From the Sacred to the Elemental

Barbara Sorensen’s work carries many meanings from its materials, forms, to its myriad references. Her works simultaneously refer to the landscape, are metaphors for passing time, and embody ideas, many of which carry ceremonial or elemental implications.
The human impulse to create three-dimensional objects and images from materials taken from the earth is a primal one-archaeologists have discovered small clay figures of humans and animals that dating to 24,000 BC. These early works, found in present-day Czech Republic and probably used in ritual and ceremony, were formed from clay mixed with animal fat and bone and then fired in rudimentary kilns.

Like those timeless Czech figures, each piece in Sorensen’s vessels, Chalice and Boats, as well as those in the figural Goddess, Siren, and Muse series, is hand-formed from clay and fired. Like early Neolithic pottery, their surfaces are decorated with patterns incised into the earth from which they are made or, as in a number of Sorensen’s vessels and Shields, by pushing small stones and forms into the clay before firing.

The similarity to antiquity does not end there; each Sorensen work also holds consecrated, mythic references. For example, the ancient Roman calyx or chalice was a goblet or footed cup intended to hold a ceremonial drink, often made of precious metals with intricate surface decoration. Sorensen’s Chalices and Chalice Forest installation echo the ancient forms.

Rather than silver and gold, however, Sorensen’s Chalices are formed from clay. Instead of elaborate decorations, her versions bear simpler, crumpled patterns and earth-toned glazes. Yet seen in a group of ten, her monumental Chalice Forest appears as an offering to the gods or large a grouping of massive, abstract heads gazing heavenward.

Similarly, the rounded forms of Sorensen’s Shields remind the viewer of those carried by medieval soldiers. Like their Dark Ages counterparts, each of Sorensen’s bears a different emblem, like a coats of arms in bas-relief from two-dimensional clay and stone pieces laid onto the shield surface, which is in turn etched with an incised pattern and a subtly colored glaze.

Some of Sorensen’s works-her Goddesses, Sirens and Muses-draw inspiration from the body of myth and legend the ancient Greeks developed in order to describe the nature of the world and their lives.

In Greek mythology, the Sirens were daughters of the sea and earth gods; they were dangerous seductresses whose enchanting singing lured sailors to rocky coastlines-there to wreck their ships and drown. The Muses were born when Zeus and the goddess of memory, Mnemosyne, slept together for nine consecutive nights. The nine goddesses resulting from their union gave birth to the creation of literature and the arts.

Sorensen’s immense Sirens and Muses stand on individual pedestals, larger than life. The headless clay figures call to mind Greek sculpture, with each slightly different, an icon to femininity and the human form.

Another figure from Greek mythology, Pandora, was made from the earth-from clay-to become the first woman. The gods gave her the gifts of beauty and seduction, but the gifts to her were also meant as a punishment to mankind for Prometheus’ theft of fire. Famously, the curious Pandora made her opened a forbidden jar, thus unleashing all the evils and ills of mankind upon the world. Only hope was left enclosed in the jar.

Sorensen has created Pandora’s Boxes, a series of nine clay chests which stand closed in a square. It is unclear whether they have or have not yet been opened by their mythic namesakes.

Sorensen’s Foothills and Hanging Boats installation blends contemporary technology with works that represent a deep view of time. Millennia are implied by the slices of clay laid upon the floor like tectonic plates, while rivers, winds, and fire-the forces that helped form the earth’s surface-are projected onto them.

The installation evokes the red, iron-laden mountains and rocks of southern Utah, where subtly colored layers of clay and rock open up to give us a view that spans thousands of years. Ceramic fired boats like those used to transport ancient people hang above these foothills. With striations and pebbled areas, their surfaces appear rough, like the barks of trees.

Sorensen recently turned from clay to other materials to create Dwellings, Wind, and Pools, series of environments that manipulate, contain, and extend into space. Made of materials including aluminum, wire, resin, and rope, the works all reference organic shapes formed in real life by the elements.

Dwellings are metal, free-form armatures in black or primary colors with complex exoskeletons around a spacious, empty core. Their intricately woven bands divide and flow through both the interior and exterior of the works; when placed outside, they seem to sway and dance with the wind.

Some Dwellings resemble honeycombed cocoons; others repose on the floor like temporarily arrested tumbleweeds. Several hang on the wall and recall sea urchins or jellyfish, their shapes seemingly moving with the current, while others appear like nautilus shells whose outer skin has disappeared leaving only the skeleton behind.

Made from white resin and wire, the forms in Sorensen’s Wind series spiral out towards the viewer to draw deeply into each one’s darkened center. Resembling tornadoes, each cylindrical cone throws long shadows. Reinforcing the perception of the forms’ active vitality and power, these “twisters” bend and sway like the powerful winds that circle the landscape.

Dunes populate their flattened landscape like small, jutting hills growing organically from a wide circumferences at their bottom with resin-covered rope and wire mesh infrastructures. Each Dune circles to a pointed summit, as if shaped on the shoreline by wind sweeping through the sand.

Sorensen’s Pools invert the Wind form, originating with a small circumference at the bottom and then expanding toward its wide, open height. The Pools gape like the open mouths of sea creatures, resembling eddies and whirlpools that suddenly appear like underwater tornadoes.

From making works from the earth, Sorensen has progressed to making works that recall and embody those atavistic elements that form the earth. Whether working with clay, metal, ropes or resin, the artist continues to create haunting forms that carry multiple allusions and associations and reward extended viewing.

Barbara Bloemink, Former Curator Museum of Arts and Design