A rt and artistry have always been vital parts of the Celine brand. Under creative director Hedi Slimane, this commitment has only deepened in recent years, with acquisitions of contemporary artworks for display in Celine stores around the world and direct collaborations with artists for runway shows. Since 2019, the Celine Art Project has grown to include over fifty artists, whose works inform everything from Slimane’s designs to the customer experience.
This summer, Sotheby’s is highlighting the work of five artist involved with the project and how they are inspiring the future of art and fashion.
Late one night while Rochelle Goldberg was typing at her computer, her cat suddenly leapt onto the keyboard and the word “entr’acte” appeared on the screen. A French theatrical term for “between the acts” of a play, it seemed like a fitting message for the sculptor, whose works unsettle distinctions between hard and soft, organic and toxic, figurative and abstract, human and nonhuman. She began using the roughly translated “intraction” to describe her sculptures — incorporating materials such as bronze, ceramic, crude oil, fish skeletons and chia seeds — for the way they can suspend a viewer in a space that is at once physically present and otherworldly.
There’s historical precedence for this: figures in Renaissance paintings, sometimes known as interlocutors, who beckon viewers into the fictive space. “I liked that there was this figure operating between boundaries, creating a thresholding experience where the two realms merge through the presence of a body,” Goldberg says. “My sculptural practice is always putting an unruly set of relations into play.”
Unruly is a fitting description for some of Goldberg’s best-known sculptural installations. No Where, Now Here (2015), which appeared in her 2016 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, resembles the aftermath of an oil spill: coal-colored ceramic pelicans roam between patches of grass that sprout from dark gray office carpet. The greens were chia seeds that Goldberg soaked in water long enough that they could sprout in the crude oil she used for the sculpture’s base.
It’s a testament to biological resilience, but during the run of the show, the chia sprouts began to die. Crude oil, the artist notes, was originally used as a remedial ointment, soaked up with rags and applied to skin abrasions or prescribed for upset stomachs; even today, in Azerbaijan, you can visit a crude oil spa. “The proximity of our bodies to this toxic substance goes much further than our dependence on it as a source of energy,” she says.
“An idea has stability only so long as it has cultural value. It can be melted down at any time.”
As for the decay of her work over time, entropy is an essential part of life — and Goldberg’s work is ever alive. “We have a tendency to objectify material substances, but these entities are subject to change. How many bronze men on horses were taken down in the last few years? An idea has stability only so long as it has cultural value. It can be melted down at any time.”
For Composite Release, a new work commissioned by Celine, Goldberg took her welding torch to one of history’s most culturally stable ideas: the indissolubility of the Virgin Mary. According to historical accounts of the Lateran Council of 649 CE, Pope Theodore I oversaw revisions to the Bible that merged several Marys into a single divine figure. Goldberg was drawn to the impossible task of untangling all these different Marys — the mother, the prostitute, the pauper, the saint.
“I started making these entangled forms that were vestiges of an unknown face,” she says of the ceramic coils that make up each mask-like visage, coated with her signature charcoal glaze. Their surfaces are impressed with synthetic snakeskin, a material that Goldberg describes as “beyond empathy”: “It immediately suggests an exteriority, working against the mask’s idea of interiority and keeping you out. It’s Medusa-like.” The Madonna and the gorgon also represent binary tropes of femininity that can no longer be disentangled here.
“Representation of the human body is extremely important,” says Goldberg, “because it is so loaded with metaphors that it has become ontologically unreliable.” At the Celine Haute Parfumerie in Paris, Composite Release sits in front of a mirror, reflecting these palimpsestic women back at themselves — and then out into another dimension.
Wood has a soul, as the old carpenter’s adage goes. It’s something Oscar Tuazon sensed long before he began making sculptures from reclaimed timber. Perhaps it was a childhood intuition gleaned amongst the sawmills of the heavily forested Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, where he was born and raised. He’s been going back home often over the past decade to complete a cabin and studio there.
Many of Tuazon’s sculptures resemble vernacular building fragments one might encounter in the backwoods. Salvaged trunks with their stippled bark still attached are notched to — or are consumed by — cast concrete forms and lengths of milled lumber. These contrasting pieces artfully intertwine nature and culture, the organic and the technologically manufactured — categories as inseparable as they are dialectically opposed. Increasingly, wood has become his primary medium. “Wood retains all its history,” Tuazon says. “It’s a very sensitive material that absorbs time and place and site.” Also, he adds, “it can communicate between different worlds. A salvaged board bears the marks of industry. It can stand as an analog for a human.”
Even Tuazon’s most abstract sculptures are full of pathos. Pedagogy and performance have always been central to his vision. After receiving his master’s in architecture and urban studies from The Cooper Union, he worked in Acconci Studio, the architectural practice of renowned conceptual artist Vito Acconci. “Vito’s influence was first of all really about approaching architecture as poetry,” he says. “This idea of writing a building into being. The description of the structure becomes a blueprint, and a body becomes a performer in the finished space.”
“Wood retains all its history. … It can communicate between different worlds.”
