Installation view of “Heaven”
American Museum of Ceramic Arts
Courtesy of the artist
Rebekah Bogard’s new installation at the American Museum of Ceramic Art, “Heaven,” feels a bit like a pagan chapel. In itself, that phrase suggests an oxymoron and points to the hybridized symbolism in Bogard’s work. “Heaven” fills a small room that is an old bank vault, giving the installation a cocoon-like atmosphere. (The thick, steel doors are slightly disconcerting-what if you were locked in?) Instead of the pleasure of pain associated with statuettes of the saints in their ecstasy or Christian martyrs in their agony, Bogard’s devotional space is bristling with fecundity. The ceramic sculptor, who is known for creating sculptural tableau with gendered, flirtatiously charged large-scale fantasy animals, has turned her ethos on its ear to produce a sculptural installation that is more flora than fauna.
“It’s certainly flipped on me,” she clarifies. “I have always started with the animals first, and then, at some point, when I started making installations, I wanted to have an environment for the animals to live in.” “Heaven” is full of elaborate floral shapes attended by exquisitely wrought bees, scurrying spiders, fluttering hummingbirds and funky little squirrel-like creatures she calls gargoyles that resemble a cross between a sloth, a chameleon and a diminutive dragon. Wall sconces of cone shaped flowers with elaborate ceramic scroll work are actual oil lamps along with some of the floor pieces-octagonal flora shapes that evoke okra and large, suggestive blossoming forms.
When Bogard thought about using actual flame in her work, she says, “I was thinking about being lit from within.” But the flame expanded into a varied symbolism for Bogard as she considered fire as more than just a metaphor for navigating intimate relationships. “I like that the piece is ‘Heaven’ and you’ve got all this fire,” she continues, “because you associate fire with brimstone and hell.” If one reads these pieces literally, as oil lamps, it is not much of a surprise, but considering the work figuratively changes things. The flora becomes a kind of burning bush, a symbol of the divine and a metaphor for inspiration.
Her urge to expand her treatment of the environment her creatures inhabit finds resonance in her love of young adult and children’s literature where rich fantastical worlds are created. “I liked ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ when I was a kid because it was this whole world. And I like Chris Van Allsburg, the children’s illustrator and book writer who wrote ‘Jumanji’ and ‘The Polar Express.’ His work captures a real sense of mystery.” The Reno-based sculptor also finds inspiration for world-building in the self-contained realm of video games. “I also used to like to play video games, because they’re this whole world you enter into. I just liked this idea of losing yourself.”
The psychological and social themes in Bogard’s previous body of work, her gendered animals which she plans on pushing to a new level of investigation, explore sexuality and gender roles. “As a woman,” Bogard says, “you’re not supposed to be sexual.” Yet her work reclaims women’s agency over their own sexuality. “My work has always been a little bit sexual, a little bit tantalizing.” At the time she began working with gendered animals as stand-ins for human interactions, she was reading a lot of Shojo-a type of Japanese Manga-that is filled with sexual tension. Yet it is marketed to adolescent girls, so there is a lot of cuteness, the kind that proliferates in Manga and deliberately combines innocence and sexuality. “I was interested in the idea of cute,” and thought about how to make that work, especially “when you add that sexual component,” she says. “That was an interesting dichotomy.”
The fantastic aspect of the work-the heightened cuteness of the animals, the ambiguity of their representational qualities-allows Bogard to address sexual, psychological and social themes. “I kind of like to play with the viewer. You can flirt with a person through your work,” and not be physically present. There is continuity between Bogard’s previous bodies of work and “Heaven,” in the sensuous flowing lines that are partially inspired by her interest in Art Nouveau along with organic forms she sees in nature. She is captivated by the biological diversity she sees in the natural world. “We forget to see the beauty and magic that is all around us. Heaven is a place we can create here, on Earth. I think as artists, we have the power to change the world.”
Portrait of Rebekah Bogard in her studio
Photo: Richard Jackson
“Heaven: Rebekah Bogard” is on view at the American Museum of Ceramic Arts (AMOCA) in Pomona, CA, from Sept 13 – Nov 16, 2014. www.amoca.org