Catalog Essay by Jessica Lantos:
The female body is arguably one of the most frequently depicted images in the history of art. Its visual pedigree runs deep, and ever since the Venus of Willendorf was carved between 30,000 and 25,000 B.C., the portrayal of women often symbolizes fertility, fecundity, eroticism, or maternity. The modern, 21st century depiction of women has expanded beyond these connotations yet simultaneously retains strong ties to this distant feminine ancestor. The objectification of the depicted female inevitably takes on different roles under the hands of its creator, and this contemporary artist acknowledges the homage to a specific art historical tradition while forming her own distinct imagery.
Ceci Israel-Bradfield works in clay to build large-scale installations of women. Her most recent works illustrate the mental and physical metamorphosis of pregnancy, the most extraordinary and singular feature of womanhood. Her interest in this temporary bodily state was sparked by personal circumstances—her three sisters were pregnant at the same time. While she has not depicted her sisters specifically, her own curiosity to know what they were going through prompted her to portray this female type. She listened to stories from family members and friends to effectively translate an individual oral tradition into an intense visual narrative.
Favoring clay for its immediacy, Israel-Bradfield finds red clay in particular to be an iron-rich material associated with health, fecundity and vitality. It is not unusual for her to use more than seven hundred pounds of clay in order to sculpt a single figure that measures approximately six feet when standing. Since she installs each work according to the needs of the space, her works are highly labor-intensive, yet she destroys them after each exhibition closes. The sheer mass of the clay is awe-inspiring to encounter first-hand; the larger-than-life size is requisite in order for the viewer to remember the encounter. This is where the artist presents a unique visual dialogue with the audience—intended to be temporary, the sculpture survives beyond its physical presence only through photographic evidence, yet the most powerful imprint of the work can only be established by the direct encounter, not the reproduction of it later on. The artist savors this temporal ambiguity because, especially in the case of the pregnant women, it replicates the same impermanence. Pregnancy lasts for a specific period of time and no longer.
When I went to visit the artist in her studio, I was struck by the power of her sculptures even though they were reduced to a photographic record. I was disappointed that I never witnessed one of her works entitled Catch in situ when it was installed in early spring 2005. In a small room, 8 feet by 8 feet, located in the Art Building, the artist covered the floor in clay and sculpted a pregnant woman. But this was no woman basking in the glow of imminent motherhood; rather she was in the painful and emotional throes of giving birth. Legs spread wide, knees bent, genitalia exposed, face clenched tightly, the pose imitates one that only a woman can know lying on a doctor's bed, feet digging into the stirrups. What is an intensely intimate experience is now available for all to see; the only privacy left is to be found in the depths of the mind. The artist frequently creates an immediate space around all her clay women, either by building them in a corner, or surrounding them with a physical barrier like a window. Within these shallow spaces, the women are either seated or lying down frontally, or are situated with only their backsides visible. Both postures force the viewer to approach the work in order to gain a better understanding. Self-contained yet open, psychologically isolated yet physically explicit, the large sculptures leave the viewer wanting to know more. The physiological features of a woman are often, but not always, symptomatic as to what is going on internally. An enduring sense of calm tempers an explosive inner persona as external pressures and stereotypes must confront the desire to remain true to herself. The artist feels this dichotomy still burdens many women. Israel-Bradfield's nude sculptures are as profound and complex as any real woman; they should be examined as a way to remind ourselves that no one individual can be easily identified or contained.