Philadelphia Art Alliance Blog

Time’s Threads–Caitlin McCormack’s Art of Memory

Having graduated from the University of the Arts in 2010, Caitlin McCormack has been remarkably productive. Averaging about 25 group and solo shows a year, it’s impressive that McCormack has the time and energy to keep producing her intricate crochet creations. The works on view in A Curious Nature at the PAA were all made within the past year, and they speak the ways that McCormack continues to develop the techniques and themes of her art. In contrast to the rich, glossy coats of Linda Cordell’s glazed porcelain animals, McCormack explores shades of gray, channeling her memories of people and places through the distorted and fantastical crocheted bodies of imaginary creatures. For McCormack, animals function as an intermediary between us and our memories; they take forms that our human bodies cannot, express thoughts and feelings that human voices cannot. While McCormack’s work is deeply personal, her creatures have the power to evoke not only her memories, but ours, as well.


Caitlin McCormack, “Bound, As It Were,” 2015.

Turning to the right as you enter the gallery are a pair of works–“Bound, As It Were” and “Obligatus”–that incorporate antique crocheted gloves, hinting at the ghostly presence of a woman. Upon learning that McCormack learned to crochet from her late grandmother, I find it hard not to see these gloves as a more specific evocation of loss, and of the function of crochet as an art of memory that is deeply personal.


Caitlin McCormack, “Kindertide,” 2015.

McCormack has been gradually increasing the scale of her work–no mean feat given the intricacy of crochet as a technique. At 36 inches in length (over twice the length of most of her pieces), 2014’s “Kindertide” is both delicate and visceral. The hollow, bird-like bones of McCormack’s other creations here take on a disturbing solidity. There are few stray strings or fragments of found crochet to distract us. We are confronted with the skeleton of a large creature that seems both amphibian and mammalian, crushed beneath the glass. The density of string makes this work appear weighty, a creature of the physical world and not just of memory or imagination. McCormack explained that she counts each thread carefully, and that each repetitive working of the thread is an act of memory, a sort of secular rosary of crochet. The weight of the particular memory represented by “Kindertide” must be heavy indeed.


Caitlin McCormack, “Mansion of Prodigies,” 2015.

Occupying a niche in the center of the gallery is another large-scale piece, “Mansion of Prodigies.” Consisting of a crocheted skeletal shark atop a chest of drawers, we are invited to interact with the piece, opening and closing its small drawers to peek at the tiny creatures inside. “Mansion of Prodigies” functions like a latter-day version of the cabinets of curiosities of Renaissance Europe, which were encyclopedic collections of scientific, artistic, and historical objects ranging from gemstones and fossils, to art and antiquities. McCormack’s creatures look like unclassified specimens from an unknown land. Pinned down as if to dissect and classify them, the creatures are contained in drawers labelled with cryptic words–“Electra,” “Aurora,” “Titus”–that only hint at the nature of their mysterious contents.


Caitlin McCormack, “Loessborne,” 2016.

For all their intricacy, there’s something cinematic about McCormack’s work, each piece hinting at a larger narrative. The black boxes lined with black velvet look like miniature stage sets, the intricate strands of thread orchestrating the crocheted sculptures like puppets guided by the invisible hands of memory. This is particularly apparent in one of McCormack’s most recent works, which she created for this show–“Loessborne.” A play on words and ideas surrounding sorrow and loss, birth and bearing, we see two tiny figures, one hunched over the other one in an ambiguous pose that could suggest either love or violence. These two figures are framed underneath by a crocheted lace collar, and from above by a web of threads that extend in rigidly straight lines from a single pin. The linear geometry of the string seems to impose an unnatural restraint on the organic, curving forms of the crocheted figures, hinting at a tension not only between the two figures, but between these creatures and their environment or circumstances. While McCormack’s inspiration may come from personal memories, the intricacy of the technique and the ambiguity of the imagery draw us in, creating eerie stage sets for us to populate with our own memories, dreams, and desires.    


Caitlin McCormack’s work will be on display along with the other creatures of A Curious Nature through December 4, 2016. To read more about her work, check out her website.


