Figure Sculpture and the Ethical Implications of Objectification

Jonathan Steele, "Burnt in Effigy," Woodfired Stoneware, 29"x18"x7.5" 2014
Jonathan Steele, “Burnt in Effigy,” Woodfired Stoneware, 29″x18″x7.5″ 2014

Guest blog by Jonathan Steele. A response to Elise Richman’s From Ambivalence to Conviction 

Working from the figure is an ethical dilemma for me. Because I am male, heterosexual, cisgendered, white, and rich enough to be attending University of Puget Sound, I come from an angle of every privilege. As Elise Richman states in her post From Ambivalence to Conviction, making figurative art means participating in a long lineage that, for the most part, portrays idealized, sexualized and/or passive female objects for the visual indulgence of privileged male agents, but it is also possible to diffuse that oppression by making figurative art that is sensitive to issues of sexuality, subject/object relationships, and voyeurism.

When I make a piece of sculpture from a nude model (who is usually female), I am aware that I am literally objectifying the person in front of me. I am analyzing their position in space, the way their body parts fit together and the angles of their limbs and as I look I manipulate clay with my hands to form a likeness. When I am finished modeling, I cut my sculpture into pieces, and carefully position the pieces into a violent fire. I had a critic this semester say that my process was just short of sadistic, which I really hadn’t considered. It is through this process that I am beginning to understand the implications of my position as a man working with the figure. It is also this process that informs the meaning of my sculptures.

My work definitely touches on voyeurism and subject/object relationships. Thanks to that one honest critic, I have ideas to push this sexuality further to explicitly exhibit BDSM as a viable sexual experience. I would also like to see what it would take to de-sexualize a series of pieces while maintaining use of the figure, or to turn the voyeurs eye onto my own nude self.

At this point I have more questions than answers about the ethical implications of my figurative sculpture. Often the pieces will say more than I want them to. That’s why I must continue to explore them, show them and accept the harshest criticism.

Jonathan Steele’s thesis work will be on display at the Senior Art Exhibition in Kittredge Gallery from April 21st to May 18th with a reception on Wednesday April 23rd from 6-9 PM.

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