Through July 9, at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia
It’s not often that a young artist—or even an older one—can command two museum floors and leave viewers wishing for more. But Lenka Clayton, in “Object Temporarily Removed” at the Fabric Workshop, does just that—and without making one false step.
The Pittsburgh-based artist, originally from Cornwall, on England’s southwestern tip, is highly attuned to the rhythms of everyday life and senses in them something archaic and fey that the rest of us might not recognize. And she follows her intuitions with remarkable determination.
Case in point: this show’s title was inspired by a letter Clayton came across in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s public files on Constantin Brancusi. The missive had been sent in 1978 to Anne d’Harnoncourt (1943–2008), at the time the museum’s curator of 20th-century art, by a man named Brian H. Morgan. He wanted to know what she would have to say about the aesthetic value of a carved ovoid marble sculpture that had been made “around 1898” by Morgan’s Romanian great-grandfather, Peter Finck. The work was nearly identical to a 1916 piece, Sculpture for the Blind, by the Romanian-born Brancusi, that was in the Philadelphia Museum’s collection. He noted that Finck and Brancusi were born in “regions only 175 km. apart” and wondered if they had met—and if Finck’s “egg” had inspired Brancusi’s sculpture.
Clayton wrote to various Brian Morgans across the country and eventually found the letter’s author in Virginia. During a phone conversation, he told her that d’Harnoncourt had never responded to his letter and that his “egg,” handed down through generations of his Romanian family, was sitting before him on his desk.
Inspired by the fates of the two sculptures, Clayton developed a work in response. She mailed copies of Morgan’s letter to some 1,000 art critics, curators, and museum directors around the world asking them if they would be willing to answer his query and return their letters to Clayton for her exhibition.
Their responses, varying from long typed letters to three-sentence handwritten notes, are now mounted on a gallery wall. Most responders sided with Brancusi for having developed a signature style and wished that Morgan had provided more information on Finck’s career, such as whether he was a committed sculptor or an amateur. Clayton took her inquiry further, inviting members of Philadelphia’s blind and visually impaired community to create their own iterations of Sculpture for the Blind based on her descriptions of the piece, which she gave them to read in Braille.
Their sculptures, of varying ovoid shapes mounted on pedestals in the gallery, are remarkably similar to Brancusi’s work and to Clayton’s more autonomous works on another floor, all addressing the nature of originality.
Among these are a series of “drawings” Clayton made using a manual typewriter, which could be a play on Carl Andre’s typed poetry pieces of the 1960s. But Clayton’s typed works on paper depict impressively exacting representational images, such as the front page of the New York Times and a flowered Chinese vase.
Other works on this floor include a typed manifesto and business cards for a fully funded artist residency Clayton founded in 2012, called An Artist Residency in Motherhood. The project took place in her own home, and she framed motherhood as a valuable experience (the work has since spawned 300 Artist-in-Motherhood programs in 31 countries and six continents).
Three short videos feature in The Distance I Can Be From My Son (Park, Back Alley, and Supermarket), 2013, which hark back to experimental films and performance art pieces of the 1960s and ’70s and to François Truffaut’s 1976 film Small Change, following the perils experienced by various French children in their everyday lives.
Clayton’s camera follows her then-18-month-old son wobbling into a vast grassy park, up an alley, and down a supermarket aisle, occasionally looking back at his mother. In each case, Clayton, who has been trying to measure the distance she can allow between herself and her child, suddenly charges after him. Motherly love trumps objectivity every time.