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Balancing Act: Remembering Artist And IU Professor Christyl Boger

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"Flight Plan," by Christyl Boger (Photo: Kathleen Clark-Perez, WFIU)

“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living,” Marcus Tullius Cicero, a Roman philosopher, once said. Christyl Boger, the recently-deceased IU professor and renowned ceramics artist, will live on through her iconic body of work and the inspiration it continues to spark in the minds of those who see it.

 “Hopefully the seeds of inspiration that emanate from Chris’ work and Chris’ presence in the field will bear fruit for those individuals who use her as a mentor,” Malcolm Mobutu Smith, IU professor of ceramics and close friend of Boger said.

Boger’s colleagues in the ceramics department and at the Grunwald Gallery of Art joined her husband, John Bergoon, to arrange a tribute show featuring Boger’s most recognized works. The opening reception for the show called Balancing Act: Christyl Boger will be from 5 to 7pm on Friday, January 18 at the Grunwald. The show will run through March 2. 

“It’s paying tribute to an artist who was so dedicated and so serious about what she did,” Betsy Stirratt, director of the Grunwald said. “We want to pay attention to her memory and her contributions to the school, not to mention her contributions to the ceramic field and the art world in general.”

Christyl Boger (Photo courtesy of Malcolm Mobutu Smith)
Christyl Boger (Photo courtesy of Malcolm Mobutu Smith)

Smith said Boger represented one of the upper echelons of contemporary figurative ceramics, a style of ceramics which utilizes the representation of the human body. Other well known figurative ceramics artists include Judy Fox, Akio Takamori and Tip Toland. 

“She was in one of the highest profile shows of anybody on this campus in the arts at the Renwick Gallery in Washington DC, which was an amazing accolade for her,” Smith said. “We were on the map as an institution of ceramics because of Chris's presence, because her works are so iconic.”

Each of her pieces, which are about one third the size of the human figure they represent, took months to make and required Boger to design specialized buttresses that held the limbs of the figures in position while being fired in a kiln.

“They very specifically pay attention to correct anatomy,” Smith said. “They are usually decorated in a white, very lustrous glaze that makes them very jewel-like, and then they have spot decorations that reference other ceramic histories.”

Boger’s artist statement said the glazes upon the figures represent her exploration of the layers or boundaries we as humans keep in our private and social lives, and the question of how well we know ourselves and others.

“I have always been interested in the strange balancing act that is life of the social human animal: in impulse and control, individual versus group, and the fragile and the vulnerable veneer of our shared cultural behavior,” Boger said in her artist statement.

According to Smith, Boger was intentionally provocative in her work. Her work is classical in nature and viewers initially think they recognize it only to find elements like blow-up toys or a golden nipple or golden fingers and toes. He said the work represents a catch-22 in that it seeks to attract the same people that it intends to critique. 

“It's a sort of critique of our opulence and bourgeois attitudes in the face of evermore challenging and obvious cultural and social inequities,” Smith said. 

One of the pieces displayed in the show is called Off Shore: How Deep it Lies. It depicts a naked female figure seated, yet ready to move, with an inflatable dragon behind her. One critique Off Shore: How Deep it Lies conjures is of the offshore banking practices of the affluent in our country, Smith said.

"Off Shore: How Deep it Lies," by Christyl Boger (Photo: Kathleen Clark-Perez, WFIU)
"Off Shore: How Deep it Lies," by Christyl Boger (Photo: Kathleen Clark-Perez, WFIU)

“The piece always seems like it's about to move or it's stuck in a very impossible position to hold from for very long,” Mobutu Smith said. “You're always in tension as a viewer looking at it.” 

Stirratt said viewers will be amazed when they look into the West gallery to see Boger’s works displayed in dramatic lighting that highlights the beauty of each piece. Stirratt and her team at the gallery used the lighting to create a contemplative space that will prompt reflection.

“We wanted to allow people to really spend some time with the pieces to understand what’s behind them which is not always easy,” Stirratt said. “There is a lot behind these works.”

Smith said a good piece of art keeps viewers coming back with more ideas of what the piece is about each time they see it. One thing Smith will continue to see in Boger’s works are little pieces of Boger herself.

“You have yourself always at the ready as a reference point, and you'll see little hints of Chris here and there, and especially in the faces of all her figures,” Smith said. “There is a bit of self-portrait in all of her pieces.”  

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