the skin is the depth
Frith Street Gallery is pleased to present The Skin is the Depth, a look at Daniel Silver's turn to colour, including oil paint and coloured glazes, over the past year.
Influenced by the art of ancient Greece, modernism and Freudian psychoanalytic theory, Daniel Silver’s sculptures often manifest as monuments or fragments, as if emerging from an archaeological excavation. Applying his restless imagination to the form and structure of the human body, his sculptures speak of the intimacy of touch, with each head or figure seeming to take on a unique personality.
Over the past year, Silver has made a body of work where colour features prominently, including a group of large sculptures constructed from segments of unglazed ceramic, which the artist then finishes with oil paint. In this series, the artist reworks the body as kind of plinth, describing the sculptures as born from a desire to ‘make a body for a head’. Referring to them as ‘totems’ to describe their multi-part form, the sculptures shift between abstraction and figuration, micro and macro, recalling as some of them do a limb, a geological growth, an internal organ or perhaps even an artery.
While colour has often played an experimental role throughout Silver’s oeuvre, here he has used it emphatically. The artist applies oil paint directly to the rough, unglazed surface of unglazed ceramic, describing the pigment as a ‘skin’ on the body of the sculpture. The use of colour in sculpture can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, or, in modern sculpture, Antony Caro’s Early One Morning (1962). Silver’s use of colour lends a painterly sumptuousness to the works, as well as a poignant humanity and a playful humour.
In parallel with the 'totems' the artist has created a series of more intimate ceramic heads. Once fired, each head is painted with oils, allowing the pigments to blend and interact with the rough, unglazed ceramic to create tactile surfaces and intimate expressions. One head, titled Mother, is in part based on a woman the artist saw on his way to and from his studio, while another, called Clown, conjures the fool or comedian – often the father, according to the artist – in the family. The artist regards these works as individuals from a dream-like family, faintly recognisable yet also surreal.
In early 2021, Silver started a new series of ceramic heads based on a group of three figures the artist first created in 2003. Derived from the head of a female mannequin, the artist added a prominent extension to the lower part of the face, transforming the head into what could be a balding, bearded man. For the artist, however, the extension could also be a tongue – and thus each head could be either a bearded man or an androgynous figure with an oversized tongue. Colour in these works is unpredictable, with the glazes creating luscious, abstract surfaces. Each sculpture is supported by a unique wooden base chosen by the artist to complement the tones and patterns in the head it supports.
See below for a conversation between Daniel Silver and Craig Burnett, in which the artist describes some of the ideas behind the work in The Skin is the Depth.
“Once they were fired, I could paint them. And I could paint them in such a way that I could walk around them. And I could use the texture and the materiality of the ceramic to add another skin onto it, and that was something I really enjoyed and felt was quite a breakthrough for me.”
Heart, Orange, 2020
Heart, Orange was the first of the new ‘totem’ sculptures that Silver made. After sculpting the head in clay, he devised the multi-part body structure as a way to support the head, part of the artist’s ongoing quest to create new forms or structures to display his sculptures. Once sculpted, fired and assembled, the artist then applied the ‘skin’ of oil paint.
Human 1, Red, 2020
Human 1 and Human 2, both painted in a rich, primary red, could be considered a couple, or counterparts, yet each sculpture has a distinct character. Both works look like mysterious fragments of the natural world – part human, part geology. Human 1 has a visceral presence, pulsing with life, with the energy of a new life form being born – a sea creature, emerging from a reef to inspect its environment.
Human 2, Red, 2020
If the scale and title of Human 2 combine to suggest that the viewers will at first perceive the sculpture as a body, this ‘human’ could also be a mysterious geological form, something you would encounter in a dream landscape or on a distant planet. At the same time, the reds and mottled surfaces of the sculptures conjure the multi-part structure of Mark Rothko’s shimmering abstractions.
