples. At the same time, the drawings invariably present two distinct forms – several are simply titled Pair – thus recapitulating the nuanced duality that arches over Soliven’s work. However construed, they serve as telling legends for the ceramic work – as do the small wall-hung clay pieces Untitled Grid, Mask, and Aster Mask –while also standing as independent and thematically integrated works.
LABspace, owned and run by Ellen Letcher and Julie Torres, is a Hudson Valley gem, offering a steady stream of New York-quality shows. Like Soliven, a co-founder of the cooperative art space Underdonk on Willoughby Avenue, and Andrew, founder of the pioneering art organization Norte Maar, they cut their artistic teeth in Bushwick. The confluence of the four is a warm testament to the Brooklyn neighborhood as a durable and increasingly peripatetic factor in contemporary art. In that broad context, Soliven’s work has an atavistic gravity that imparts classical constancy amid postmodern change. Consider the three small sculptures each titled Hand and simulating a palm holding a foreign object, perhaps a smartphone, its crabbed fingers suggesting strain but refusing to atrophy. To encroaching ennui, hollowness, and despair – take your pick – Soliven mounts deeply rooted and impeccably measured resistance.
“Elisa Soliven: Infinity Weight,” LABspace, 2642 NY Route 23, Hillsdale, NY. Through September 10, 2023.
About the author: Jonathan Stevenson is a New York-based policy analyst, writer, and editor, contributing to the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, and Politico, among other publications. He is a regular contributor to Two Coats of Paint.