Intimate Traces 

The absent bodies Karen LaMonte immortalizes in her cast-glass works are animated in exquisite detail, creating a paradoxical presence that resonates with poignancy and longing.

© 2018 glass Magazine | No. 153. Winter 2018-19

Sculptures of Kimonos | Ceramic, Glass | Artwork by Karen LaMonte
Sculptures of Kimonos | Ceramic, Glass | Artwork by Karen LaMonte

Karen LaMonte’s spectral female figures are constructed around the negative. The mannequins and models that lent the artist their forms and physicality are gone, save for an intimate imprint of their presence permanently recorded in the folds and swells of glass, enduring echoes of fabric and flesh. The real vestments they were cast upon are also lost, destroyed in the mold-making process. LaMonte’s sculptures, thus, are removed from the present on multiple levels, and yet they are mysteriously compelling in their occupation of a space between corporeal and spiritual. Both present and absent, they enthrall, lit through with suspense, paradox, and lingering loss.

A native New Yorker who honed her craft in the glass studios of Prague, LaMonte was recently honored with a major solo exhibition, “Embodied Beauty,” at the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It united two distinct series of works from her oeuvre, “Floating World” (2007–2013) and “Nocturnes” (2009–2017), presenting the largest solo museum exhibition to date of the artist’s work in the U.S. While “Floating World” interprets clothing through the Japanese tradition of kimono- making, “Nocturnes” draws from classical Greek and Roman figures and fashion. The monumentality and mastery of craft displayed is consistent across both series. LaMonte meticulously researches the styles and traditions she explores in her work, selecting the fabric for the dresses to be cast and doing the sewing herself in a scholarly synthesis of lost-wax casting technique and what she calls “the lost art of couture.” On a conceptual level, the arrangement seems intuitive in that the artist’s lasting concerns with beauty, femininity, and mortality are articulated across the exhibition. Though the Hunter framed the exhibit as a study of Eastern versus Western traditions, it might be better conceived of as simply showing different time periods in LaMonte’s career: “Floating World” is explicitly about, or filtered through, culture; “Nocturnes” is not. “Embodied Beauty” is above all a celebration, through two series, of an artist who has developed a rare marriage of the erotic and metaphysical through a process she has adopted and made her own, with unique sophistication.

The first body of work, “Floating World,” was developed during LaMonte’s seven-month residency in Kyoto, Japan, on a grant from the Japan-United States Friendship Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006. Its title is a translation of ukiyo, a culture of pleasure-seeking developed in Edo period Japan. LaMonte describes it as a “sphere of impermanent, fleeting beauty,” a world “filled with geisha, maiko, kabuki actors, and concubines who floated above the responsibilities of mundane existence in the brothels and teahouses.” Yet ukiyo is a double- edged term, with a homophone that means “sorrowful world” and that “alludes to a language of attraction that tempers beauty with awareness of the body’s transience,” a darkness that lends itself naturally to LaMonte’s practice.

The glass garments of “Floating World” were formed through LaMonte’s signature casting process, but were also the product of intensive cultural study. In the famous textile district Nishijin, she studied all aspects of the traditional dress: weaving the fabric, drawing the imagery, and studying the kimono’s ceremonial function, codification, and historic meaning. LaMonte spoke to Glass of her fascination with the kimono’s “literal erasure of the body” through the unique method of padding and binding the wearer’s body into an anonymous cylindrical form thought ideal for displaying the kimono’s imagery. “In eliminating the defining curves of the female body, making it uniform and neutral, the kimono literally erases the self and individuality, transcending the corporeal beauty of its wearer,” LaMonte said. “By putting on the kimono, one is assuming one’s appropriate place in society; its language announces and reproduces that social role.”

From the absent woman, then, LaMonte’s studies had taken her to the woman twice removed by the kimono’s erasure of her specific form. LaMonte represented this conformity in her own glass interpretation of the kimono by basing her sculptures on a specially formed mannequin whose measurements, compiled from biometric data, are that of the 50th percentile of 40-year-old Japanese women in the year 2000. In coming to terms with a sensibility she saw as radically different from the European tradition of dress, she turned to the Japanese concept of mu, or nothingness: “an emptiness that contains all, the realm of enlightenment,” LaMonte explained. “Non-individualism is not non-existence; it is embedded existence.”

Technically, “Floating World” features a wider range of colors and materials than her previous work, and also acts as an investigation into the fundamentals of her practice. Using material as metaphor, LaMonte carefully selected “clay for humility, glass for spirituality, bronze for human intention, and rust for transience,” situating her practice within a lattice of cultural and historical associations.