While working on the new series of painted sculptures, Silver often thought of his work in relation to abstract painters, including Mark Rothko. Silver was drawn to the ‘sculptural’ qualities of Rothko’s paintings, the way the washes of subtly modulated colour could create a sense of depth in a painting such as No. 15, (1957). Yet even as these ceramic ‘totems’ allude to abstract paintings, their sculptural form encourages the viewer to walk around the work, experiencing the changes in texture and colour from different perspectives.
Blue on Green, 2020
Blue on Green resembles a scorched timber, a stalagmite, or perhaps a cloaked figure. The dark blue over the green pigment has a rich, opalescent shimmer, causing the colours in the surface to shift as the viewer moves around the pillar-like form. The strong vertical movement of the sculpture might also bring to mind a Barnett Newman 'zip'.
Friend greets the viewer with a curious expression, both generous and grotesque, and a body that drips with a range of vivid blue hues. The 'skin' flows down the body of the sculpture, and the painterly surface is alive with flow and movement. Friend has an knobby extension on its lowest section, lending it a tree-like appearance, as if the Friend were a character from a Greek myth, in the process of transforming from plant to human.
Lover (Pink), 2020
Lover (pink) has a luscious, fleshy presence, resembling a neolithic sculpture of a female goddess, while the hips and legs combine to lend the figure a forceful sturdiness. As with Friend, we seem to be faced with a mythical figure, perhaps a cyclops, or a human-animal hybrid. The vivid pink 'skin' adds a playful humour to the work, a colour that conjures the palette of Philip Guston’s paintings from the late 1960s
“I try to carry and condense the whole world into a person when I make them.”
Mother is an intimate portrait of a figure who looks full of resolve, with a strong neck and determined expression, despite what the artist calls her ‘troubled eyes’. She expresses a deep emotion, inviting us to share something of her inner life despite her silence.
Silver believes that there is a clown figure in every family, often played by the father. Clown could be a father, or a child, or a representation of the trickster spirit in everyone. The artist imagines his own sculptures as archetypical characters in an overall social or family system, inviting the viewer to reflect on his or her role in the systems they inhabit.
“And we, as viewers, can come into the space, and walk in between the sculptures, and find our own narrative, and question our own narrative.”
Black and Blue, 2021
Each of the glazed ceramic heads has a distinct expression, enhanced by the unique combination of colour, flow and texture of the glazes. If the ‘totems’ have a tacticle surface that suggests a permeable 'skin', the heads have a glassy sheen that lends them the air of a timeless monument.
Blue on Black, 2021
Rivulets of vibrant blue glazes trickle down the head of Blue on black. Although the mould for the heads was based on a female mannequin, Silver added what he calls an 'extension on the face', which immediately evokes a long beard. The resulting head transforms into a male character, perhaps a scholar or a wise elder figure, from a lost or future era.
Blue Black and Green, 2021
Blue black and green features a range of colour and texture: the figure’s pate is silvery-turquoise, the beard a deep cobalt blue, the overall surface a mix of gloss and matt. While Silver chooses the colours of the glazes, he also plays with the amount he applies and adjusts the heat of the kiln so that the outcome is always slightly unpredictable.
Both the textured surface and the black colour of the clay are visible beneath the vivid pink glaze, lending this head a raw, vulnerable appearance. The dappled surface, with its flickering highlights, ranges in colour from a pale, greyish pink to a richer rose colour. Pink conveys a different character from the heads with darker glazes, introducing a mood that is perhaps more sensual or comic.
Turquoise cyan blue and pink, 2021
Turquoise cyan blue and pink has a languid presence, with a rich purple surface and a pinkish facial extension, a reminder that the beard, according to the artist, could also be a tongue. The particular attitude and character of this head is a result of unpredictable processes as the heads emerge from the artist’s mould, where the clay shifts before firing.
Daniel Silverin conversation with Craig Burnett
Daniel Silver - The Skin is the Depth