An inscrutable smile appears on the face of Elizabeth Jaeger’s life-size nude figure Mudita (2013). The ceramic female body—chalk-white aside from highlights of dull pink on the cheeks and breasts—rests on a pedestal in a supine pose, elongated limbs raised in the air, hands clasped around the ankles. The body type, skin tone and curls of synthetic blond hair that tumble down from the otherwise hairless figure’s head elicit vaguely nostalgic feelings, recalling at once decorative porcelain cherubs and filthy vintage porn. Double valences abound in Jaeger’s figurative sculptures, which, like Mudita, often feature exaggeratedly sinuous bodies rendered in brittle clay, their taut faces suggestive of alluringly emaciated fashion models or mummified corpses.
According to one common definition, the uncanny is an eruption into consciousness of something familiar but buried. Once brought to the foreground, the repressed memory is potentially dangerous—disturbing our sense of self and, as the Surrealists hoped, disrupting the social order at large. Jaeger, who studied at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., and now lives in Brooklyn, exploits the familiarity of the human body, orchestrating nuanced plays of estrangement that recall the work of Robert Gober and Kiki Smith. She affixes naturalistically modeled ceramic hands and feet onto stylized limbs, covering her clay figures with coats of Hydrocal plaster. The disjointed effect is heightened when multiple such figures are brought together in a tableau. As staged recently on the unfinished basement floor of New York’s Eli Ping Gallery, Music Stand (2013) included a nude Mudita lookalike straddling a male counterpart dressed in a business suit. Their vacant, tranquil expressions suggested two individuals totally at peace with their roles in an untoward spectacle.
While erotically charged, Jaeger’s sculptures also tend to function as memento mori. She achieves a kind of monumentality that’s rare among her Brooklyn-based peers. The all-black female figure in Serving Vessels (2013) is posed in a way that resembles Etruscan funerary sculpture. Accompanyig her are cups, bowls and other assorted clay objects, also all black and recalling the implements that wealthy ancients once hoped to use in the afterlife. The body and the vessels appear equally empty, like mere shadows that can only allude to worldly pleasure.
COMING SOON A solo exhibition at Jack Hanley Gallery, New York.