Many of Patrice Renee Washington’s energetic, voluble sculptures look like organisms frozen in mid-motion; some pieces, like a reimagined soap dish, pull-up bar, and paper towel dispenser, anticipate the touch of a human user. They are animate, ready to speak.
This sense of subjecthood emanates, in part, from visible marks of the labor that produced them: you can see small hollows left by fingerprints on Washington’s ceramic sculptures, and each piece of yarn in a latch-hook rug, ‘Kleiner Bergsteiger,’ was looped by hand. This sense of animacy also comes from Washington’s use of expressive readymades, like milky-green lunch trays, du-rag labels, and Precious Moments figurines, which she often leverages to make incisive jokes.
Washington’s works range from playful forms – a series of ceramics in a 2016 Sculpture Center group show titled In Practice: Fantasy Can Invent Nothing New twist, swell, split and sag like the limbs of cartoon characters, immune from harm – to functional objects imbued with violence, advancing a pointed critique of racism and misogyny. Two ceramic troughs made of white porcelain, ‘Force Feeder’ and ‘Oppressional Fixture #1,’ are both half-filled with bleached flour. The New York-based artist describes these works in terms of “the violence of consumption,” tools for force-feeding the ideologies of white supremacy.
Speaking via e-mail about her practice, Washington, who is currently Artist in Residence at Abrons Art Center, talks cartoons, craft, labor, and the disarming capacity of humor.
**Several of your sculptures point to a specific domestic use – I’m thinking of ‘Bad Bitch Cup Series,’ ‘Scummy,’ and ‘Anti-Grip Supremacist Resistance Trainer 5000.’ How do you use domestic space in your work? What power does domestic space hold?
Patrice Renee Washington: I often reference domestic space in my work to point to the place where individuality and personhood are formed. Domestic spaces are often loaded with objects that become imbued with a sense of culture and identity, and the domestic object becomes an extension of oneself. The sculptures start to become an extension of a bodily form, transitioning and morphing, and begin to serve as the support structures for the objects, or even become the objects.
**Your ceramics have a sense of personality, some feel like independent organisms. How do you determine the form they take?
PRW: The forms are partly influenced by my slightly embarrassing obsession with cartoons. The rounded curves, bulbous forms, and sometimes floppy demeanor that characters take on is immediately disarming to me, and acts as a tool for me to do the same to the viewer. I also look directly toward the objects I am referencing. How can I intervene on that existing form; what would that form look like if it were slowly transitioning from nothingness in space?
**Your work references histories of art production – fine art, kitsch, and craft – and seems to critique the way racism operates within these categories. What interests you about art-historical myths, and what’s your strategy for intervening in them?
PRW: I’m super interested in subverting those white-male-centric views that we are fed in art history and instead investigating the bodies of those that have been under-considered or left out of the dialogue. I sometimes consider these ideas or movements as myth because they aren’t complete, they don’t tell a whole story. As far as a strategy goes, I’m not sure that I have one, but I do enjoy using the same language, or forms that I’m critiquing to further critique and interrogate the things that drive me crazy.
**Your work uses an impressive range of materials, from ceramics to felted wool and latch hook rugs to readymades. How do you understand the relationship between the different modes of production you use, especially fine art and mass production, does your process change significantly across different media?
PRW: I think that the underlying thread in my work is the concept of labor, and that seems to be something that sticks with me across all media. This idea of labor has a physical manifestation in the works in different ways, the ceramics often show the imprint of my fingers within their construction, allowing you to investigate each movement that I take in construction. The latch hook rug is something that is extremely laborious, each piece of yarn is accounted for by hand to create the final image.
The pairings that exist between the objects I’ve made and the readymades almost function as context clues of some sort. The readymades are forms that we can often quickly identify, and something we’ve already made associations with, the viewer has somewhere to start when they see something they recognize. When my form is paired with that, you are forced to reevaluate the form and the relationship it has with the readymade, how does that change your relationship with the readymade? Does it make you understand the sculpture in a new light?
** ‘Force Feeder’ and ‘Oppressional Fixture #1 (Feed Trough)’ reference the violence of eating and being eaten. Can you talk a little about the story behind these pieces?
PRW: These works attempt to investigate the violence of consumption. I became really interested in animal feeding troughs as these fascinating forms that facilitated this act of eating, right out in the open, a communal ingestion of sorts. This got me thinking about consumption in a larger sense, as it relates to humans, and the veracity in which we intake ideas, or ideologies, specifically racist ideologies. Whiteness became the grounds of exploration in these sculptures, which is pretty evident visually in the use of colors and materials, and when you add it all up, hopefully conceptually, as well. So these works became these semi-functional feeding troughs for one to consume, perhaps humiliatingly, all of these forms of whiteness.
** Your work can be really incisively funny. What role does humor play in your process, what can humor do that other modes of address can’t?
PRW: I really value humor as a way to break up my own process, sometimes things feel a little too serious, a little too precious, and it seems vital for me to poke fun at myself or the things I’m critiquing. This, of course, goes back to my obsession with cartoons, and the need to disarm the viewer either through use of form or title, or a combination of the two. Disarming the viewer often allows them to unsuspectingly be more open to the concepts I’m addressing, especially when the work is examining concepts of race or gender.**