“Haptikos #3: (Missoula Blue)” is only one part of an expansive collection of new works by Heidi Moller Somsen, showing currently at Phillips Gallery. But it makes a big point: one that may have surprised even the artist. Technophiles and those who pay close attention to their cellphones may be familiar with another usage of this Greek word — “Haptics”— referring to the vibrating signals and pressure responses by which many of our phones converse with us silently. The version encountered in “Haptikos #3” is more sophisticated, having to do with the compound interaction of human neural networks. The formerly colorless object feels different in the hand after the eye sees it washed with a blue glaze.
Some artists won’t want to approximate in words what it is their art says so much better in another language, whether visual, tactile, sonic, or some other medium. Many artists can’t translate it, maybe don’t understand their work themselves, or at least not until later. The novelist E. M. Forster famously asked, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Heidi Moller Somsen would agree, but she has sketched enough of the steps by which her art comes about that those who wish to can accompany her on parts of her journey.
She has said she always begins with the question, “What if?” “What if I had long arms, like the limbs of a tree,” she asked, and set about finding answers. The results included complex figures with bodies of clay and long, driftwood arms. They also led her to a performance wherein she grafted branches to her own arms. There are a lot of such “what if” questions implicit in her current work, but one of the most intriguing has to do with one of the most fundamental divisions in art. What, some of these sculptures ask, is the proper relationship between an object and the pedestal that supports it, or on which it rests?
A circle may have a perfect shape, but it has only one. An oval can have an infinite variety of shapes, ranging between a near-circle and almost a line. The oval perimeter of the base of “Haptikos #3” perfectly frames the two hands, which invoke the sense of touch, and the lump of blue-stained clay they gesture towards. Other pairs of pedestals and the objects they foreground create different connections. The physical weight of the hands, their presence made more real by their lead-like color and their ornamental base, collaborate in “Haptikos (Red Thread)” to call attention to how the fingers stretch the thread taut between them. It sometimes happens that a work seen first in a photo makes less of an impression when seen in person, but here the impact remains undiminished.
One of the more dramatic connections is made in “May the Clay Dance to Meet You.” Here a pair of found feet, carved from wood, possibly for a shoemaker, have been transformed by covering with gold leaf and made to dance over a stone-like, clay path in a call-and-response that expresses, through the heart-felt desire of the artist, something we all want from the material world we inhabit.
Pedestals and feet imply heads above. On a table near the front window, nine unique busts seem to stand in random order. Yet each emerges from, rather than just resting on, an equally distinct pedestal. Today’s post-Pop artists are likely to take one head, often duplicated from a familiar example, copy it nine times, and elaborate nine variations on it. Heidi Moller Somsen starts with a question — like “What if?” — and from it, delving into her experience and her imagination, finds nine original answers. As a result, her work goes places, spans distances and reveals possibilities while those others remain predictably in place.
Heidi Moller Somsen, Phillips Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Nov. 11.
All images courtesy the author.