Melanie Cooper Pennington makes big biomorphic sculptures, out of wood, metal, and ceramic, sometimes wrapped in fur or hung with wool. The Visiting Professor at Indiana University’s School of Art and Design started sculpting 20 years ago at Wheaton College, a private Christian school that didn’t allow nude models in the art classes.
I think I’ve always known I’m a strong mammal.
At the 2015 Kinsey Institute Juried Art Show, however, Pennington’s sculpture won the Visitor’s Choice Award. It’s not that surprising when she explains what she was making at the time.
“I did a series of phallus pieces–one was called the “Huggable Tuggable“—it was a big furry phallus,” Pennington explains. “My next iteration of the phallus in wood was a rideable phallus–”
That’s the one that won the prize at the Kinsey show
“And that gets real saucy real fast!” she laughs.
There’s a certain predictability to the way people interpret the work.
“It’s really interesting the way men respond to those pieces,” Pennington notes. “They start showing me their drawings of pornography and I’m like, ‘No, that’s not what this is about, at all. You don’t get it.’”
These totems are not for titillation, Pennington insists, but for comfort and renewal.
“These things are healers,” Pennington asserts, “but they don’t get talked about as a healing thing because there’s so much damage that happens as well, in that arena.”
I often have these beasts in these impossible situations that they could release themselves from–because they’re these big giant powerful animals–but they keep getting stuck in these potentially deadly situations.
Making a healing or protective object inspired by the human, or animal form is a concept the sculptor came across in West African culture.
“Part of the protection of the village is to feed this sacred object–it’s called a boli. We have one at the IU Art Museum. And it’s a fetish object, a ritual object that is kept alive through sacrifice, blood sacrifice. And they speak over it and they spit over it, and they do all kinds of things that we don’t know about.”
The boli starts out, Pennington explains, as a representational form.
“It’s a form of the buffalo, often, and the more it’s coated with all these secret ingredients, the more abstracted the form becomes. They look like excrement, honestly. But still this humped, powerful buffalo form. If you don’t keep it alive, disaster could occur in your village.”
Where The Wild Things Are
Securing the perimeter of her own home place are Pennington’s own hulking forms, equally redolent of anatomy and primal energy, possibly demanding their own blood meal. Pennington’s “beasts” are splayed across her front lawn and skulking under tarps in her garage studio.
This is my mama beast piece, created in the fall of 2014, when ISIS was ramping up and cutting off children’s heads. I’m a mother. So I was creating a protector.
“This is my mama beast piece,” Pennington reveals. “There are babies that go with it. You can see the spine and the hindquarters. This is her front. And this piece was created back in the fall of 2014 when ISIS was ramping up and cutting off children’s heads. And so I was getting really angry and sad, and in Indiana feeling very separated from the violence being done to other women’s children. I’m a mother. So I was creating a protector. A spiritual, sculptural, political protector, in a stance against that violence.”
It’s a massive white creature too big to see around, made of plaster, foam, ceramic, and wool. Its buffalo-ness isn’t explicit, rather, suggested by its scale and its haunches, and the way the wool hangs. Pennington often starts small, using clay to work out her ideas in an immediate way. I point to a small ceramic figure on a tabletop in the garage, that’s reminiscent of one of Rodin’s ecstatic nudes.
“So this little piece, I call these my maquettes,” she explains. “I originally started working in clay, that’s how I got into graduate school. I can get an idea in the clay through my hands, quickly, rapidly, do a lot of body work, then I make a tiny little figure and I imagine myself down here. Do I want my head to be here on this piece, or here, do I want to be able to walk through it? Do I want to be able to climb up on it. What do I want to be able to do? I’m thinking about scale.”
Extrapolating from the tabletop maquette, Pennington directs my gaze to the yard, where a gigantic tumble of steel and wood spills across the lawn.
“So if you go back to that clay maquette that we were just looking at, do you see it here?” Pennington inquires. “That was the first iteration of this piece.”
Within a few seconds I can see it. “It’s that torso, there are the haunches, there’s the back,” I exclaim, “but I can actually walk under this piece, I can walk underneath her abdomen! And she is impaled on…”
“Yeah, ok, on a beam,” Pennington confirms. “So we’ve got a 25-foot wooden and steel beam plunging through the back of two beasts who are feasting on each other.”
(I’ll Never Be) Your Beast of Burden
We walk under and around the giant ravenous figures. The sculpture’s steel armature was once covered in fur, but, in preparation for its installation in a Chicago park, has been wrapped in mesh. The material isn’t incidental.
“You know we’re always–this is again that violence thing–getting enmeshed in another,” Pennington suggests. “So it’s kind of this deceiving thing. We think we’re so close, but it’s quite painful. It’s not working. Something’s wrong with this picture, you know? So this is maybe a little more about codependency, but it’s also kind of about realizing, you know, we’re strong enough! I often have these beasts in these impossible situations that they could release themselves from–because they’re these big giant powerful animals–but they keep getting stuck in these potentially deadly situations. And I want you to feel the humanness in the beast. So for me it’s like, ‘Okay Melanie, you’re strong enough, this is how powerful you are. Use it!'”
“As a woman who makes large sculpture,”I suggest to Pennington “you’re a perfect example of harnessing your power.” It’s a non-gender-normative row to hoe, not to mention the steep learning curve to negotiate transitioning from ceramics to working with metal and wood. “So how did you convince yourself, ‘I’m a strong mammal and I can do this,'” I ask Pennington.
“Um, I think I’ve always known I’m a strong mammal,” she replied. “And I was raised in a family with very traditional gender roles. I was often in the kitchen when the men were in the living room kind of a situation. And I didn’t like it at all.
“And so, my father, it’s interesting, we started, just within the last five years—my parents live in Massachusetts—and I was finally like, ‘Dad, let’s go out and chainsaw together.’ Cause he would go out and tear down trees and stuff. And that would’ve always been way more fun than going into the kitchen. But I finally inserted myself, you know, like, ‘Dad, let me play with your chainsaw. And he was like, ‘Okay!’
“And as I’ve transitioned into learning the materials—graduate school helped with this, to have the opportunity to do all those things that I’ve always known I could do but I needed the training–and now I feel like my family is like, ‘Alright, Melanie will go out and build the fort in the front yard with the grandkids, and Jeremy, my husband, will go into the kitchen because he’s a fabulous cook!” So it’s worked out, but it takes time even to learn about yourself. It’s a lengthy process, getting to know the self.”
The title of this two-backed beast we’ve been standing under is “Witness Your Self.” In December, Pennington will be transporting it from her front yard to a park in Chicago, where it will be installed for a year under the auspices of Chicago Sculpture International. Additionally, Pennington’s sculpture will be on view at the Tim Faulkner Gallery in Louisville from November 13th through December 18th. The show, Susceptible and Secure, opens with a reception Sunday, November 13th from 2 to 6 pm.
Susceptible and Secure: Sculpture by Melanie Cooper Pennington
Tim Faulkner Gallery, 1512 Portland Ave. Louisville, KY 40203
November 13-December 18, Tues - Thurs 11AM - 7PM Fri - Sat 12PM - 2AM; opening reception November 13, 2-6 pm