Research Communications

Art Unwrapped 

Craft and technology meet in Alex Hibbitt’s new series of work

June 8, 2011

Our computer and television screens transport us to places without actually taking us there; virtual reality saturates our daily life, notes ceramic artist Alex Hibbitt. “Our environment is constructed and designed completely,” she says. “Even landscapes that appear natural are manicured and staged.”

In a world dominated by digital innovation, where does handmade art and craft fit? In a new series of work titled “Neither Architecture or Landscape,” Hibbitt uses and manipulates technological tools to create pieces that are both handcrafted and born of the digital age.

“I wanted this work to speak very much about the relationship between art, design, craft, the industrial, and the virtual,” says Hibbitt, an associate professor of art at Ohio University. “It’s about simplification, reduction, how we understand information, and how information is translated.”

Hibbitt’s creative process for the series begins with the creation of an original, three-dimensional handmade clay sculpture. Using a 3D scanner and program called “Blender” at the university’s Aesthetics Technology Lab, she next translates this object into a two-dimensional drawing.

Hibbitt Exercise 1
Exercise #1, 2010.
Porcelain, waterjet cut felt. 26” w x 25” h x 7”d.
This piece highlights felt, a material traditionally used in DIY crafts, and alludes to the tactile nature of craft materials. The porcelain piece is hand carved from simplified renderings, made in the Blender computer program, of an original handmade ceramic form. The intent of the work is to challenge conceptions of perfection and precision within the handmade and the industrially made.
Photo Courtesy Sarah Laubacher.

“The machine takes a whole series of images, and you end up with this three-dimensional object on the screen that you can move in any direction, make bigger or smaller, and look at from every side. But the thing I was really interested in was taking this scanned object and then ‘unwrapping’ it,” says Hibbitt, referring to an artistic deconstruction process that is central to her latest series of works.

To “flatten” the 3D form, Blender divides the virtual object into triangles. The object can then be “unwrapped” at the “seams” where the triangles meet in order to produce a geometric mapping. Depending on the amount of triangles recognized during the translation, the 2D mapping could end up looking more like a disgruntled math student’s trigonometry project (hundreds of triangles scribbled on top of each other) than a neat and tidy “dress pattern,” which is one reason why Hibbitt likes to regain control at this stage of the morphing.

Stubby Z, 2010.
Coiled earthenware, waterjet cut rubber. 40” h x 78” w x 40” d.
Hibbitt used traditional ceramic techniques to handcraft this piece, coiling ropes of clay. What appears to be a shadow pinned to the floor is a 2D translation of the original form, precisely cut from rubber by computer.
Photo Courtesy Sarah Laubacher.

“Alex chooses where the triangle’s edges are (to delineate the parting lines for the pattern), so there are artistic choices going on as she applies the software, as the computer renders the form,” says Robert Silberman, an art history professor at the University of Minnesota. Silberman is writing the catalogue essay on Hibbitt for the 2011 McKnight Foundation Exhibition, which is held annually at the Northern Clay Center and features work from the previous year’s resident artists, including Hibbitt.

In the last stage of the process, Hibbitt then uses the 2D drawings as the blueprints for a new phase of 3D objects made of materials such as aluminum and felt.

“I am particularly interested in how translation between these processes allows for error, addresses redundancy and the worth of labor, and possibly identifies the hand of the maker,” says Hibbitt, who debuted the first collection in this series at the Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center in Covington, Kentucky, in fall 2010. She received support from the Ohio University Research Committee for the project.

Taking down her show at the Carnegie, Hibbitt first removes a small, porcelain sculpture, which is one of the objects she originally scanned to obtain two-dimensional mappings.
Photo Courtesy Sarah Laubacher.

Hibbitt explains that the work is about the value of craft and labor, “such as how we value the hours spent working with our hands in clay, wood, or other materials differently than hours spent designing on the computer, as well as the value of objects that can travel between the handmade and the machine produced. Can we tell if something is handmade, and how? Do we expect a handmade object to look a certain way?”

Hibbitt also is interested in how the viewer might react to works made from materials considered unconventional in the ceramics discipline. She explains that her early ceramics education in her native England focused on concepts such as “form follows function” and “truth to materials.”

“Both of these statements presume there are appropriate, or more valued ways to deal with clay as a material, and I have always enjoyed unpacking what these kind of notions mean in relation to how people in general think about what ceramics is,” Hibbitt says. “Coming from this background, my work always begins from the point of view of ceramics, letting the ideas behind the work propel it into a variety of materials that have different associations, and that can actually reveal the character of the clay in a new way.”

In earlier works, such as the installation “Louisiana Topographies,” Hibbitt’s focus was on the idea of place and the connection between place and cultural identity−as well as how we romanticize and cling to these identities as our surroundings change.  The minimalistic ceramic forms featured in this installation looked like a morphing between plants and television screens, a statement that the medium of television itself is a homogenizing and globalizing force.

A faceted porcelain twig perches upon a landscape made of water-based resin shaped over a skeleton of insulation foam. Photo Courtesy Sarah Laubacher.

“Where these works are interested in how the computer or TV screen transports us to real places without us actually ever going there, the new work deals with the landscape or place of the virtual itself: the space inside the 3D program, where there are no landmarks except what we input into the program,” Hibbitt says.

Hibbitt’s work has garnered her exhibitions around the world, including at The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, The Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague, De Witte Voet gallery in Amsterdam, and the Soap Factory in Minneapolis. Her pieces are featured in private and public collections both in Europe and the United States.

“I think she represents a new generation. She has a commitment to craft tradition, to handmade ceramics, but she’s using very modern technology,” Silberman says. “She’s very smart about what’s going on and her position within both the ceramics world and the larger art world.”

By Sarah Laubacher

This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2011 issue of Perspectives magazine.