New York City sculptor Christopher Russell creates intricate, multi-pieced, nature-type sculptures with an opulence and flare of a king’s estate, but often they carry a message.
Russell was busy Tuesday, unwrapping and helping to place his work at the Daum Museum of Contemporary Art for his exhibit “After the Golden Age” that will open Saturday. His exhibit will be one of three ceramics shows opening at the Daum this weekend on the campus of State Fair Community College.
“I call myself a sculptor, but I work in ceramics,” he said at the Daum on Tuesday. “I mostly use ceramic, but I’ve also worked in bronze. This show is all ceramics.”
Russell has a small studio in Long Island City, Queens, where he creates multifaceted realistic work that resembles the “European tradition of decorative arts.”
“Doing the pieces in that space was definitely tricky,” he noted.
His work is a compilation of many pieces, birds, shells, grapes, large sunflowers or small delicate flowers sometimes coupled with decorative ornate bowls and vases. Russell said he’s influenced by European decorative arts but also by art history.
“A lot of my work is about the history of objects, and about why people made decorative objects … that showed off their wealth,” he added.
His work speaks of the Baroque and Enlightenment periods of history.
“I find the enlightenment period very interesting,” Russell said. “I’m very inspired by the craftsmanship of what we call the tradition of decorative arts.
“I think my work is both a celebration of those things, but it’s also a critique of those things,” he added. “For instance a piece like this, it’s like a still Dutch life, but to me it’s also sort of like a food chain.”
Russell explained that his piece titled “Tooth & Claw” has a bird of prey at the top reaching for a rat who is trying to steal fruit from a bowl.
“(The title) comes from (Charles) Darwin who borrowed a line of poetry which basically said ‘nature is red in tooth and claw,’” he noted. “It’s a big fight for your life.”
Russell describes his work as realistic and “allegorical.”
“In that it’s both realistic in a sense that it’s realistically sculpted, but I think the objects themselves they are a little over the top,” he said. “They’re a little exaggerated, reality is sort of exaggerated. There’s a fantasy or surreal quality to them.”
Not only does he sculpt flowers, birds, fruit and bees, but he has a collection of ceramic snakes curled on various patterns. One is based on a Chinese pattern, another on a Baroque pattern while another is based on a Arabic pattern.
“These pieces, the whole group of them, are called ‘Design,’” he said. “It’s called ‘Design’ because each one has a different decorative pattern. But I was also thinking of that expression ‘to have designs’ on somebody.”
In the same vein of thought, his flower pieces in the exhibit are all called “Arrangement.”
“Which I though both meant that it’s a flower arrangement, but I thought it’s also a little bit like a funeral arrangement,” he added. “Each one is sort of a double meaning.”
Russell said reaching this point in his art career “has been a long process.”
“I started as a painter,” he said. “Little-by-little I got into ceramics and sculptural work. Then I became more interested in the art end of the spectrum in sculpture.
“I got more interested in this kind of decorative stuff that really wasn’t considered art,” Russell added. “It was considered more decoration. When you see it in the museums, the skill that people used to make these objects, people would take whole workshops to produce such amazing objects. I was really inspired by them and thought ‘could I do that?’ We don’t really make those kinds of objects any more.
“At the same time there’s almost something a little scary about them, in the sense that they were these objects that the very wealthy had,” he noted. “It showed off people’s wealth and it showed off power. Kings and queens would have these things to impress each other. They were status symbols.”
Russell will have approximately 20 pieces in the exhibit with one piece titled “After the Golden Age,” comprised of 50 single sculptures featuring obelisks, busts, blue jays, fruit and Romanesque style horsemen encompassing a sculpture. “After the Golden Age” sits on its own table specially constructed by SFCC art instructor Don Luper.
A quote by Russell from his website sums up his views on the large piece.
“The essential element of the still life is not the golden goblet or the Ming bowl, or even the pile of luxurious fruit,” he said. “The essential element of the still life is the bug haunting the fruit bowl, the worm that burrows into the surreally beautiful apple. All still life is haunted. It is haunted with desire and greed, with the past and loss, with ostentation and pride.
“I started the work that has become ‘After the Golden Age’ when I got back to the studio from a trip to Paris. The sadness of beauty and grandeur was very strong there. The world is so beautiful, there are so many beautiful things, but sometimes it all feels cursed.”
On Tuesday, Russell said he thinks of the piece as objects found in the “king’s backroom.”
“Maybe these things have gone out of style or maybe this particular king had lost his power and now this stuff has been shoved into a closet,” he said. “In the end, to me, it sort of all begins to look like a cemetery because of these tall pieces.”
“You might be able to draw parallel to the present moment,” Daum Museum Director and Curator Tom Piché Jr. said. “… In the art field there’s all this speculation about about using art as an investment and as a status symbol.”
“There’s also that understanding that those artworks will eventually be in someone’s backroom,” Russell added. “That’s they way it goes for all of us — we all end up in a backroom.”
Piché added that Russell’s exhibit coincides with two other ceramics exhibits at the Daum: “Wedged In,” featuring the works of SFCC students and instructors, and “Recent American Ceramics” from the Dr. Harold F. Daum Collection. All three exhibits were planned with a spring ceramic event in Kansas City.
“The big impetus for having all these ceramics at once is that the National Council for Education in the Ceramic Arts is having its 50th anniversary convention in Kansas City in March,” Piché said. “They are expecting 5,000 attendees and there will be a bus coming to the Daum from Kansas City. So, that’s the reason we’re celebrating with a ceramics collection.”
“After the Golden Age,” “Wedged In,” and “Recent American Ceramics” will open Saturday. Russell will give an artist lecture at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Stauffacher Theatre on campus. It is free and open to the public. The Daum Museum is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. They are closed Mondays. Admission is free.
Faith Bemiss can be reached at 530-0289 or @flbemiss.