Patrice Renee Washington
Patrice Renee Washington is an interdisciplinary multi-media sculptor, who primarily works with ceramics and clay mediums. Her pieces explore experiences and constructions of identity through investigating structures of race, economic status, and gender. Using objects as signifiers, Washington examines the negations and constructions of identity through history, questioning how objects both shape our identities and are claimed as identifiers for groups of individuals.
Patrice Renee Washington was born in Chicago, IL and currently lives and works in Queens, NY. She earned her BFA in Sculpture from Metropolitan State University of Denver, CO and her MFA in Visual Arts from Columbia University, NY. She has shown in solo and group exhibitions across the United States, including most recently a solo show “Rags and Rinds” at Underdonk Gallery (Brooklyn, 2016), a group show “On Visibility and Camouflage” at We Buy Gold (Brooklyn, 2017), “Lucky Draw” at the Sculpture Center (New York, 2017), and “Open Shelf Library: The Stacks” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (Denver, 2017). In 2017, Washington held artist residencies at Abrons Arts Center (New York, NY), the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop Program (New York, NY), and Lighthouse Works (Fishers Island, NY). She is currently a faculty member in the Ceramics Department at 92nd St Y (New York, NY) and looks forward to an upcoming group exhibition this year at Zeitgeist Gallery (Nashville, TN).
What is your background in art? How did you arrive at ceramics and this particular body of work?
During my undergrad I got my start in sculpture and developed a background working with a lot of fibers, knitting, and making ready-made objects. My undergraduate thesis exhibition involved papermaking and was based on hummel figurines, which are actually what Precious Moments figures are based upon. I was exploring the negation of identity; all of these figurines are basically just little white people doing pastoral things, and I was trying to understand how such a large group of people were missing from that conversation. I got deeper into researching them, and I started investigating how hummel figurines made their way over the the U.S. through military occupation. It was an interesting thing for me to think about the U.S. taking on this object and this identity that doesn’t represent the people. For my show, I was making paper and I was throwing the paper pulp at these figures and partially covering their faces, taking away their identities as an action.
After undergrad, I got accepted into an interdisciplinary MFA program at Columbia, so I moved to New York and continued on the same track of mixed-media sculpture. During that time I made this giant, latch-hook rug that was another riff off of the hummel figurine. That project was a lot about labor, and it was very laborious and intense. I worked on it for eight hours a day over the course of months, and after I finished it I didn’t want to do anything representational for a really long time. I started working with clay and I took ceramics classes at Columbia and learned how to use it as just another type of sculpture medium. That’s how I found my way to ceramics, which is a somewhat roundabout route. I’ve just always been trying to adjust my skills to what I want to explore, and I’m trying to manipulate materials to say what I want them to say when I’m thinking about identity and history and everything surrounding that.
How did you begin using objects and readymades as a way to access identity as a subject and explore conversations about history and identity?
I feel like you grow up with things around you and they somehow start to become a part of your identity, you adopt them and they sort of shape who you are in a very weird, scary, capitalistic way. But I think it’s a real thing that happens and I also think that people commodere objects. Some of my work deals with food and thinking about how food can be a proxy for culture and is an interesting indicator for class, economic status, race, and all these other things. I think it’s a really amazing way tool to talk about bigger issues, which I find important to the work.
How are you selecting objects or imagery?
Sometimes I think about really basic stereotypes about things that I enjoy or am ashamed of, or I just draw from my own personal experiences. And New York is of course just full of weird garbage that is a goldmine for sparking ideas and thinking about things. But I really try to play off of things that I have a connection to in my own life. I did a piece that was in the show at We Buy Gold that was about pork rinds. I feel like I have such a weird relationship with pork rinds -- my dad was always eating pork rinds when I was growing up and I just hated them so much. They represented this weird thing that I was ashamed of, I found them disgusting and strange while not knowing exactly what they were, so they were shrouded in mystery. As I got older, I had them on my mind and how they vary culture to culture, like chicharrones for example, the pork rind manifests itself in different forms and iterations. I was also thinking about the implication of pork rinds themselves as being like the trash of the animal, and thinking about connections to that. If you think about slavery and the foods that they were given to cook their own meals, it was the stuff that nobody wanted, so I was thinking about trash or scraps in that same way.
