Not There

9/9 - 10/15 2023

Sarah Ippolito
Close Encounters

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Sarah Ippolito, Close Encounters, 2023

Not There is pleased to present Close Encounters by Los Angeles-based artist Sarah Ippolito. With new sculptural works in mixed media and ceramic, Ippolito continues to explore biomorphic exuberance, and immanent vitality in figural sculpture, alongside a deep interest in how we, as humans, identify with, desire, or eschew the bodies of other organisms.

The abstraction of our cities and towns, gardens and galleries, can obscure the fact that we tucked the sea within us when our soft tissues slithered onto land hundreds of millions of years ago. Eventually—inside our aqueous bodies—a frame of fine bones, a kinetic scaffold of collagen and calcium gave us the windpipe, the spinal column, and the femur, those agents of the aria, the dance, and the marathon. An encounter with the work of Sarah Ippolito feels like an uncanny confrontation with our evolutionary past, and a patent reminder that our physiological nature begets the human impulse to create culture.

One could climb the genealogical tree of artists that have influenced and contextualized Ippolito’s oeuvre, but more intriguingly, one feels her kinship with certain naturalist makers: the Bohemian father and son lampworkers, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, who quietly shaped glass models of invertebrate sea creatures in their workshop near Dresden, Germany, the replicated menageries of George and Paul Marchand who created transfixing natural history dioramas with their father Henri (who had studied sculpture with Rodin in France), and their pupil, Terry Chase, made famous for his speculative display of the Ediacaran biota for the Smithsonian. Like Chase, the works that compose Close Encounters seem fascinated by the evolutionary moment when the earliest known multicellular organisms first occupied the oceans, holding an indeterminate status between plant and animal.

The great Australian philosopher and science writer, Peter Godfrey-Smith, said of this movement from the Ediacaran to the Cambrian Period, “each animal becomes an important part of the environment of others… from this point on, the mind evolved in response to other minds.” Biology teaches us that exuberant form is a coevolution of creature and context, a long chain of call and response to inputs like the pressure at abyssal depths, fluctuations in salinity, or the actions of other organisms in a shared environment. In Ippolito’s work the narrative presence of unseen forces might cause raised hair, goosebumps, or alert and knowing postures between the pieces, but these effects also disclose the practical forces of craft that have fashioned the work; the saws, rasps, and abrasive papers meeting the material behaviors of wood, paper pulp, metal, and ceramic. The sense of responsive tactility throughout the exhibition—where touch is linked to thought and action—is a foregone conclusion when we discover that Ippolito was schooled in the Montessori method. The embodied, scientific legacy of that educational model was nurtured at home by her parents, with whom time in the dirt, the woods, and the rivers of the deep Texas brush country was an empirical laboratory for anatomical dissection, botany, and careful observation. These seminal experiences are keenly felt in the immersive medium the works gather around themselves. It’s as if we have willingly surrendered to holding our breath underwater in exchange for the pleasure, wonder, adventure, and awe of temporarily inhabiting a world apart from the one we know above the surface.

The three large works in the exhibition—totem-like with radial or three-sided body plans the height of a standing adult, and bedecked in fronds, cilia, and tentacles—sit directly on the gallery floor, dissolving the physical, temporal, and psychological distance between us and them. Their biotic orientation seems loosely rooted in shallow sediment, reconfigurable by the action of tides or our presence in the gallery.

The manifestation of color in Ippolito’s sculptures is derived from her sources of natural influence, indicating displays of ripeness, warning, toxicity, defensive posture, camouflage, or sexual maturity in color dependent mating systems. But the formal dimensions of the work also suggests notions of countershading, where gradient transitions in hue, value, and saturation can offer spatial strategies for sensing movement and position in an environment. In many animals, darker coloring on the tops of their bodies, and lightness underneath, is thought to counteract highlight and shadow making it more difficult for predators to assess the location of their prey in space. Ippolito has a particular fascination with the epidermal color of cephalopods. Their dynamic color, which changes with the shape of their body and the contents of the environs, arises from complex muscles that hold sacs of color layered over reflecting cells to produce reactive iridescence and corporeal textures.

A parallel play on perception is at work in the triad of major forms. They are a gesture toward biological gigantism, when the Earth first became highly oxygenated, and its flora and fauna underwent a planetary growth spurt. They also suggest the representational telescoping that we first witnessed in the 17th century with the invention of glass optics that allowed us to see past the scalar registrations of the naked eye. The larger works of Close Encounters could be first cousins to the oversized didactic botanical models that suffused the Victorian era.

In the back of the gallery a group of smaller works in ceramic also prey upon our vulnerable perception of scale. A current theory in evolutionary biology suggests that life may have started on clay, among the geologic sediments of the ocean floor. As the only earthen material with an electrostatic charge, it could have been the substance on which matter went from the inorganic to the living. These ceramic pieces share many of the same biomorphic attributes as the other works in the exhibition, but their clay bodies and glazes shuttle them under the scientific watch of the microscope and locate them among microbial life.

During the last of many studio visits that occurred while Close Encounters was in formation, a playful and profound conversation transpired; questions about space travel at the expense of irrevocably leaving Earth, and a disparity in the identified presence of life on our planet versus everywhere else. For the moment, at least, there appears to be “more life in a teaspoon on earth, than in the rest of the galaxy” (a point beautifully argued by one of Ippolito’s studio neighbors). And yet, we know less about the oceans and the deep past that we do about the heavens. The generosity of Sarah Ippolito’s work, is in part, an audacity to imagine all that remains undiscovered and to excite us with the strangeness and optimism of first encounters.

Sarah Ippolito (b. 1986, Houston, TX) is a Los Angeles based artist working in sculpture, installation, and drawing. Ippolito received her BFA in Sculpture from the University of Houston (2010) and her MFA in Fiber and Material Studies from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2012). Ippolito has presented solo exhibitions at the A+D Museum (2019) and Adjunct Positions in Los Angeles (2014), and a forthcoming exhibition at Various Small Fires, Los Angeles (2024). Group exhibitions include Forest Lawn Museum, Glendale (2023), La Loma Projects (2023), the Sugar Lab (2017), the Center for the Arts Eagle Rock, Los Angeles (2014); Western Exhibitions, Chicago (2012); and the Lawndale Art Center, Houston (2009). She is the recipient of the 2023 Henrik Vibskov P:I:G Award.