These considerations culminate in a series of work simultane- ously familiar and novel, studied and yet retaining the capacity to surprise. Above all, the effect and allusiveness of the different materials used are impossible to overstate. A central conceit of LaMonte’s work is that clothing itself functions as a surrogate skin. In the “Floating World” series, which includes a range of materials and features at times a light ornamentation, the mutability of surface is startling and powerful. Profoundly altered, the dresses take on different degrees of refinement, coarseness, fragility, monumentality, decay, and aliveness. Especially striking is a blood-red ceramic glaze incised with feathered and floral patterns reminiscent of scarified flesh. Or, for instance, a sensual kimono is done in the imposing solidity of metal. While it is still the purest and perhaps the most successful in holding that strange tension of present absence, clear glass, LaMonte’s original medium, is rendered almost naked—though no less powerful—in comparison.

Nocturne | Life-size scultpure | Artwork by Karen LaMonte
Sculptures of Kimonos | Ceramic, Glass | Artwork by Karen LaMonte

This materiality is also at the forefront of “Nocturnes,” which represents a more recent period in LaMonte’s career yet recalls the phantom-like purity of her earlier work. The series is inspired by the musical “Nocturne” compositions of John Field and Frederick Chopin, as well as paintings by James McNeill Whistler, and it captures something of their surrealistic atmosphere. Made from white bronze, cast iron, and cast glass, the works are intended as “female incarnations of night,” in an ode perhaps to the collapse of boundaries in darkness and dreams as well as the presence of death in life. Like a death mask that takes as its subject the fleeting totality of the body, they embody the transitional and residual. As LaMonte writes in her artist statement: “They build on the tradition of the female nude and probe the tension between humanism and eroticism, the physical and the ethereal, the body and the spirit. The figures are at once intensely physical—muscles and flesh strain against clinging fabric—and yet insubstantial: The figures are absent, implied only by the shapes pressing against the clothing.”

Whereas “Floating World” deals with the personal subsumed in cultural systems of meaning, “Nocturnes” seems more occupied with capturing the spiritual, overlaid on physical form. For this purpose, the sculptures in bronze and ceramic, which worked for “Floating World,” come off as a little too stiff and solid to meet this criterion. Arguably, more than any other material, the works in glass succeed in holding the delicate tension of there/not-there- ness that is the real meat of LaMonte’s work. It is in glass that one notices the imperfections and traces of rawness—in little air traps, rough finishes, or the surprisingly intricate capture of a model’s foot—which speak of a physicality lived and felt. And it is the tension between the seen and the unseen, the physical and the intangible present in the medium of glass, that makes it so eminently suited to her concerns.

This is not to say that “Nocturnes,” as a whole, is not seductive or innovative. An immediate difference from “Floating World” is that the dresses of “Nocturnes” are arranged in a wider range of poses, with some figures supine or making as if to rise, propped up on an unseen arm, to unsettling effect. Even those standing at attention are somehow discomforting in posture, made almost awkward by what is unexplained—and all the more animated. Their texture, too, is not any less rich; aside from some rather uninspiring curlicues on the surface of one dress, LaMonte performs white magic with ruches, pleats, and rippling swathes of material that infuse the clothing with interest and an insistent aura. And “Nocturnes” is further notable as the first project in which LaMonte first used color in glass, working with German scientists to create her desired silvery and ombré blue colors and depths.

Converging in “Embodied Beauty,” “Nocturnes” and “Floating World” represent two fascinating periods and outlooks in LaMonte’s work. It may also make sense to see the two series as the lineage of one idea, returned to in endlessly different permutations and interpretations. Certainly there appears to be a thematic kinship between the nullity of night in the “Nocturnes” and the philosophy of mu in “Floating World,” both operating on some kind of absence and loss, yet also looking toward what LaMonte calls in her artist statement “the essential and eternal.”

In articulating the philosophy of “Floating World,” for instance, LaMonte cites the concepts of mono no aware and wabi-sabi from Japanese philosophy. Mono no aware is the awareness of the “fleetingness of all things that brings a sense of urgency to our appreciation of the present and a beautiful moment or occurrence.” Wabi-sabi is an aesthetic “centered on the acceptance of impermanence” and “derived from the assertion that understanding impermanence is central to enlightenment, and is based on asymmetry, asperity, simplicity, modesty, marks from the passage of time, and a suggestion of natural processes ... in short, a profound appreciation of the fragile and fleeting nature of beauty.” These ideas, LaMonte said, “relate very well to the meditative nature of the ‘Nocturnes’ and their connection with nullity and absence, the expansive void like space of night that actually contains everything.”