I remember that piece also because it looked almost like an artifact, embedded in these tiles and slabs of rock, so I also thought of it as referencing domestic space and history.
I’m thinking about the home a lot too as this setting for cultivating one’s identity and thinking about public/private spaces, like the tiling in bathrooms or around the subway. There are just these different interior and exterior spaces where one is formed, and cutting up those images puts it more in the background as though it’s something that’s watching over you. It also speaks to old bas relief making and the historical context of that, and how those things really memorialize significant moments. I’m trying to flip that and think about these more seemingly insignificant moments and how I can memorialize them. I’m making work about the ordinary or the banal and forcing viewers to ask why those objects are important because I think that they are important, so I’m trying to flip the script.
Can you speak to the elements of fantasy or non-reality that enter into how you construct objects?
It’s kind of a funny thing that’s really tough to explain. I do a lot of sketching and I’m pretty into cartoons. I think there’s something mysterious about these rounded, blunt shapes and the abstraction of them, and how an abstracted shape can morph into a more tangible shape. Also just the general transition of a thing, so kind of freezing something in time while its busy morphing itself into reality, and I’m thinking about how I can capture that. I think clay is a great medium to do that because I’m using my hands to form this thing, but I’ll never form it perfectly. What’s the point of remaking an object anyway? I’m just trying to get that ‘before’ stage, and sometimes it’s more mysterious or apparent, but there’s a weird richness in that because you make your own rules.
Humor is one of of those amazing tools that I think allows you to go deeper into the work. When you’re talking about more serious issues, I find it to be a good way to break up the density of a topic, if only for your own sanity. I’m always trying to think of ways to bring it in through the content and also through the making of things. How can I disarm the viewer and have them think that something looks weird, but then also look closer and question what is really going on there?
How does narrative enter into your practice, thinking about both individual pieces and also how you construct specific installations?
It’s tough. I think everything kind of falls under the same umbrella, and sometimes it’s more cohesive than other times. I had a show at Underdonk that was thinking about trash and the things that get thrown away. I do this thing in my work where I have a lot of different things going on, so sometimes it’s hard because I don’t just have this one simple way of producing going on in terms of my medium. That’s exciting for me with the work, but it is something that can also be stressful. But within that, there is always this conceptual thread of trying to understand and decipher objects and meanings within objects. In a general sense, that’s the closest that I get to narrative. Sometimes I get a little nervous if the work becomes a little too narrative, or too similar or close to one another. I like threads to extend off every piece.
How are you approaching these issues and themes surrounding identity (race, class, gender, etc.)? Are you drawing from your own experiences, are you sourcing material and ideas from other places?
I would say it’s a mixture of both. Some of it has to do with my personal experiences understanding my place in the world; how I operate around objects or spaces, being aware of myself within a space and what that means, and how that makes other people feel. Sometimes it’s imagining objects that would make me feel more comfortable in a space. I’m tapping into all of that. Like I said I’m looking at the internet, online shopping, comment sections are a great place to start. I’m just trying to figure out my place in all of it and the work’s place in all of it -- it’s all very connected.
How do you approach utilizing space as another material within your practice in an active and intentional way?
