Attractive Repulsion: Visceral Made Tangible

Ceramics Monthly




Cross Section 5, 36 in. (91 cm) in height, thrown porcelain, medical grade silicone rubber, and silk, 2008. Photo: John Lucas.

Ribbons of rubber and strands of silk meander and stretch
around porcelain pods and protrusions. The current work of Alison Petty
Ragguette explores the parallel between visceral and mechanical systems. This
intelligent and emotive work envelops interior spaces where bones fit into
cartilage swaddled with translucent skin, or nourishing fluids flow. Naked
porcelain, silicone rubber, and colorful silk thread merge, wrap, wind, and
flow, implying the hardness and softness of our interior and exterior lives.
These organic abstractions are intimate and tight, slick and sticky,
stimulating and seductive, playful and alien.

Considering her experiences and influences, Ragguette’s path
to this merged media seems a forgone conclusion. Born to Canadian parents in
Ann Arbor, Michigan, while her father worked on his medical degree, she was
interested in her brother’s train tracks and space systems, mud, clay, and
dough. “My nanny used to let me play with flour and water, and just muck

Throughout her school years in Vancouver, she was inherently
interested in materials and construction. Instead of taking traditional art
classes, she took woodworking and sewing. “As a teenager, I started taking pottery
classes at a community studio. They had 24-hour studio access, and I found
myself going there instead of going out with my friends. I wanted to learn how
to throw well. Hours flew by. It was kind of an escape for me. I found working
with my hands to be relaxing; the methodical practice of handwork took me to a
place in my head that was out of my body, and it still does.”

Being basically self-taught to throw, Ragguette put together
a portfolio of ceramics and at the age of eighteen was accepted to Goldsmiths
University of London. In this spectacular facility, she learned mold making and
slip casting. While finishing her degree in ceramics in Montreal at Concordia
University, she expanded her material vocabulary with additional work in fibers
and paper sculpture.


Congealed Triptych, 24 in. (61 cm) in width, thrown porcelain, cast rubber, glass, and silk, 2006. Collection: Shanghai Arts and Crafts Museum. Photo: Debbie Christ.

During her undergraduate studies, she spent a lot of time
justifying her desire to throw, but a big shift happened in Raguette’s MFA
program at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. “I think a
pivotal point for me was when I stopped making functional ware, and that’s when
it got exciting. I tend to make most of my work on the wheel, but I believe it
is important to decide what to make first and then think about how I can best
execute it.”

At CCA, her inquiry rose to a higher level. “[I] started
thinking about the material significance of clay and combining it with other
materials to confuse it all.” She muses, “Clay has this long tradition, a
common material that we encounter daily, sometimes fragile and precious; rubber
has a low cultural value, it is malleable, durable, and often disposable.
Integrating these two materials creates a dialog of hard and soft, fragile and
flexible, like skin and bone. My world blew wide open when I started to think
this way.”

Revealing her childhood propensity to “merge materials and
make them a part of each other, like they were born that way, instead of placed
together,” Ragguette integrated glass, polyurethane rubber, and porcelain. She
worked with latex, dipping porcelain forms and peeling it away; then casting
solid polyurethane rubber. Her earlier Congealed series cast an ambient and
gooey glow, while Somatic Spill looked like puddles of blood. She likes to
question the idea of what is deemed icky, gross or beautiful.


This article appeared in the November 2009 issue of Ceramics Monthly.
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“Rubber for me is my dirty little secret. I think I have an
erotic kind of interest in the yumminess of materiality. I deliberately choose
materials that are seductive, fun, and playful. I looked at my dad’s medical
models of joints and bones, and of viscera and organs. I am fascinated with the
space and function of the internal body and my work draws it into the tangible
world. It’s attractive and repulsive at the same time.”


Somatic Spill (detail), 6 ft. (1.8 m) in length, thrown porcelain, cast rubber, glass, and silk, 2003. Photo: Ken Mayer.

After gaining skill casting polyurethane rubber, Ragguette
has moved away from its invective aura. Armed with a grant to pursue new
creative research and materials, The Purosil Rubber Company in Corona,
California, invited her as their first visiting artist. Purosil manufactures
rubber hoses for car engines, and non-toxic medical grade tubing and prosthetics.
With the assistance of material engineers in this industrial manufacturing
environment, Ragguette explored new technical inquiries, culminating in the
recent solo exhibition, “Viscerlab”, at the Robert V. Fullerton Art Museum, at
California State University, San Bernardino.

