Philip M Soucy
"Time and Action, and Absolute Time for Accumulating Materials"
Hong Jisu, D.F.A., Craft Art Critic
“Accumulation” is a representative concept penetrating the entire series of Philip M. Soucy’s creative experiments—drawing, installation art, clay projects, and more. The artist has called it “build-ups of time and materials”, which reflects his view of himself, the world, and society, and imparts his inspiration and the reasons and grounds for his working methods. To visualize that “accumulation,” he uses clay and coiling techniques.
From the life cycle of living things in nature (including himself) to diverse aspects of current affairs surrounding political, economic, social, and cultural matters, he compares all the things that draw his attention to “layers of accumulated time.” In his early works, “books” appear as symbols portraying the accumulation of time, culture, and history, or a testimonial reflecting what human beings and society as a whole have undergone. In an outdoor installation project that was a sort of tribute to land art, he once installed a table, chair, and books (including one about land artist Robert Smithson) in a desert-like wasteland, creating a virtual contemplative space. Another installation included a tall obelisk-like pile of books (mostly encyclopedias) dealing with politics, social affairs, and culture in his home country (the US), with a ladder installed against it. These works seem to be part of the result of the artist’s deductive reasoning, which considers every individual’s reason and existence as being formed within layers of a longtime accumulation of evolving thoughts and behavior as a member of a group.
His latest series of allegories of accumulation has been visualized through the use of clay and coiling techniques. While his early works visualized the accumulation of human identity as an aggregate of knowledge, culture, and history in the form of a “pile of books,” his recent clay works seem to symbolize wider accumulation of the entire human being and nature. They apply the coiling technique, which the artist considers as “the optimal technique or methodology to visualize the accumulation of time, actions, and materials.”
In fact, of all the media used for artistic creation, clay has the strongest symbolic implications to evoke “accumulation of time and existence.” Clay contains remnants of living organisms and build-ups of memories of all existence and events, like fingerprints or lines on a palm. Just as everyone has unique fingerprints, the earth has distinct patterns. Sometimes these are patterns created by the natural world, and sometimes they have been carved out by human life. All the records of the life and death of living organisms and their stories dissolve away in the end. As such, as an artistic material, clay seems to be an epic and magnificent chronology bearing the history and footprints of nature. But earth is not only a memory of the past—it is a dynamic material in constant flux, animated by a soul of its own.
Ceramic art gathers its basic material from the earth that has witnessed entire civilizations and collected their footprints, shapes objects out of that material, and fixes their shape through firing. Unlike artists using other artificial materials, ceramic artists need to generously listen to the clay before forcing their own intention upon the material. With humility and courtesy, they must take the time to discover the distinct language and characteristics of the clay and give deep thought to creating what can be made only of clay.
To visualize the artist’s idea of “accumulation,” coiling is yet another technique. Without any machines or tools, the artist manually produces fine thread-like coils of clay and covers objects by continuously winding the clay-threads around them. To maintain the shape of the coiled objects without the use of additional adhesion, the key is to maintain just the right amount of moisture and viscosity in the clay mixture. When the fine coils are stacked vertically, the gravitational force exerted on them increases in proportion to the weight and pressure of the added coils. As they press against each other, as long as the clay formula has optimal amount of moisture, the object as a whole will become cohesive and bond, but if you start out with too much moisture, you’ll have trouble maintaining the intended shape. Clay mixtures with too much sand are also problematic, as sand decreases the viscosity. In addition, to maintain constancy and prevent it from collapsing, the artist must work at an optimal pace. If clay coils are added too quickly before the lower ones have dried, they will collapse, unable to withstand the increased weight of the upper coils. Parts with excessive moist or deficient viscosity will be deformed and loosened—ignoring this risk will ultimately lead to a core that is twisted, sloped, and tilted; the most vulnerable parts will bulge and break at this stage. Nevertheless, Soucy does not seem concerned about strictly maintaining a certain shape or stacking the coils as high as possible. Rather, he seems to enjoy waiting and seeing the natural transformation of the coiled objects. When the core of the pile is inclined and some fine coils break as a result of pressure, he simply responds to that change by balancing the shape, layering coils towards the opposite direction. As a result, the coiled objects have been shaped uniquely, as if they were trying very hard to balance themselves on their own, looking like an old tree root or a stalagmite in a limestone cave.
The coiling technique starts by stacking from the bottom. A coiled clay object need not always have a bottom, but having it will stabilize the form, especially if it is supposed to be tall and complex. When the artist makes the bottom of the object, he starts the process spontaneously, determining the shape and the size of the bottom by randomly grabbing some clay without a plan. Therefore, the bottoms are not consistent at all in terms of shape, size, or thickness—he hardly uses any tools to refine or form the bottom. The outer edge of that rough, uneven, inconsistent bottom is trimmed with fine clay coils—the first “layer” of the coiling is generated when the end of the coil meets its beginning again. Afterwards, more coils are stacked and the object grows taller. Unlike a typical panel-based installation in which a series of polygons are formed to occupy and divide the exhibition space to display the intended shapes, his coiling technique only stacks lines, as if the clay coils were following imaginary guidelines in the space. As the coils are stacked vertically, horizontal textures are formed. Since the artist does not use tools to refine the texture or maintain consistency or regularity, the horizontal strata are also rough and uneven. That roughly coiled textures are reminiscent of horizontal lines loosely drawn with a ballpoint pen.
