Julia Haft-Candell


In person in her Glassell Park studio, LA artist Julia Haft-Candell is an affable guide, walking casually among her variously scaled works-in-progress to make a point. But outside the studio, she is casting an increasingly large shadow these days as a ceramic artist. A few days earlier, she attended the opening of the 2016 Scripps College 72nd Ceramic Annual, for which she installed a large, wall-mounted work. Her stint at Scripps marked the tail end of a three-year teaching fellowship on campus, and the second year in a row that she’s been involved with the influential Ceramic Annual; in 2015 she curated the exhibition. This winter she had a show at Ochi Projects, an ambitious new LA gallery near Mid-City. Meanwhile, a visitor to the Art LA Contemporary fair could see two more large works by her on display. Luckily, that sort of multi-tasking seems to come naturally to the prolific artist. “I’m always working on more than one thing at one time,” she says. “I like to keep myself busy, so there’s always something to rotate around to do.”

Assessing the off-kilter convocation in her studio of creations suggesting knots, ropes, combs, stalagmites, and other less discernable forms, Haft-Candell admits an attraction to “things that look a little strange, but in a good way.” Indeed, one of her more identifiable traits is the works’ willful indeterminacy, its ability to stake out indefinite, murky, or liminal areas between the abstract, the familiar and the weird. Referring to one of the works in her studio, she explains: “That one, I don’t know what it is, I call it Three-Legged Blob With Vase. I feel the work is stronger when I balance it: something known with something not known,” she adds.

Raised in Oakland, Haft-Candell got her start with ceramics as an undergraduate at UC Davis, studying under Annabeth Rosen, whom she cites as an influence. For her MFA, she joined the highly regarded ceramics program at CSU Long Beach, just as Kristen Morgin was leaving and Tony Marsh took over, both of whom she also notes appreciatively. Which perhaps goes to one of the many appealing dichotomies in her work: as quirky and individualistic as her works tend to be, they are clearly rooted in a profound appreciation of the medium and its more adventurous practitioners. She still speaks admiringly of the pioneers who shaped the field in the mid-late 20th century: Peter Voulkos, John Mason and Ken Price, drawing a distinction between today’s more conceptual ceramic artists, who aren’t necessarily trained in the medium, who just enjoy the clay for what it is, and those ceramic artists who really have a desire to push the material forward: a need to push the limits of the medium.

Clearly, it’s an impulse she identifies with. Her experiential approach to clay deliberately allows for various flaws, imperfections and discoveries, then she invites those elements to transform the whole, following an intuitive path. Of the 2015 Ceramic Annual, she wrote, curating the show was “analogous to how I engage with my own sculptural practice: I bring together parts, that when assembled, merge into a complex whole… Sections may support, anchor, complement or contradict one another, but all are necessary to complete the composition.”

Forward Lunge Knot
45″ x 27″ x 13″
Photo: courtesy Ochi Projects

For her show at Ochi Projects, she presented two large works, both determinedly twisty and linear in form. The first featured a gourd-like, swollen blue base suggesting a cartoony raised shoulder with two arms, which rose on each side to a white, knot-like element set on top. The other, also blue and white, lay sprawled across the floor, with flat colors and a pattern recalling diagonally joined bricks, its shape resembling a loosely knotted rope, or coiled snake, or pair of languid legs. While the vertical piece was in two halves, this one was in parts, which meshed unevenly, like ill-fitting puzzle pieces. Her Scripps piece, titled Pretzel, also features a bowlike, fragmentary knot; mounted on the wall, it flaunted a grid-like pattern of black and white.

For all their obvious heft, all these works betray Haft-Candell’s fascination with linear form. “I’ve been very interested in the idea of making clay look like a knot. But I find it really hard to draw it in two dimensions,” she says. So the built work becomes a form of problem solving, of translating the immediacy of drawing into clay. “The works have a snake feel, they still have this movement, in contrast with its heavy and static material,” she notes approvingly. For the floor piece, “I wanted to sculpt, not just a knot, a braided knot… But it all had to be hollow so it’s just sort of an illusion.”

Ultimately, her works are doggedly authentic to their own materials and process, including all the scars and flaws that occur along the way. “My hand is always in all the work, I’m not trying to erase my touch on material,” she states. “The process, the chinks that happen, the struggle, I like revealing that. I think it makes the work a little funny, and more personal, and relatable… They reveal some, but there’s still a lot of questions about them.” While the fragmentary nature of her pieces helps inform their open-ended, comparative process, it also serves another purpose. “I’m really interested in making large things in pieces, it gives me more freedom. In that I can lift them by myself, transport them, I can fire them in a small kiln if I want to, I’m not reliant on other people. It’s kind of liberating.”

Also noteworthy is the artist’s subtle engagement with issues of gender. “In my view, the men are the ones making the big, heavy things, so I want to challenge that, add a feminine perspective to that,” she says. “In the Ochi show, that braid, it felt like something girls do, something traditionally feminine, but done on a scale not traditionally feminine.”

While she is clearly comfortable working in large-scale, those bulky pieces are just part of the story; in the studio, they are arranged along the wall like characters in a ceramic lineup, while a myriad of small, fist-sized, even more experimental works peer down from shelves. “I think it’s really important for me to [work on] really different scales, from tiny to large… I think they have a very different feeling in relation to the body. Small could be monumental, and large could be precious and cute, all those things we associate with something miniature.” Standing amid her works, she adds cheerfully, “I’m not convinced by the mid-sized.”

“Julia Haft-Candell: Double Knot” was on display at Ochi Projects in Los Angeles.
January 16 – February 20, 2016

Her work is also featured in “Beyond the Object: the 72nd Scripps Ceramic Annual,” at Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps College, in Claremont, CA.
January 23 – April 3, 2016

Lead Image:
Three-Legged Blob with Vase
with other works in progress at artist’s studio