Clementine Keith-Roach’s artwork is as astute as it is aesthetic. Her best-known works, her “nipple urns”, are anthropomorphic vases where breasts seem to grow out of the aged patina of the ceramic. As well as body parts, her practice involves casting everyday, inanimate objects that serve as extensions of the body, and by arranging them demands that their forms are viewed afresh. Currently on show with the Seeld Library at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles is Keith-Roach’s museum-like display of milky resin fragments – the negative spaces from a collection of breast pumps and baby bottles.
This summer, Keith-Roach is pushing feminist visuality by exploring the transformative human experience of birth and breastfeeding as part of Pervilion, a transient exhibition project. Her exhibition Herm opened alongside nomadic biennial Manifesta in Palermo, adorning the windows of Edizioni Precarie, a collective of women paper makers, and the bar Botteghe Colletti in the city’s artisanal district. Meanwhile at Art Night 2018 in London, Keith-Roach presented an ornamental fountain complete with milk-substitute-spouting nipples. We should all know by now that tits and brains aren’t mutually exclusive, but sometimes people still need a little convincing. To give you the necessary ammunition to use against these misguided souls, we give you the lowdown on the thinking behind Keith-Roach’s up-close-and-personal depictions of the female body.
Much like her “nipple urns”, Herm is imbued with classical influence. The titular sculpture takes its name from the ‘herm’, an ancient sculptural form, a stone pillar adorned only with a head and a penis; usually it bore the image of the god Hermes. Instead of stone, Keith-Roach’s update is made using pressed paper pulp made from food wrappings from Palermo’s markets. The paper sculpture constitutes a minimalist version of the ancient herm, but she has removed the male head and replaced the penis with a pair of breasts.
Playing on the ideas of severance and fragmentation, the exhibition in Palermo is itself is bipartite. In the second part, Keith-Roach presents a stylised retelling of the Mutilation of Saint Agatha: the legend of a virgin whose breasts were severed after refusing to marry a Roman governor. An archive of disjointed body parts or “relics” — breasts, fingers, feet, ears, a belly button — are moulded from plaster casts taken from the artist’s own body and those of her loved ones, then tautly vacuum-packed in clear plastic. These plastic wrappings allow Keith-Roach to explore what she describes as the “fetish of the hermetic seal”; an obsession with untainted goods which aligns the time-worn objectification of the female body with the food markets on the streets of contemporary Palermo.
Far from the Sicilian sun, Keith-Roach presented work as part of Art Night on 7 July, London’s largest free festival of contemporary art. Each year, the festival descends upon an area of the city for one night only, tracing a trail through local galleries and site-specific installations. This summer, after partnering with the newly re-opened Hayward Gallery, Art Night focusses on South London, going from the Southbank Centre to Battersea Power Station via Vauxhall. Pervilion “explores an abstracted idea of the pavilion, separate to the main body, erected to delight and transport” and this time occupied a barn at the threshold of London’s youngest city farm, Oasis Farm Waterloo.
Extending the forms familiar from her “nipple urns” and Herm, and drawing on her experience of the surreal, baroque architecture of Palermo, Keith-Roach crafted a monumental new installation – a chimeric trio of vases decorated with eerily realistic casts of breasts, hands and feet. Belle Dam invited cooling reflection in its hidden garden setting in the middle of the July heatwave. As the focal point of Pervilion, it drew attention to the challenges of living in the city, where public space for leisure is increasingly under pressure. The curves of the vase forms culminate in nipples spouting mysterious milk substitute at odd angles. Whilst the fountain presents a version of ideal beauty for contemplation, it also presents a different side of the female body as a complex site of communication. As Keith-Roach puts it: “Just as the mother’s breast lactates at the infant’s cry, Belle Dam spurts arcs of milk substitute in response to the groan of the city”.
Herm, curated by Dorothy Feaver, appears in Palermo during Manifesta 12.
Check Instagram @pervilion for more editions of Pervilion