That’s something that I’ve taken very seriously lately. It was always around, but especially when I did a show at Sculpture Center and really used the space and existing shelving already there to construct my sculptures. It’s a really big part of sculpture, and I’ve got the ‘fear of the pedestal’-type of sculpture practice. I also believe that the things that I’m creating just have to be integrated into the space. I’m talking about space so much and I’m thinking about these interior/exterior spaces that we’re interacting with, so it has to extend to the work also. Often times I’ll manipulate the clay so that it has certain fixtures so that it can be installed in an appropriate way, so maybe the whole piece is a bracket and there are holes countersunk inside. I think that there’s a completeness that needs to happen in the work in order to make it convincing, and I want to believe the work so I have to force it to be that way. The viewer should also be conscious of their body when they’re entering any sort of space, and I think about being conscious of the hierarchy that a body has in a space and how that changes depending on the objects in the room and how they’re installed. For example at the Underdonk show I had a piece that was a pull-up bar called Anti-Supremacist Grip Trainer 5000 and it was at a height where I could jump up and get onto that bar. It couldn’t have been any other way because then it would just be a weird, fake performative prop. So I think it’s important to be convincing, especially with sculpture.
Can we talk about your installation Coded Mechanisms where you had the ceramic chains hanging from the ceiling? I feel like those speak very much to a body activating them or inviting an action for an implicit purpose within their form.
Yeah, there’s something about this action of strength, or the idea of activating your own strength and the failure of that that’s present in that work. There’s something about tempting the viewer and letting them know that they could activate it, but they actually can’t, so trying to investigate why they can’t, which then gets deeper into more conceptual ideas of investigating that limitation. That becomes really important for those pieces. With Anti-Supremacist Grip Trainer 5000, that piece is a lot about the fragility of strength and the inability to attain it in a way that can manifest larger in one’s own life. Just because you can make yourself physically stronger doesn’t mean that you can make yourself stronger economically or socially in the same way, so it’s asking what does strength really extend to and I’m interested in that limitation.
What is your work process for conceiving, developing, and executing a piece?
I wish I had a really beautiful process, but I don’t. When I can’t fall asleep at night I’ll think of ideas that I think are brilliant at the time and then when I try to tease them out the next day will realize that they’re garbage. A lot of my process is getting lost in in the internet, in online forums and doing weird niche research on Amazon, looking at products, looking at black bodies in products or lack thereof...When I find something that I think is interesting, I’ll sketch it out for days and then if I’m really convinced in it, I’ll draw it out to scale, make templates and small mockups to see if it’s feasible to make. A lot of my work has to bear a lot of weight if it is installed upon a wall, so that’s something I have to parse out before I start building a piece. But once that testing area is squared away, it’s a process of building and revising and rehashing as I go. Sometimes things explode in the kiln and never manifest, so it’s a tough process. I’m also kind of reinventing the wheel every time I make a piece because I’m always experimenting, so there are new challenges. I’m trying to push my limits, which can have great results or be really frustrating.
But my process is pretty loose. My husband, Oliver Terry, is my number one critiquer; he’s an artist as well, and I find it really important for me to talk to him about the work because he can be really critical and informative and sometimes I just need distance from it. I’ll also ask for outside opinions if the vibe is right, and then I’ll figure things out from there. It’s loose and unorganized, and sometimes I wonder if it’ll ever change, but probably not.
Is there anything in particular right now that you’re looking at and consuming?
I watch a lot of hair videos on YouTube, like natural hair tutorial videos. There are a lot of comments on those that I can get wrapped up in, like weird feuds with other hair bloggers that I guiltily indulge on. Also the dreaded Facebook comments and arguments about politics and violence against brown bodies and people’s views on that who just don’t get it -- and it’s frustrating when people that you know well just don’t get it. Especially in light of politics now, that’s bringing a lot to the front and it’s definitely making me examine my place in a lot of things or how I view bodies like mine, or bodies that aren’t as privileged as mine, in a lot of spaces. It’s an interesting time, but that’s also not to say that it hasn’t been an interesting time for a while now, I guess things are just coming to a head in a different way.
What are you working on right now?