Changing States–Linda Cordell’s Animal Figurines

Some of Linda Cordell’s figurines, assembled in a line-up before being arranged in the second floor galleries of the Art Alliance. From left to right: “Goat Drip,” “Pink Tumor,” “Foo Dogs,” “Slap Dog,” “Sanguinary,” and “Pugnacious.”

Liquid and solid, wet and dry, heavy and weightless, funny and frightening–Linda Cordell’s ceramic sculptures occupy a shifting middle ground between each of these binaries. The ten works the artist selected for A Curious Nature offer slightly surreal pairings of porcelain animals, such as dogs, squirrels, and even a bear, with pieces of domestic furniture. Cordell’s demented animal figurines are strangely at home in the setting of the Wetherill Mansion, a former private residence. While I cannot imagine Samuel Wetherill, for whom the mansion was built, owning one of Cordell’s figurines, perhaps he enjoyed the porcelain animal figurines produced by the famous Meissen factory in Germany throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as this Bolognese terrier made around 1900. Cordell takes the long tradition of saccharine animal figurines and turns it inside out, exposing the messy reality of animal bodies and the distorting effects of domestication.


Figure of a Bolognese Terrier. Made ca. 1900 by the Meissen porcelain factory, Meissen, Germany. Original model by Johann Joachim Kändler, ca. 1750. From the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Animals have figured prominently in porcelain production since the early eighteenth century, when porcelain was first produced in Europe in Meissen under the patronage of the Elector Prince of Saxony, Augustus the Strong. Together with more functional items for food service, the Meissen factory produced countless figurines depicting bucolic shepherds and shepherdesses, as well as floppy-eared dogs and other domestic animals. The subject matter of “uncivilized” people and animals contrasted with the precious medium of porcelain, known at the time as “white gold,” and with the abundant wealth and sophistication of the figurines’ owners. These porcelain “noble savages” can be seen as expressions of contemporary Enlightenment philosophical debates about the nature of humankind–are humans naturally depraved, making us little better than animals, as Hobbes would have it, or are we fundamentally moral creatures? While the meaning of what it is to be human has long been expressed through contrast with animals, Cordell’s figurines go beyond this anthropocentrism to suggest the very real effects of this thinking on the bodies of animals themselves.


Detail of Linda Cordell, “Slap Dog.” Porcelain, wood, foam, resin, and paint.

Cordell’s animals convey a sense of frustration and even rage at the confines of domesticity, and their bodies are distorted by violent resistance, disfiguring disease, or bodily disintegration. Cordell achieves these effects through the skilled manipulation of materials. Most clay–earthenware and stoneware–is heavy, while porcelain was developed to be finer and lighter, with more plasticity and translucency. Cordell embraces these qualities, creating gravity-defying details like the flying drool in “Slap Dog.”


Linda Cordell, “Goat Drip.” Porcelain, wood, foam, resin, paint. 26″ x 28″ x 13″.

Cordell also incorporates lightweight foam in some of her pieces, such as “Goat Drip.” Reddish colored resin pools on the table underneath the snarling animal, transmuted into bubbling foam as it moves through the wood to beneath the table. The brightly colored enamel strikes a discordant note against the muted white of the furniture and the pale green celadon glaze of the porcelain figures. The ensemble of resin, foam, and porcelain blurs the boundaries between liquid and solid, still subject to gravity and yet resisting it.


Linda Cordell, “Culled Lamb,” 2016. Porcelain, plastic, paint, wood. 44″ x 24″ x 10″

Although the porcelain is the main event, Cordell’s sculptures are multi-media, and the furniture pedestals on which the animals are positioned has been carefully selected and adapted. Unlike traditional frames or pedestals, which aim to be invisible and to focus attention on the work of art, Cordell’s pedestals often overwhelm the porcelain creatures poised atop them–or even caught within them. In one of her more recent works, “Culled Lamb,” the lamb has been positioned inside the shelves, the wood closing around its neck and trapping it. Cordell seems to be drawing attention to the disconnect between human and animal, domestic and wild through the dynamic between the porcelain figure and its pedestal.

For all their technical virtuosity, these are not easy works to look at. I feel at once drawn to and repulsed by Cordell’s animals, and they leave me with a lingering sense of discomfort, like being reminded of an inconvenient truth. And perhaps that’s the point.

For more on Cordell’s process and thoughts about her work, check out this video interview with Cordell at her South Philadelphia studio: