Penelope Jencks brings a child’s eye view to the List Gallery

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Currently showing at the List Gallery is Penelope Jencks’s “Beach Series II, 1988-2006,” a sculpture exhibition of surprising proportions. Jencks began her lecture on Thursday by announcing that it was strange to be standing behind the lectern, as “I remember falling asleep during many lectures here in the past.” Jencks studied Art History and French at Swarthmore for two years, but decided that she needed a better studio arts program to support her interests. She transferred to the School of Visual Arts at Boston University, where she received a B.F.A. in 1958. She has created several public works, including a sculpture of Eleanor Roosevelt at Riverside Park in New York City; she is currently completing a large sculpture of Robert Frost for Amherst College.

Jencks proceeded with a slideshow spanning her forty-year career. Much of her early work is composed of self-portraits, such as “Self-Portrait #6,” from the summer of 1970. The title has an interesting story behind it. After getting her children packed away to summer camp in 1970, she sculpted a figure of a woman shouting with relief. When she titled it “Liberated Woman,” people interpreted it as a portrait of a stereotypically angry feminist, so she changed it to “Summer 1970,” which drew unintended references to the events at Kent State. “Self-Portrait #6” was the safest title Jencks could come up with.

After the self-portrait phase, Jencks began to sculpt life-size figures in terracotta, figures so large she could not fit them in her six-foot kiln and had to cut them in two for firing. She began Beach Series I in the late 1970s, when she finally “got over my allergy to nude models… since art school I had never been able to look at a nude model with enthusiasm.” These were nearly life-size figures of nude men and women on the beach painted with clay slip or egg tempera.

She liked the idea of using terracotta for figures from the beach “because the beach is made of sand and the figures are made of sand.” During this time, she also became interested in the similarities between dunes and the human form. She would sculpt a woman lying on her side and then add little houses and figures to give the sculpture the scale of a dune, abstracting her work until it actually became more like a dune than a figure.

Beach Series II, the series currently being exhibited at the List Gallery, is composed of both human figures and dunescapes. While the dunescapes continue to be made of terracotta, Jencks has switched from terracotta to plaster for her figural work. When she began to work in a scale greater than life-size, she realized that “terracotta sculptures of this size and fragility weren’t going to last.” Plaster was a sturdier material for large figures. She also liked the fact that she could create plaster figures directly, without casting or firing, because that way “there would be nothing between me and the sculpture.” Terracotta and plaster create very different textures and moods– while clay is “more malleable, more gestural,” Jencks says, when it comes to plaster “I have to beat it up… it’s a rough way to work.” Her plaster figures look more stark, more exposed, and, one might say, even more naked than her terracotta ones.

In Beach Series II, the figures have oversized dimensions and a lumpish quality. This is because Jencks wanted to make the figures “from a child’s point of view… when I was a child, that’s what people looked like. They were seen as other.” The figures in the first room of the gallery tower almost to the ceiling, and the gallery space feels larger than usual when occupied by these monumental works. Some of the figures are fully nude, and others are in the process of removing their clothing. In her lecture, Jencks also described her interest in the relationship of clothing to the body, which “has a lot of meaning to it in some strange way I can’t quite fathom… somehow you’re more naked when taking clothing off than when you’re actually nude.”

Moving into the second room, there are smaller plaster figures on plaster tables and also a wall of the aforementioned dunescapes. The figures on tables were originally conceived of as studies for the larger plaster figures, said Jencks, but because many of them are “not sufficiently still and monumental to actually be large pieces,” they have been left as intimate studies instead. The show invites the viewer to consider questions of scale, as the body on the beach goes from being eight feet tall to being a small sculpture standing on a table to being a tiny speck of clay on a shoebox-sized dune.

Jencks’ show will be up through October 8th. The List Gallery is open on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 12-4 PM and on Fridays from 1-5 PM.

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