For one of his most ambitious projects to date, Tuazon turned his focus to the architectural legacy of “hippie modernism,” constructing a wooden geodesic structure inspired by Steve and Holly Baer’s self-sufficient passive solar Zome House (1969–72). His “Water School,” which traveled from Los Angeles to Minnesota, Michigan and Nevada, hosted a library, workshops and seminars that raised awareness about the endangerment of water resources at each corresponding site. “The paradox of how to make a utilitarian artwork is at the center of my whole practice,” Tuazon says. “Constructing a house or a school are different ways of trying to use the work as a platform to stage those questions while including other people — participants or performers — inhabiting or occupying that space as a political demonstration.”
Mobile Floor (2019), commissioned by Celine, is one such stage. Inspired by the raised runway in a fashion show, Tuazon removed the steel floor from a shipping container and overlaid it with a Versailles parquet floor that he salvaged from a hôtel particulier on the Rue de Bac, near the Celine flagship, that was slated for demolition. “I was thinking about the work moving through space as a module of global commerce and exchange,” he says, “but also thinking about it as an architectural module.” Paris and Celine are close to Tuazon’s heart: he lived in the city for nearly a decade, where he first encountered Hedi Slimane. The two met, he recalls, when they exhibited together at Almine Rech Gallery in 2011. “I appreciate and identify with Hedi’s creative approach to all the different aspects of what a fashion brand is,” Tauzon says. “He thinks like an artist.”
The second work acquired by Celine consists of a slab of spruce wood, salvaged from a mom-and-pop sawmill on the Olympic Peninsula, weathered from previous use and carved and inlaid with other elements. It was one of the first pieces Tuazon completed in his studio there. Unlike in Paris or Los Angeles, where Tuazon is currently based, in the forest “the work is contiguous with the life.” He was able to spend months living with the sculpture while it was in process, a fact that endowed it with a singular presence. “It imbues the work with a quasi-domestic energy, a level of intimacy that I’ve always hoped to achieve.”
According to the I Ching or “Book of Changes,” a Chinese divination manual written in the 9th century BC, the universe is one organic flow without beginning or end. Philosophically and materially, this principle is central to Hu Xiaoyuan’s artistic practice. All things, materials and people, she says, “are in a constantly changing state from moment to moment.” The changes Hu has experienced in her own life and throughout her family history are grafted onto the materials she incorporates into her works, which themselves will subtly — even imperceptibly — shift, decay or alter their forms over time.
Hu began working with embroidery and textiles in 2005, while developing her important early pieces, Those Times (2006) and A Keepsake I Cannot Give Away (2007). Both incorporated materials of an intimate nature: heirloom shirts woven by her grandmother and, in the latter, the artist’s own hair. This biographical turn led her to search for materials that would take the shape of a body; raw silk seemed like a natural choice. Known as xiao, the most traditional of Chinese fabrics, raw silk is “as thin as a cicada’s wing,” says Hu. In her work, she uses a type of xiao that dates back at least two thousand years, to before the Han Dynasty. Woven from pure silk, it is “a translucent fabric with an implicit imprint of presence,” Hu says, “which reveals its purely natural properties, but at the same time has an animal imprint. Xiao is visually placid and beautiful, but the manufacturing process is cruel and bloody.” Produced by the forced labor of thousands of worms, it provides the softest cocoon for its wearer.
“Xiao is visually placid and beautiful, but the manufacturing process is cruel and bloody.”
Some of Hu’s best-known works consist of xiao stretched tightly over boards from commonplace wooden beds. The reclaimed boards often bear sweat stains and other impressions of their former owners, while the soft skein of silk atop them, discernible only upon close inspection, acts as a ghostly second skin. In other sculptures, Hu encased fruits and other organic materials in shells of xiao that held their form even as their contents rotted away. “Both the ‘shell’ made of raw silk and the object inside suggest that the so-called ‘objective reality’ is constantly changing over time,” she says. “The painted silk seems to be a metaphorical symbol and substitute for the object it is wrapped in at a moment in the past, but it never is because it also ‘exists’ during change.” The silk, too, is subject to warp and weft. Both the surface material and what lies beneath it are organic and unstable.
The work acquired by Celine, which comes from Hu’s “Grass Thorn” (2017) series, incorporates her signature xiao across precarious armatures of reclaimed wood, iron and marble. The metal was collected from demolished tenements near the artist’s Beijing studio, and like so much of her work, its use here invokes the absence of human bodies. “Grass Thorn,” she says, “seeks to find a ‘quietly balanced’ relationship between the structures of ‘control’ and ‘freedom.’ It’s a balance that is both contradictory and implicitly stable.” Such binary principles are not opposed in the work, nor in life, but exist in constant flux.
Mel Kendrick wants to show you something you’ve never seen before: a form that didn’t exist before he coaxed it from a block of wood. Nonetheless, it might be something that calls up certain associations; you could consider this a “Rorschach” model of abstraction. That’s the impetus behind the title of Kendrick’s survey exhibition, “Seeing Things in Things,” which will travel to the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, New York, this November. The show includes a number of the alluring works on paper and sculptures in wood and cast concrete that he has been producing since the early 1970s, when he pushed back against the rigid, geometric minimalism then in vogue.
