East City Profiles: Ceci Cole McInturff

By Eric Hope on December 6, 2016
Ceci Cole McInturff. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The form hugging the wall in front of you intuitively feels relatable, yet subtly disquieting at the same time. At its core is a recognizably human torso, with the trapezius and latissimus dorsi muscles rendered in hydrocal plaster. The back carries strength, but it is the strength of age rather than youthful exuberance. As your eyes move down to the sacrum—both an anatomical junction and mystical home to the energy source that is our second chakra—the familiar gives way to something alien, as muscle transitions to a pelt that extends into a tail-like structure. While Ceci Cole McInturff’s Interbeing/Torso seems to raise more questions than it presumes to answer, the emotions that reverberate off these works posit that change, while inevitable and unavoidable, can be a glorious experience nonetheless.  Intrigued, I recently sat down with the artist to discuss why her sculptural objects create such poignant moments.

McInturff is engaging but intense, with a rapid-fire conversational style that quickly has me putting my pen down to be more fully present to her thoughts. Her readily apparent passion for art is driven in part by the fact that she has taken up an art career slightly later in life.  One recent artist statement describes her life as a series of roles; at one time or another she’s been cast in the position of mother, television executive, wife and political insider. Though it sounds cliché, something was missing emotionally in her life, and so in 2001 she enrolled in a course at the Corcoran School of Art. What began as an extra-curricular pursuit for satisfaction quickly spiraled into a full-time endeavor of mixing scholastics with studio time and the administration of the 87Florida art space in DC’s Bloomingdale neighborhood. This past spring, McInturff presented her MFA thesis at George Mason University and celebrated a major capstone of her artistic career.

Ceci Cole McInturff. Saccidananda. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Ceci Cole McInturff Saccidananda (2015). Credit: Photo by Alex Pohl.

But discussing those accolades doesn’t interest the artist—talking about sculpture does. Though at the Corcoran she was exposed to a variety of media, sculpture stuck and she hasn’t looked back. The dimensionality, texture and shape of the materials were “literally screaming at me” she proclaims. Her work is notable in the way it plays with those textures and shapes as a means to engage with us at our emotional cores. This engagement is neither bombastic nor contrived; rather, it gently washes over our senses the way ripples undulate across the surface of the pond.

While earlier works leaned on torso-inspired shapes to begin the narrative journey, her more recent works seen in her MFA thesis exhibition Reduced at GMU, or this spring at Otis Street Arts Project in Mount Rainier, MD, find her moving away from the distinctly figurative to shapes more elemental in nature. These shapes may present themselves not only as biologically or anatomically-based, but also, curiously, as compositions distinctly book-like in structure. The former seem more self-explanatory; the latter, highly conceptual. How to explain, for example Saccidananda (2015) an ersatz tome which appears to have pages one can flip, yet flows almost lava-like off its delicate base. Text and images are minimal, taking a back seat to the structure of the thing itself. “The book is an object,” McInturff notes, adding, “the text is irrelevant. [The] pages are irrelevant.  I just take it very far.”  Suddenly it is apparent:  we are witnessing yet another transformative experience. That indeed is the commonality that lays behind these disparate forms, materials and structures: the ability to instigate an emotional journey within the mind of the viewer.

Ceci Cole McInturff Organe Feminin (2013). Photo credit: Alex Pohl.

But surely the artist has a destination in mind? Not necessarily, McInturff is quick to state, noting that she deals in trajectories rather than narratives. Standing quietly amongst the works, the viewer begins to feel an emotional resonance, as if the last faint reverberations of an echo are washing over us. That emotional tug feels strong in front of a work such as Organe Feminin (2013), where ovoid shapes resembling breasts hidden in black sand might signal budding life or a requiem for the departed. While the artist takes pains not to insert her emotional intent into the works, I can’t help but feel that our singular journeys in some ways overlap.

That moment when our journeys touch—and the recognition, however fleeting, that we share an emotional connection—is the cement that binds these disparate structures together. Our conversation turns to the topic of consciousness, both the emotional blooming that takes place internally when one opens oneself to the world but also, perhaps slightly more consequential is the synergy that occurs when we grasp the interconnectedness that runs through humanity—indeed, to all living things.  McInturff is quick to point out that she is not referring to new age-induced platitudes or self-help textbooks. Rather, as her thesis indicates, the artist is chiefly focused on how strands of visual art, cognitive neuroscience and theology intersect within our minds to explain the world around us.

This notion of expanded consciousness can sound overtly theoretical until you spend some time with her work, quietly allowing your gaze to unravel these strands for yourself.  Take a piece such as Embodiment (2015), featuring row upon row of arm-shaped, cotton forms that cascade down from ceiling to floor.  Stripped of superfluous color (McInturff’s working palette is almost exclusively white, black or tones of grey), the patterned repetition induces almost a sense of vibration within the inner mind.  Then there are the forms themselves.  Sand-filled appendages reach longingly to the floor and could be interpreted as gloved hands or merely arms stripped of all tell-tale, ethnographic signifiers.  There is harmony in this singularity, but that harmony is radically altered by the emerging, breast-like forms that literally split the skin, rendering the hanging shapes into something completely new. In other contexts, this rendering might seem sinister, yet here they speak to budding life and warm, kinetic energy.  Perhaps it’s the maternal form that speaks gently to me, though she playfully chides me for reading the work as solely feminine in nature (touché, since all genders have breasts). Gender aside, the simple humanity of the work—the endless, repeating cycle of life breaking free—suggests not just an emotive commonality across beings but an interconnectedness that transcends age, gender and skin color.

Far from monotonous, this cyclical engagement with the tides of life is in turn enchanting and emotionally vexing. I find myself mesmerized and weary at the same time.  But that’s the sweet, sweet beauty of McInturff’s work:  she creates an environment where it is safe to feel emotionally vulnerable (if not downright uncomfortable) whilst still gently encouraging you, “lovingly, but indefatigably” to discover that which connects you to the world writ large.

You can see more of Ceci Cole McInturff’s work online at 87-florida.clickbooq.com