I know I said I work on a lot of different things at one time, but right now I’m actually working on a series of works that are kind of similar. I’m making a lot of large scale tiles, similar to the reliefs that I’ve done, but much larger. I’m working on this large mechanical drawing of the de-boning of a chicken wing. I started getting really obsessed with mechanical drawings. These diagrams have an implied usage and break things down in a really scientific way, and I think it kind of mystifies the chicken wing. I think it does some magical things in terms of using humor, while also thinking about the seriousness of food itself and how that connects to culture and stereotypes. I’m using a lot of these tile projects to try and investigate that further, so I’m tackling a few that are based on food right now. I have another one I’m working on that is looking closely at yams and the harvesting of yams and yam barns, which are really striking and beautiful.
I’m currently working on tiles that are based on barbershop posters. Each tile has a different face, but some of the features are abstracted, it’s interesting to see how far I can go and still have the model’s features be recognizable enough to pin down. The actual faces are raised up like a traditional bas relief, but they’ll all be grouted together, so it’ll be a large scale rectangular poster piece.
These mechanical drawings of the chicken wing are also really interesting because their almost clinically violent, and the subject is also obscured -- it’s not immediately recognizable.
It’s deeply sexual somehow and kind of penetrating in a lot of ways. It’s very clinical and clean, and you don’t totally know what’s going on. I originally saw a print of a mechanical drawing at the National Museum of African American History in D.C. of a hot comb used to straighten your hair that was from the sixties. It was this very small, unassuming piece of paper that was sandwiched between a bunch of much heavier, historically weighted items, and I was just blown away by the simplicity of it. I started doing research into these drawings because the objects are rendered with such seriousness. I think it’s fascinating when you apply that to deciphering a culture or a people, especially when it’s not given that reverence in other circumstances.
What has it been like returning to the figure with the barbershop works?
Yeah, I don’t do figures for the most part, so this is my maybe my first exploration and it’s very daunting. I’m definitely trying to work out how much the figure can be abstracted through the finished process because I want people to have to work hard to figure things out even though it’s representational. I want to see what certain facial signifiers give away and how I can render them as being in this kind of in-between space. It’ll be interesting. I’m trying it out.
It’s funny because I’m sculpting something 3D from a photo, so I’m reimagining space in a way, which in some ways offers me some freedom, but is also a major pain.
What attracted you to the barbershop as a subject?
It’s another one of those personal experiences of being in black barbershops growing up. I think they show these different options of being or existing and picking your identity for that visit. It’s also such a threatened identity, so I think the expressions on the faces in the posters are in a lot of ways vulnerable. It’s a weird sweet spot, especially thinking of the representation of black bodies in media, I think the barbershop posters are an interesting one. They fall under the radar a little bit.
How do you approach color in your works?
It’s really hard for me to use color. I have to have a really good reason to, I guess. I specifically choose clays that have a colored clay body that I think would work conceptually with the pieces, while also working structurally as well. For example, the chicken wing bas relief is going to be rendered in porcelain. That’s speaking to the history of porcelain and eating surfaces, so it’s important that the surface remains untouched porcelain. But I’m also thinking about color as a way to bring attention to certain parts of the work, so I might use it in certain spots to highlight areas in brown or bold out things in black. I use it specifically as a tool to draw attention to something. With the rugs I was making before, those were based off the actual colors of the figurines and the glaze used, so I was staying true to that original material. But especially with clay, I can’t just decorate things willy nilly. I need to have everything really make sense. I talked about having to be convinced by something -- I have to be really convinced by how to use a specific color in the work. Also a lot of my works are white, brown, or black, and I’m often talking about race or bodies in those pieces, so the work does have a direct connection to that as well.
I had a piece, Hoodoo Jug in the We Buy Gold show and I treated that specific sculpture as its own body. I didn’t want to have any outlandish colors going on because that didn’t make any sense. The jug became its own being, and it had to be this uniform color. So sometimes it’s just intuition. I also think I like to work monochromatically because you have to challenge yourself to see the details that are happening in the work and the contrasting shapes and elements in the sculpture. I think it makes me work harder. With those tile works too, I think the monochromatic palette has a certain seriousness to it or an archaeological essence. It’s just raw.
