Franz Xaver Messerschmidt

The catalog for my upcoming exhibitions is moving along nicely: My husband is designing the book, I’m doing the photography, and RISD Printmaking Professor Andrew Raftery is writing the catalog essay. In about a week or so I’ll start my massive PR campaign for these exhibitions.  It’s exciting to see everything coming together at this point.

As I think about ways to approach these portrait sculptures, I’ve been looking a lot at the works of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, a late 18th century Austrian sculptor. He created a number of pieces called “Character Heads” which represented anguished, distorted expressions.  They’re unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and there are so many similarities to the portrait drawings I’ve been doing.


Studio View

I got my paper clay shipment today, so I was excited to work with it. Unfortunately it didn’t go as well as I would have liked, and today I’m thinking about pitching the paper mache all together and going back to plastilene/plaster as a medium.  It’s disappointing to me to even think about this, as I’ve really enjoyed using all of these new materials and trying to figure out how to make the process work.  I do, however, have to face the hard reality that I’m just not getting the kinds of results that I’m looking for. I see the portrait heads as being incredibly detailed with all kinds of tiny forms  and wrinkles, and I just can’t see how that would be possible with these materials. The forms I was getting today were so mushy and generalized, I found it nearly impossible to get more specific and to achieve undercuts. There are so many subtleties and slight nuances of the form that I wanted to get, but just couldn’t with this material.

The paper clay is really quite amazing as a material, it’s super soft, smooth, and malleable and yet is made of paper pulp.  The major drawback though is that I can’t work reductively at all, the paper clay is too soft and fragile.  When I tried to use a sculpture tool on it, the paper clay just peeled off the surface. I really, really wanted to avoid plaster and casting for these sculptures, but it’s highly likely at this point that I will be able to keep going with the paper mache.

Medium Forms

Studio View

I worked on more of the heads, this time trying to focus on defining the medium forms since the larger forms were already blocked in. One thing that was an enormous difference this time around is I had the plastilene head that I sculpted last week as a reference, and it was incredibly helpful in terms of figuring out how to organize the forms. The plastilene head is essentially a “3D photograph” that I will continue to use. I’m still trying to get used to only being able to add form, it’s making me a little crazy since I’m so used to being able to work reductively. This new approach is forcing me to completely re-configure my sculpting approach.

I had some pieces that just needed huge slabs of form cut off, so I took one head that was just way too wide, and took a saw and cut off the sides. Sawing through the cardboard and paper mache was awkward though, and I don’t forsee that as being a process that I want to use in the future-better to have a more accurate structure from the get go. In general almost all of the experiments I’ve done so far are way to wide and overbuilt in the lower section of the head, so today I tried building one that was much skinnier and more elliptical than what I have done up until this point.

I spent the rest of the afternoon photographing details from all fifty portraits. Extremely tedious, but absolutely necessary for the catalog that I will be publishing for both exhibitions.

2D and 3D References

Studio View

I had a photography and modeling session with Marianna today, to accomplish two different kinds of reference materials: 1)  photographs and 2)  a traditional portrait bust, to serve as a “3D photo reference”. I built the traditional portrait bust  on an armature in plastilene and it will be a reference and guide for the paper mache pieces that I will be making later. What I’m most interested in is the large forms and the planes they create; detail is unimportant with this reference.  I’m trying to get myself into a more three-dimensional mind set, and sculpting on this traditional portrait bust will be part of that process. Its been years since I’ve done a straightforward portrait bust study, so it was fun to get back into the technique.

Studio View

The other challenge that I’m discovering is that I have to change my sculpting approach to be entirely additive with the paper mache process. The wonderful thing about plastilene is that you can work both additively and reductively, which is the process that I’m more accustomed to. With the paper mache, I can only add the material so I have to adjust the way I think about creating form.  I ordered some “paper clay” the other day and will be receiving that soon, (recommended by Tony Janello) so I’m hoping that the paper clay will perhaps introduce the opportunity to work reductively, even if it’s on a small scale.

Studio View