This November, Brown’s sculptures harness ideas of genetic recombination and transmutation, bringing new life to discarded objects.
By Claire Ogden
As I walked into the Kingston Gallery on November 5th, I felt as if I’d entered a scientific laboratory, a exotic animal mating ritual, and a taxidermy store all at once. These life-and-death contradictions are key to Linda Leslie Brown’s Entangled, on view through November 28. The exhibit presents a fascinating set of sculptures made from ceramic and found objects alike, reimagining Darwin’s ideas of sexual reproduction and genetic recombination for the anthropocene. Each piece has a surprising vitality, despite their composition from discarded objects.
The impressions these sculptures create are both exciting and disturbing. Upon first glance, the large square table in the center of the exhibit draws the eye. It’s clinical yet inviting, like some strange combination of an operating table and a dinner party. (Whether these creatures are at a singles event or being served for dinner, it’s hard to say.) On the table, there is a series of sculpture-creatures, all splayed out next to each other and attached—or entangled—to the others with a colorful plastic tube. Their interconnectedness is both a hopeful and an ominous sign. Brown’s ceramic pieces bend and curve, like toothpaste tubes or pieces of coral. Found objects, from birch branches to circuit boards, coexist in the sculptures’ hybrid forms. More works are affixed to the wall: Lively and colorful, they bear a striking resemblance to butterflies pinned to boards.
Brown sees her sculptures not as living things, but as fossilized remains: “These are sort of after-lives,” she says. Despite this “fossilized” quality, there is something remarkably alive about her work.
These dual life-like and cadaverous qualities are the result of both the process and the project of her work: making something beautiful from capitalist ruins, teasing something life-like out of decay and waste.
Brown has a nonlinear work process that matches this ethos. She doesn’t start with a strong conceptual controlling idea. Rather, she begins the process by intuitively creating a ceramic sculpture. This process is tactile; she lets the material of the piece guide her. Once the clay is fired, it’s ready for what she calls “assembly mode:” looking for objects that fit the shape and sensibility of the clay. Thanks to her husband, Ari Montford’s, tradition of long, scavenging walks in Boston, Linda now has a pile of found objects in her studio—a veritable treasure trove waiting to be explored and repurposed.
The look and feel of Brown’s work is reminiscent of the “exquisite corpses,” those collaborative drawing projects pioneered by the Surrealists. These “corpses”—which emerge by folding the drawing over, each artist concealing their part of the work from collaborators—are known for their dreamy and nightmarish qualities. Brown’s work shares the Surrealists’ whimsical-yet-grotesque sensibility. Her sculptures appear as though they’ve been worked on intuitively, following the whims of the material rather than a preconceived plan. Instead of collaborating with others, then, Brown collaborates with the variables and uncertainties of the found objects and clay. She never knows what she’ll find on the streets, or what textures and shapes will emerge from the kiln.
This exquisite corpse sensibility is perhaps best expressed in Variant Pink C. In it, a plastic tube flows through what looks to be the bust of a doll; a crop of fur is embedded in the back of the piece. Holes and bubbles make an equal appearance, showcasing the vulnerability of these materials. Is this all one organism? It’s hard to believe that this is the work of just one person. It looks like something out of Beetlejuice, or Trenton Doyle Hancock’s Mind of the Mound: Where the latter two were created entire fantasy worlds with their own logic, Brown summons fantastical creatures from everyday monotony.
In this, she takes inspiration from Yuyi Agematsu, a sculptor whose media of choice include cigarette butts and other detritus. Brown loves the way Agematsu “builds these fantastic little sculptures, things that are totally cast off, and never in a million years would be considered art supplies. Rotted plastic bags, you both pull those out of a tree, and then take them and tease them into shapes that look completely alive.”
This sense of recombination and rebirth is integral to Brown’s work, as her practice is intricately tied to her surrounding environment. In a recent arts residency at Monson Arts Center, located close to the end of the Appalachian Trail, Brown achieved a sort of mental rebirth of her own. The location of the residency was remote, yet still occupied: In the intersection between the distant rural landscape and the presence of Appalachian Trail hikers, it seems she had an experience of aesthetic renewal.
Especially now, as the current pandemic’s effects gradually lessen, Brown is ready to venture off into the world and continue this aesthetic exploration.
“There’s not been a lot of outside influence happening. And I’m hungry for that,” Brown said. “Now, I really want to get out more, look at more work, and think about other artists’ work. I’d like to go to New York again, you know, and do all of those things that we didn’t do because of the pandemic. I’d like to stretch a little bit. It just felt very confined.”
As humanity comes out of the last species-threatening event (and, very likely, into the next one), Brown’s work seems to hope for a second chance for life. In her artist statement, she refers to the possibility of sexual reproduction and transmutation to produce new possibilities for survival: “I imagine that such adaptations may be occurring even now: in the depths of mother ocean, among our gut bacteria, or nested in mycelium tendrils wrapped around the roots of trees.”
Linda Leslie Brown’s Entangled, on view through November 28, is an exhibition for a strange and hybrid future—though perhaps not a lifeless one.