Barbara Sorensen: Elemental

Barbara Sorensen, who made her name with ceramic sculpture, has extended her interest in the topographical landscape by expanding her material base and aesthetic composition. Elemental includes sculptural forms constructed from rope, wire, resin, aluminum, and mixed media. While she offers three-dimensional portrayals of the environment as metaphor, her work is not descriptive. Tide pools, sand dunes, and topographical formations are evoked without being strictly represented. Sorensen connects the landscape to the human, organic body – offering responses that are felt as much as seen.

Sorensen has long been manipulating material to echo the natural landscape. In their surface textures and glazes, her ceramic sculptures often suggested the varied textures of this planet’s crust. There is sense that these works not only depicted features of the earth’s surface and the artist’s response to them, but they were also created out of the same fundamental material. Her glazes suggest cooled lava flows, fissures in the landscape, and striations in rock outcroppings. Although Sorensen’s work in ceramics has provided her with a solid understanding of working in three dimensions, her more recent work incorporates materials that allow her even more “room” to maneuver since the physical weight of the earlier ceramic sculpture has been minimized. Whether powder-coated aluminum constructed into net or web-like forms, or rope and resin in concave shapes, theses works convey a sense of organic phenomenon on both a microscopic and macroscopic level.

While her ceramics seemed uniformly tied to the earth because of their material and visual references to the land, Sorensen’s recent pieces are reminiscent of more ethereal objects and occurrences, such as vortexes and whirlpools of air, water, and earth. Her use of new media allows for simultaneous exploration of the interior and exterior space of her structures demonstrating a lightness not seen before in her ceramics. The sense of openness is not just on visual terms, for these works also are open to more varied interpretations. A sculpture whose metal lines could be tracing the unseen, but felt, movement of air in a vortex may also suggest a hive for an insect colony. Her swirling vessel-like structures could be the embodiment of whirlpools of water at low tide of a home burrowed in the ground by some small creature.

Sorensen makes distinctive connections between the body, the topography of the land, and vessels-playing off of the symbolic potential of each. For example, with her Dwellings series of open structures made of metal, she does not dictate how the pieces should be understood, but rather shares that the large-scale offers people the opportunity to image them as places to “crouch and remain inside.” They become vessels, of sorts, that could protect as well as isolate someone. Evoking the natural world in form, not just image, the artist engages the senses.

Barbara Sorensen studied at the University of Wisconsin and with sculptors – such as Rudy Autio, Don Reitz, and Peter Voulkos – who were pushing the field of ceramics in new directions. In addition to being included in many public and private collections, her work is featured in numerous publications and has been exhibited internationally.

Lena Vigna, Curator of Exhibitions, Racine Art Museum