Rachel Kneebone creates highly detailed porcelain sculptures that envelop and unravel the tenuousness of the human experience. Her cascading figurative works are a reaction to her own experiences of being in the world: of living, moving, reading and seeing. She annotates and reinterprets the figurative movements of Michelangelo and Bernini, the writings of Georges Bataille and Sartre, as well as the works of adjacent contemporary sculptors. The resulting pieces reside somewhere in the in-between, in a land where contradictions are melded into ends of the same plane, and the human form is allowed to drift and multiply, fluidly and ecstatically. These sculptures explode with an orgiastic overflowing: bodies pour one on top of another, melding and separating to create form and void, chaos and solitude, as they declare their own complex system of interaction and movement. The sculptures often cite the female form and human sexuality, taking on Michelangelo’s nudes with a much cheekier exclamation of virility. Kneebone’s works tend to invite more questions rather than answers, begging a conversation with the world’s greatest thinkers about what it really means to be a human being.
Her works are all made of porcelain, which Kneebone was initially attracted to because of its whiteness, a facet that she employs to “maintain an ambiguity of meaning, the glazed surface to reflect and dissolve any interpretation,” she says. “It keeps the focus on the form, the physical, the visceral.” From a distance, the works may seem to be an undiluted mass of scraps; upon closer inspection, they reveal dainty details of limbs, torsos and genitalia, morphing and writhing alongside one another. Kneebone works alone, using press molds for the architectural plinth foundations, which give rise to the hand-modeled figures cresting upwards. She fires the components in a small kiln in her studio, often in sections, which she later assembles into her complex milieu.
“When working with beauty and fear, life and death, I do not consider these to be opposing entities, but to reside at either side of the same thing."
— RACHEL KNEEBONE
Born in Oxfordshire, the artist now lives and works in London, and she has exhibited extensively internationally. In 2012, the Brooklyn Museum hosted the exhibition “Rachel Kneebone: Regarding Rodin,” for which Kneebone was invited to select 15 works by Auguste Rodin from the museum’s collection, to present alongside eight of her own pieces. Highlighting what the museum called the artists’ “shared interest in the representation of mourning, ecstasy, death and vitality in figurative sculpture,” the exhibition offered a meditation on the history of figurative sculpture, drawing an arc from Rodin’s immaculate body casts to Kneebone’s more experimental style. Kneebone illustrated her affiliation to Rodin most particularly in the pairing of her 2008 work “The Descent” with Rodin’s “The Gates of Hell” from 1880-1917, both of which were inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. Kneebone is comfortable in forming an allegiance with these sorts of historical masters, although she carefully places herself just outside of the playing field. She makes notes and edits them, borrows influences and reconfigures them, creating her own angle in a historically male practice.
While she does not directly align herself with other feminist artists or feminist conceptual themes, there is no denying that the sculptures err on the female side, both aesthetically and thematically: unlike Rodin’s large-scale, god-like figures of human perfection, her figures are intimate, delicate and sometimes, a little broken. The bodies she makes are often female, and they spill out of the sculptures as if they were all the forgotten women of history. Other times, the sculptures center around a phallus, which juts up majestically and perhaps ironically, as in her 2010 piece “I Will Not as You Say Walk Away.” And yet, Kneebone prefers to think of gender and sexuality not as feminist themes, but simply as components of humanity. In discussing past comparisons to Louise Bourgeois, Kneebone understands the assumed connection to her work, though “as an artist,” she clarifies, “not a ‘feminist artist.’” She goes on to note that their practices similarly explore “the fluidity of bodily boundaries.” Bourgeois said, “Life is organized around that which is hollow,” an idea that Kneebone has synthesized into her own practice, “both in terms of physical form and philosophical thought.”
Kneebone’s work embodies oppositional thoughts, allowing conflicting ideas to reside next to one another. Both overabundance and formlessness exist in the same space, fluctuating back and forth across the spectrum of categorization. Life and death, joy and sorrow, ecstasy and mourning, fullness and the void can all be found in a single work, highlighting Kneebone’s ability to synthesize theoretical thoughts in physical form. Like the Japanese ensō symbol, which both encapsulates the “everythingness” of the universe and allows space for nothingness, Kneebone’s works collapse the world as we know it, and then renegotiate the possibilities.
“There is a tipping point,” Kneebone says, “a site of exchange where one becomes the other, yet both remain distinct as entities in their own right. So that when working with beauty and fear, life and death, I do not consider these to be opposing entities, but to reside at either end of the same thing. To quote Ovid, they are ‘neither and both,’ therefore one cannot be present in my work without reference to the ‘other.’”