Elsa Sahal, Acrobate, 2012, ceramic, synthetic hair, 63 x 25 1/2 x 26".

Elsa Sahal, Acrobate, 2012, ceramic, synthetic hair, 63 x 25 1/2 x 26".

Elsa Sahal

Claudine Papillon Galerie

Elsa Sahal, Acrobate, 2012, ceramic, synthetic hair, 63 x 25 1/2 x 26".

Over the past decade, French ceramicist Elsa Sahal has conceived a universe where ostensible contradictions—abstraction versus figuration, male versus female, adorable versus abject—are reconciled into a variety of unsettling biomorphic forms. In her most recent exhibition, Sahal expanded her repertoire of tubular phalluses and thick-lipped orifices dribbled with syrupy glazes, creating two new breeds of large-scale androgynous figures. Explicitly corporeal, if not always blatantly figural, the sculptures are perhaps best described as bodies of clay—insistently of and about their own materiality. Harnessing the innate physical properties of her medium, Sahal convincingly suggests varied skin textures, facial expressions, general fleshiness, and assorted bodily secretions. In her deft hands, clay (soft and pliant) and glaze (runny and warm) become biological.

The bodies in Sahal’s 2009–12 “Arlequins” series occupy a precarious limbo between abstraction and figuration. With no obvious front or back, they encourage all-around viewing, whereby strikingly humanoid gestures and anatomies morph into nebulous blobs from one angle to the next. Sahal’s complicated approach to figurative representation is indebted to Georges Bataille’s concept of the informe. Although Sahal is clearly following in the footsteps of Dubuffet and Fautrier, who visualized this idea in the 1940s with heavily encrusted depictions of barely distinguishable ravaged bodies, her personages are less violently nightmarish and more whimsical and sensual than theirs. Her harlequins are headless child-size figures etched with the emblematic diamond motif and coated with a glossy bubble gum pink glaze. Thick dribbles of gleaming gold around the clowns’ neck stumps are at once overtly painterly and undeniably scatological. Objectively grotesque distortions of the human form, these gooey, lumpy, knock-kneed creatures are also perversely endearing and aesthetically alluring.

Chromatically and conceptually darker, the works in Sahal’s “Équilibres” (Balances) series, 2012–, are more willfully figural, but also more abject. A pair of figures—perhaps a mother and child—comprise a Frankensteinian assortment of mismatched body parts unified by an even matte black glazing. The robust and wrinkled elephantine haunches of the larger one (Acrobate, 2012) conjoin a buoyant spherical rump, which is crowned by a knobby protuberance and a kinky hair-lined orifice just below. Jauntily posed with its backside in the air, this hermaphroditic creature has no apparent face—its front designated only by a pair of uneven breasts with large jutting nipples. The smaller, pedestal-mounted pup (Petite Acrobate, 2012) is decidedly cuter despite the fact that its gaping mouth and bulbous nose are strongly suggestive of genitalia. Vulgarity and affability are simultaneously embodied in these provocative and perplexing figures, underscored by the unexpected gracefulness of their stooped, asymmetric bodies.

In a series of altar tableaux—“Autels,” 2012—sinuous, erect tubes and oozy gashes are thinly disguised as various forms of sea life: urchins, corals, and sponges. Arranged on dark metal tables alongside various bluish-glazed ceramic curios, including a pair of severed feet, skull-like orbs, and fully abstract forms, these works recall small wooden sculptures made by Giacometti in the 1930s, likewise phallic and tactile, which he dubbed “disagreeable objects.” Yet whereas Giacometti insisted on the worthlessness of these handcrafted objects, Sahal’s sculptures, even in their most diminutive iterations, are adamantly precious—masterfully wrought objets d’art that inspire fetishistic reverence.

Mara Hoberman