I love things that aren’t placeable all the time. I think that color can be a great way to do that and also to frankly make things beautiful in a way that can seduce you. I like when something might initially seem boring or just all white, but then forces you to look at what else is going on and think about it’s form and imagine its history.
Can you talk about the works on paper you’ve made recently?
I recently finished up a residency at the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Shop, which was a three month intensive residency where they teach printmaking. I tried to make my works as sculptural as possible because that was the only way it was going to work for me. I learned about collograph printing, which is where you physically build up a plate and then run it through the press with paper and it creates these relief imprints. I was making the prints based off of different kente cloths. The symbols in kente cloths have different meanings within them and I’ve been interested in the cloth for a while and how it’s become a mainstream African fabric, but is also something that you wear for special occasions. I’m interested in how it’s co-opted into mainstream culture in the U.S. and it’s relationship to Africa and the proliferation of it as a textile. I built up these plates with the textures and then ran them inkless through the press, so they became monochromatic, similar to my ceramics. I was thinking about rendering them invisible I guess, so you have to look and discern what is happening. Figuring out how to reproduce the nuances in the fabric became really interesting and the failure of reproducing a fabric and its transformation into a second, separate thing.
What’s the most frustrating thing you’re dealing with in your work, or a specific frustration or challenge that you’re tackling right now?
Sadly it’s actually having the necessary facilities to make the work. It’s great to be in this studio right now because there’s a kiln and a bunch of tools available for me to use. But really it’s just the initial hurdle of having a place to make work that is really tricky. I’m broke and studio rent is insane and I could never pay it, so I have to really thrive off of these residency situations. Outside of that, it’s really a lot of technical stuff that I’m working through. I spend a lot of time on the ceramics, and sometimes when you come in and check the kiln, things just didn’t work out and you have to start over again. I have kiln nightmares where I’ll open the kiln and everything is in a million pieces. But it’s a lot of technical stuff and just dedicating time to things when you don’t have any money, and trying to juggle working a job or not working a job. It’s the whole package.
What’s your studio practice like?
Since I’ve been here at Abrons, I’ve been here probably 4 to 5 days per week, around 7 or 8 hours a day. I’m here as much as I can because this is a temporary situation. But it changes a lot. I do a lot of outside residencies, and those are the times that I’ll just condense everything and crank out as much work as I possibly can. I do have a studio at home that I work from as well, but there are no facilities there so it’s challenging. This specific residency is for four months, but that’s fine because I will use every drop of that time to make as much as I can, it’s crunch time.
What is a successful work to you? What are you striving to create and make?
I never want to feel like I’m compromising with the work. It can be a really tough thing to do with sculpture because it’s demanding of space, so I’ve worked hard to make my work in a way where I can store it safely, but also be really happy with it. I’ve been making work modularly, which is really helpful in order to manage and control scale. On the topic of scale, ceramics are really difficult to travel, especially on a budget, so I’ve also been trying to figure out how to make the work break down into smaller pieces so that it can ship without being a giant unmanageable headache. But I think that never compromising is a big one. I just turned 30 last year and, this is maybe cliche, but this is the age of me just asking for things in my life. If somebody offers me a show, I have to ask for things like money, assistance, and transportation. You have to let people know that your practice and your time are of value. It’s not a joke, and you need to be really serious about it and extend that seriousness to the people you’re working with, that’s my mantra this year.
Are there any ideas for projects that you’re playing around with in your head for the future?
I’ve always thought about making video. I think if I was given a solid amount of time to really dedicate to it and think about it, it would be something I would consider. I often think about video as a way to further investigate objects. The little Morton salt girl is a figure that has been stuck in my head for quite sometime, and it might be something that I experiment with at a later date, who knows.