In response to the neat, straight lines of his contemporaries Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd, Kendrick says he was “determined to make a system that falls apart.” He began by taking a buzzsaw to a block of wood and carving it up like Swiss cheese. The holes are not perfectly round, and as they penetrate the wood, their contours shift, becoming cones rather than perfect cylinders. The edges of Kendrick’s sculptures are similarly rough, and he often paints them with Black Japan (an oil-based sign paint) and chalky white gesso to add an extra layer of texture to the surface. “Paint, to me, is more of a material than a color, almost like bark or skin,” he says. Many of the sculptures feel off-kilter, as if one small shift could topple them over. All these uneven qualities are like clues to how the sculptures are made — though it’s entirely up to the viewer to decode them. “The glue, the bolts, are all information,” he says. “I don’t try to sugarcoat or hide it.”
Much like Celine’s creative director, Hedi Slimane, Kendrick began his career as a photographer. Along with their shared affinity for varying textures in black and white, the two artists draw inspiration from one medium to inform their work in others. Kendrick says he tries to mirror the processes of analogue photography in his sculptures and paper works by “allowing something unpredictable to emerge.” He never sketches before he carves, and so his sculptures result largely from intuition.
“Paint, to me, is more of a material than a color, almost like bark or skin.”
The laminated wooden sculptures that were acquired for the Celine Art Project get their color from white gesso and ebonization, a chemical process that gives mahogany the appearance of black stone. Kendrick began using surface pigments because his early cast-concrete sculptures lacked the natural warmth of wood; meanwhile, wooden molds transferred rough grain and saw marks onto the concrete casts. The result, paradoxically, were concrete works that resemble wooden ones. Now, Kendrick tries to transfer some of the qualities of concrete back onto wood.
The wooden sculptures, in turn, inspired a series of monumental woodblock prints that Kendrick began making in the 1980s. More recently, these have taken on a unique, sculptural dimension. One, acquired by Celine, is a relief sculpture cast in thick paper pulp with pigment added straight into the mold. Executed at the Brooklyn paper-making studio Dieu Donné, it has the roughness of a wooden sculpture, and similar dimensions too, but is flat and light enough to hang in a frame on the wall.
Each type of work, then, informs the other. Kendrick finds pleasure in this process, and it’s a pleasure he passes on. “What the hell is abstraction and why should anyone want to look at it?” he asks. “Abstraction isn’t interesting unless you keep asking that question.”
When Renata Petersen was growing up in Guadalajara, Mexico, in the late 1990s, she spent a lot of time going to churches. Except she wasn’t there to worship: the artist would join her mother, an anthropologist of religion, to observe the rituals of evangelical ministries, New Age sects and shamanic cults. The scenes she witnessed — like possessions and exorcisms — often appear on the painted ceramic vessels for which she has become best-known. In many of them, religious figures and iconography are overtly sexualized. Don’t call it a subversion, though: “I paint dynamics that already exist,” she says, conceding, “I just make them a little more hardcore.”
Petersen has always been interested in community dynamics, spiritual or otherwise. While a student at “La Esmeralda,” the National School of Painting, Sculpture and Printmaking in Mexico City, she was drawn to ceramics over more traditional disciplines because, she says, “It’s a medium that requires the help of other people — at least for working the kiln — so it’s much less individualistic than painting and sculpture.” In a sense, ceramics incorporate both painting and sculpture, and they can be considered a high, classical art form as readily as they can be classed as craft. This ability to bridge “high” and “low” culture is central to Petersen’s practice, and it can be seen in the way her vessels combine archaic forms with glazed motifs that seem drawn from tabloid magazines and graffiti tags. Many of the cultural references in her work came from her childhood diet of MTV and VH1, staple American media a broader audience will surely recognize.
“Art history and religion are both constituted through pastiche.”
A plate that Petersen made in 2017 gave its title to “Dysfunctional Bauhaus,” the Celine men’s SS23 collection that also referenced several of her works. Petersen was inspired by the venerable Bauhaus art academy, operational in Germany from 1919 to 1933, where functional crafts like ceramics were placed on an equal plane with more decorative disciplines like painting and sculpture. Many of the courses stressed that the form of a work should reflect its function; a dysfunctional Bauhaus is a contradiction in terms. Petersen’s plate treats the legacy of high modernism with irreverence, following a simple Bauhaus mold but ornamented with kitschy motifs from Tonalá, a traditional hub of ceramic wares on the outskirts of Guadalajara.
“Art history and religion are both constituted through pastiche,” she says. “If you put something of yourself into the work, you can make a new art history or a new religion. Something new out of something old.” Fashion works in much the same way, quoting from the past to create the look of the future. In this sense, while she doesn’t consider herself embedded in the world of fashion, Petersen was a perfect match for the Celine Art Project. Straddling high and low culture, the mass market and the rarified world of art, her ceramics encapsulate the dynamics of contemporary life. As she puts it, “Vases have always been a way to tell stories, and they always will be.”
Stay tuned for more spotlights on artists from the Celine Art Project.