“Humour and absurdity are really important in my work,” says the artist Claire Ashley. That much is joyfully apparent when watching a video clip of her 2012 work Ruddy Udder Dance, which entailed a troupe of dancers with only their legs visible, as they teetered across a field, high kicking to a perky country and western song, while balancing a giant, inflatable “cow” above their waists (a performance developed with the Happy Collaborationists at Acre in Steuben, Wisconsin).
Claire Ashley. Ruddy Udder Dance, 2012. Performance at ACRE in Steuben, WI, 18 August 2012.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1971, Ashley is now based in Chicago. She says it took her 20 years to discover the exuberant, dimensionally generous properties of inflatables as a sculptural medium. Having studied painting for her BFA at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen and then for her MFA at the Art Institute of Chicago, she says: “I always knew I would never be able to make a traditional painting in the sense that I couldn’t necessarily deal with the straight edge and the flat surface, though I was always really excited about colour and the process of painting and making a mess.”
The inflatable eureka moment apparently occurred in about 2007, while she was researching a class on inflatables for her students (she teaches in the departments of contemporary practices and painting and drawing, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). She came across the work of Ant Farm, an avant-garde collective of graphic designers, architects and environmental designers, who, in 1971, toured the US with a collection of “anti-architectural” inflatables, and she has never looked back.
Claire Ashley. Installation view, Loathsome Beauty, Loaded Body at University of Buffalo Anderson Galleries. Spray paint on PVC coated canvas tarpaulin and fans, dimensions variable.
Making all her own sculptures from scratch in her home studio, Ashley says the process of creating these inflatable and deflatable beings resonates with her experience as a mother, launching your children on to the world, while their softness, their vulnerable, skin-like surface and monumental scale also evoke that classic parental cocktail of tenderness and concern that can (from the point of view of its recipients) feel all-too stifling. “I’m trying to ride the line in the work between something that feels recognisable and something that is uncannily abstract,” she says.
The forms most often appear in vibrant, DayGlo colours, or soft, skin-like tones, but she went dark and otherworldly for her Hot Rocks (2020) installation for the AstroZone show at the Griffin Music Hall, Murphy Arts District, El Dorado, immersing visitors within its spooky, science-fiction rockscape in January and February 2020.
Claire Ashley. Astrozone, 2020, Griffin Music Hall, Murphy Arts District, El Dorado, AR. Organised by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR. Photo: Steven Ochs.
She says: “I’m not one of these artists who is scared about the word entertainment. I feel that’s a really good access point for people who aren’t trained as artists to get pulled in and have a conversation about what contemporary art can be. Theatre or entertainment becomes one of those access points.”
Ashley’s works have filled entire galleries, from the 2013 Frizzflopsqueezepop show at the Chicago Cultural Centre to the Distant Landscapes: Peep Dyed Crevice Hot Pink Ridge exhibition, occupying almost every square foot of the 100ft x 50ft x 30ft Icebox Project Space, Philadelphia, also 2013. And she filled the whole, three-storey atrium of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Jacksonville, Florida, with Close Encounters: Adam’s Madam, in 2018, generously providing fluffy bean bags and rugs to allow spectators of all ages to get comfortable with these strangely animated beings, as well as peepholes for them to peer inside. She loves the idea that people will touch, stroke and get close to her works. “I’m inviting them to connect with the work in a very physiological, phenomenological way,” she says.
Ashley’s work has been exhibited widely across the US and in Europe, most notably at Art Basel in Kassel, Germany, Rockelmann & Partner in Berlin, the Tetley centre for contemporary art in Leeds, and at Glasgow’s House for an Art Lover.
Interview by VERONICA SIMPSON
• Claire Ashley is showing a new work, Clown (Laughing Stock) 2020, at the group show Portable Sculpture, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, 18 May – 29 August 2021.
Claire Ashley. Clown (Laughing Stock), 2020. Spray paint on PVC coated Ripstop nylon, webbing straps, zippers, fan. Approximately 305 x 183 cm (10 x 6 ft). Commissioned by the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds for the Portable Sculpture exhibition.
Claire Ashley. Strewn, Hither and Thither, 2019. Installation view, HUB Robeson Galleries, Penn State University, PA.
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