The result suggests a kind of tranquil memento mori, not negative but rather pleasingly beautiful reminders of transience. As LaMonte said: “Because beauty is ephemeral, it is exquisitely somber—not a celebration of self or individuality, but an acknowl- edgment of the self ’s limits. For me, to represent it is to take comfort in the essential and eternal.”

The essential, the eternal, and the iconic—LaMonte’s work has always seemed to have these concerns at heart, with her interest in the figurative and universally readable. Yet her practice straddles multiple boundaries, and as always with artists who work across cultures, there is a need to clarify intention and awareness. LaMonte herself dates her interest in Japan and Japanese culture to her childhood, when the mother of a half- Japanese friend taught her how to make kimonos for her dolls, and explains that she has since studied Japonisme.

LaMonte speaks of her time in Japan with obvious respect, and it has clearly served a more profound and carefully considered purpose than a simple change of aesthetic. The American artist is accustomed to working abroad, having moved to the Czech Republic to study the glass tradition there—although, perhaps tellingly, it has never risen to the forefront of her work as it has with the explicit East versus West dichotomy in “Embodied Beauty.” It remains to be seen whether she will continue to explore her interest in culture in future works, or whether what LaMonte has described as “recontextualizing my work” merely represents a divergence from the main path of her art.

In any case, there is a dialogue, with LaMonte’s work refreshed and the kimono finding a new appreciation in this form, and it is one that should be thoughtfully continued by viewers of “Embodied Beauty.”

As for another critique, that LaMonte’s dedication to one form—the dress—speaks of a staticity in her career, one might alternately suggest that, coupled with the spiritual implications of her work, it may be seen to have a sort of ritualistic worth. After years of preoccupation with clothing and the feminine, her career appears to be reaching a turning point. While her concerns have not changed, a new format seems necessary, and she now sees her practice taking on two paths—converging, as always, in flesh, appearance, and the universal.

Sculptures of Kimonos | Ceramic, Glass | Artwork by Karen LaMonte
Etudes | Sculptures in cast glass | Artwork by Karen LaMonte
Nocturne Sculpture | Artwork by Karen LaMonte

The first path is atmosphere, an interest stemming naturally from her meditations for “Nocturnes” and manifesting in a study of clouds, a motif that has been present in LaMonte’s work since her high school years. The artist has commented: “I am fascinated by their physicality, beauty, and dynamic nature. I see clouds in the same category of universal experience as the human figure.”

In an intriguing collaboration with Caltech, LaMonte has already produced a cloud sculpture, using measurements from a cloud simulation created by a supercomputer, a software program, and a physical robot to assist in carving the marble. The connections to her prior work are lucid and fascinating, with the cloud clearly suggestive of transience and tangibility and yet also rich in further significance. “My cloud is baroque in its physicality,” LaMonte has said. “It looks like folds of fabric or flesh tumbling through space.”

The second direction her work is taking is towards ideas of gender and biology, which LaMonte plans to develop during her Specialty Glass Residency at Corning this winter. LaMonte’s concern is in “the transformation of our ideas of beauty and what it means to be biological in the 21st century.” Her interpretation will involve biomimetic glasses and bioglasses in the making of new figurative work. The latter point is a suggestion that, though a departure from her iconic dresses, LaMonte’s new work may be viewed as a continuation of the preoccupations that have ruled her career. Hers is a practice steeped in masterful technique, a readiness toward technology, and, above all, an impulse to straddle divides.

The anonymous and inanimate are made intensely intimate and alive; pleasure is tempered with melancholy. Through her phantomic documentation of bodies, her vessels of tender meaning, LaMonte has accomplished what she set out to do: to “anthropomorphize the infinite.” She has commented that her works tend to “focus on atmosphere over narrative.” Whether they focus on atmosphere over concept is another unresolved question—along with the real significance of what is prioritized at all—but her work is indisputably powerful, even sublime.

In LaMonte’s wise words: “From beauty, I have become fascinated with the sublime. For me, the heart of the sublime is a sense of longing and desire. Unlike beauty, which we can control, the sublime defines a boundary between what we understand and that which lies beyond our power of reason. We are not in control of sublime experiences.”

Etudes | Sculptures in cast glass | Artwork by Karen LaMonte
Etudes | Sculptures in cast glass | Artwork by Karen LaMonte
Monumental Cloud Scultpure in Marble | Artwork by Karen LaMonte
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