Glenn Adamson, Art Interrupted, 2020 –
All over Chicago, if you know where to find them, there are old clay pits – remnants of a
now-disappeared brickmaking industry, which built the very architecture that eventually
obscured it. Saffronia Downing discovered the pits’ locations in an 1891 industrial atlas
of the city. It’s a typical example of what she looks for: stories and connections, lying
just beneath notice. Her work is evolved from procedures that have little to do with
conventional ceramic repertoire. She is a professional noticer of things.
Downing habitually walks the urban fabric, keeping a sharp-eyed lookout for objects of
interest, textures, configurations, juxtapositions. This magpie-like, opportunistic
methodology eventually eddies and pools into sculptural situations, which are composed of found detritus, fabricated ceramic elements, and sometimes photographs.
There is something vaguely occult about these works; they suggest magical thinking in
full flow. Yet they are also map-like, an oblique cartographic allegory of Downing’s own
wanderings. One could say they are located where the mind meets matter – conceptual
rubber hitting the recalcitrant road. Or that they are like archaeological findings from our
post-industrial present, evidence of life in the anthropocene.
Recently, Downing has changed the physical orientation of her psycho-geographical
sculptures. While they were previously held in low vitrines, echoing the ground from
which her findings were scavenged, she has now been propping them up on metal
armatures, as if to say: look at this. The rigid steel architecture of these mounts
suggests a scientific framework – the display cases in a natural history museum,
perhaps – while the amorphous sculpted elements instead evoke the trajectory of
Surrealism, extending from George Bataille’s explorations of the informe through Jean
Dubuffet and Jean Fautrier: an emotionally evocative, materially intense, nearly abstract
type of figuration.
I asked Downing what she might do with the unstructured time she suddenly had on her
hands; she responded that she could still take her walks. She also has at her disposal a
backyard – and a shovel. She’s an artist who doesn’t need much to build a world.