This method of forming the lateral layers could be reproduced and automated through 3D printing. The materials are durable enough to form large objects by layering them multiple times, and the latest 3D printers have been developing in amazing ways when it comes to materials and technique. There are diverse choices of material, and the output is more sophisticated and complex than objects formed manually. With no limitations to size or design, the latest 3D printer can produce sophisticated objects that a sculptor’s hands could not make, faster and with greater precision. Therefore, if the coiled pattern is the artist’s primary goal, the organic texture and complex structure can be realized through the use of a 3D printer, with an even more intriguing and sophisticated finish that saves time and labor. The basic mechanism of 3D printing is to extrude layers of material. An artist who prefers a smooth finish without the horizontal lines that are inevitable with the 3D printer’s layering process would give it up and stick to the manual process. However, looking more closely at the surface texture, I do not think Soucy wants a smooth and seamless finish—he does not even try to refine the surface or maintain evenness between the layers. (Many ceramic craft artists who seek a smoothly finished surface in their functional products do refine the exteriors to erase the coiled texture.) Rather, as he makes the layers of strata, their non-linearity and unevenness is made even more visible by using clay mixtures with different textures and colors and implementing coils of irregular thickness. Why would he insist on that analog manual process that relies on spontaneity, responding to results randomly dictated by the physical properties of the layered clay coils? What kind of accumulation does he want to show us?
Ruling out plans – Absolute time in accordance with changes in consciousness and materials
The first artworks Soucy showed me were abstract paintings completed in accordance with the unique properties of the materials, based on random spontaneous effects. The watercolor paints and ink ran down and spread according to air currents and the texture of the paper. Though somewhat reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s action paintings, Soucy’s did not manifest any consistent “expression” or “clues” indicating the artist’s message or internal state; the overlapping traces of anonymous spontaneity of the flow of the materials were drily presented without the artist’s active intervention. In his ceramic art projects as well, ruling out intention or planning and giving full control to dematerialized materials remains the central theme.
Indeed, the artist said he starts projects without preparing a plan, drawing, or rough sketch. When he starts a work, he throws away any sense of purpose to control the clay or use his own will to intervene in the process. To him, art is only about following the transformation brought on by the accumulation of materials, action, and time, and responding to every material or circumstantial change. He kneads the clay, adding more and shaping it in order to keep making changes and finding gaps. He does not want to force some intent upon the material or reproduce specific forms to fit an intentional narrative; rather, he seeks to explore and discover the inherent value within the material and respond to unexpected changes and occurrences.
As such, he rules out any chance of purposefully forming the material into a certain narrative, rather emphasizing an attitude of “immersion” or “adaptation.” Can this attitude be placed in the context of “abstract art”? The sensual manifestation of an artwork is largely an offshoot of the physical properties of its materials; to the extent that the artist is discovering and pursuing dematerialization in the finished form and materials that arose from changes in those properties, it seems doubtful that his ultimate goal is the “dismantling of the subject.” Nevertheless, while his objects appear abstract, he does not explicitly present any intention to escape social oppression or dismantle any specific social conventions. Therefore, while he seems to want to return control to nature, when it comes to the material attributes of the objects, that spontaneity is hardly related to the self-degeneration or self-destruction pursued by modern abstract art. Rather, his lack of intent is not in the interest of the “destruction of the image”; his idea or methodology is closer to an effort to simply escape any willful intervention in the material, to get away from forming some specific shape out of it.
By displaying diverse variations of uneven textures, Soucy tries to reveal the material’s latent natural properties. In this way, the meaning of the uneven strata on the surface texture is open to reinterpretation. The repetitive coiling activity forms an object with a vessel-like shape. The “surface” of the object can be interpreted as an open space for communication, while the unevenness of the surface symbolizes all the traces and records of events that we have gone through, like the weight and gravity exerted upon the layers of clay coils would break and twist the stack. All the narratives of the chronology of the journey of life are symbolized by uneven strata, gaps, and lines between the clay coils and unstable layers. The artist could predict such unevenness and instability, but could not micro-design all the details of the gaps. All the events occur outside his expectations or ability to predict. He could elevate the chances of such events by using an imperfect clay mixture or by increasing the pressure by adding layers too fast before the lower layers are dried; that does not mean he could precisely plan the results.
The natural and organic imperfection and unevenness, impossible to arrange through any pre-designed intention or precise planning, resulted from his unique approach of following the physical flow of the natural results of the clay’s physical properties without any deliberate intervention or any expectation of a certain result. Like philosopher Merleau-Ponty, the artist wanted a relata between a human and the material, or the self and the external world. Rather than controlling and manipulating the material, he wants to coordinate his action with the natural conditions and attributes of the material to generate a unique collective structure with dynamic texture, which is also a unique way of discovering himself from the natural properties of the clay material. Giving up any artificial or arbitrary logic, he only stacked the clay coils and followed the flow of the fundamental properties of the clay to discover the natural rhythm of the texture and realize the principles of human life. As he gave up formal logic for designing an intended object, he depended on spontaneity and contingency for a closer observation of the material’s fundamental characteristics.
Therefore, since this process is so important to him, creating forms through 3D-printing is not an option. He uses his own body for the manual process of molding the clay coils and layering them vertically, anticipating the eventual pressing, crushing, inclining, and collapsing. He needs that absolute time to have been spent to see the unexpected events and respond to them. The repetitive physical activity of layering the clay coils lets the artist communicate with the material and enables contemplation—something not uncommon among ceramic craft artists. Shaping the clay, stacking the coils, and visualizing the accumulation of the process and absolute time might also enable the artist to reflect upon himself, while following the natural rhythms and contemplating the physical/material existence inherent in all the world’s phenomena and events. That is comparable to meditation at the same time as being a work of art.
© philip M Soucy