Cross Section Series

“I look at internal body diagrams, microscopic photographs,
and MRI scans. I think about cross sections of the body, nature, and
mechanics-like slicing a car engine, a human joint, or a molecule in half under
a microscope and seeing the inner contents; the rubber is flesh containing and
protecting these inner porcelain forms.”

For the Cross Section wall pieces, Ragguette cuts
13-foot-long medical grade silicone rubber sheets, folding and embedding the
layers with about 1000 feet of silk thread, making a thick noodle. The veined
malleable taffy-like strips are sensuous and visceral when sprayed with water.
Wet and slippery, they are stretched like a tendon, a slab of veined fat, a
ligament, or colored cartilage around swollen, slumped or fetal shaped forms.
The rubber is cured at 350?F sucking it around thrown porcelain pieces.

“What is exciting to me about medical grade silicone rubber
is that it’s the silicone molecule-again! It is the key component to clay and
glazes and materials that I’m so seduced by . . . . This rubber combined with
porcelain creates the dialectic of synthetic and natural. This duality raises
questions about material associations; such different materials evolved from
the same molecule.”

Ultimately, the elegant Cross Sections are aesthetic objects
to explore and enjoy, referencing the materiality of nature and technology. The
forms relate to many things and places, the micro-organic world, shells,
diatoms, the interior body.

Viscera System


Viscerasystem (front view), 12 ft. (3.6 m) in height, slip-cast porcelain, PVC, stainless steel, and water, 2008. Photo: John Lucas

“I look at car manuals of Volkswagen engines. I think a lot
about mechanics, comparing the systems of the body to engines, nature to
technology. There is this funky old Volkswagen manual with some amazingly
illustrated diagrams. I love looking at the diagram of a crankshaft, or a
combustion system. This book made me start to think about mechanics and
specifically inspired the large Viscera System sculpture.”

The Viscera System is a weird and wonderful organism, like a
science experiment that has grown out of control. It pumps colored water,
pulsating like it’s alive. A huge, 12×8×4-foot structure, this marvelous messy
network of rubber veins weaves in and out of morphed, porcelain slip-cast
automotive and plumbing parts. “The internal body has been a big source of
influence for me, so I think of the inner contents of the tubes as body fluids;
rubber as flesh, and porcelain as bone. I suppose it’s my attempt to make a
visceral connection to the technological and synthetic world we live in. It
makes me think about my own internal plumbing in comparison with mechanical systems.
I’ve been intrigued by those parallels.”

While completing a residency at the Jingdezhen Experimental
Workshop in China, Ragguette focused on creating forms that looked both organic
and mechanical. In a junkyard in China, she foraged through piles of car parts
and brought them back to the studio, and started adding clay to them. She
designed prototypes of these hybridized forms, made molds and shipped them
home. The porcelain objects slip cast from these Chinese car parts operate to
suspend and interlock the Viscera System.

Viscerasystem (detail), slip-cast porcelain, PVC, stainless steel, and water, 2008. Photo: John Lucas.

“Though Viscera System appears to be an organic bodily
system, technology is at work pumping it from underneath. It’s that fine line
where humanity is becoming dependent on technology-prosthetics or pacemakers
and even my laptop (this container of silicone-based technology as an extension
of my brain).

“The medical influence early in my life is definitely there.
I have a strong visceral need to stay connected to my body and to the earth. I
interact with all these mechanical and technological things, yet clay keeps me
grounded in the organic world.

“I want the viewer to be seduced into this speechless place;
where they are in a state of euphoria or disgust. I like it when people can’t
put words to it-in this more visceral place. But my work also needs to be
beautiful-making icky things beautiful. Challenging the boundaries of what
beauty is and expanding that sensation of beauty.”

Since moving to California, Ragguette’s work has become more
exciting, colorful, and playful. She is finding her definition of beautiful
aesthetic objects, a graceful connection to our technologically based culture
and a renewed realization of our need to connect to the earth and our bodies.

the author Dr. Billie Sessions, professor emeritus at
California State University, San Bernardino, specializes in art education and
the history of ceramics education.


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