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A choreography in clay to be seen through your skin

Alberto Ruy Sánchez

When you touch clay it moves, you must learn to dance with it.

Peter Voulkos


One could not throw a shape properly until you understood its internal coreography.

Michael Frimkess


Potters have aknowleged that the performing arts of music and dance with their emphasis on action and repetition hold truer analogies to the field of pottery than either painting or sculpture.

Garth Clark


I A separate Universe

Paloma Torres holds a unique position in the recent history of contemporary art. And, the more one lives with her work and gets to know it, the more certain one becomes that her importance is sure to increase. There are many reasons for this: the more immediate are conclusive. Her pieces need and deserve to be reviewed and thought about by touching them with ones eyes and the eyes of one’s skin, because her work is a seductive invitation to think with one’s skin, following and developing the invitation of the writer and art historian, Damián Bayón. He invites us to stand in front of contemporary art with an enormous sensorial disposition –to open our minds to the senses and to think with our eyes.

Therefore, by following this way of thinking, not only with our eyes but also with our skin can we begin to understand the unique artistic terrain that Paloma Torres has established. The singularity and discreet daring of her creative work set a tension with the materials she uses and with the nature of the pieces she has made in clay both in a traditional and a contemporary manner.

Tension, in this case, is creative. It does not restrain but rather impels: it is not a contradiction but a paradox. It is like a tense bow that shoots its arrow to mark a new range, extend the limits to a further horizon. Because, precisely, by using each of the plastic qualities of ceramics, Paloma Torres, the artist, adds an unexpected dimension of emotive materiality to an entirely contemporary language, a profound/intense dance with the clay.

The strange thing is that she is not just one more contemporary artist who makes ceramics almost as if the material she works with did not matter. She is not a painter or a sculptor who merely uses clay as one of manly materials. If from the usual field of ceramics she is more of a sculptor, as a plastic artist in sculpture she is a master ceramist; her skill in the craft and her creative passion are those of a ceramist. But neither can it be said that her pieces are headed in a natural way toward the normal forms of being of ceramic works. She is a sculptor and ceramist who sees and feels in another way, and the two combined become a third way.

It is as if her fascination with the past of ceramics is not necessarily the ground upon which her work is based, so that this never becomes a bind or a limitation. Her creative attitude is amazingly agile and even seems carefree; but in both areas are her skills evident and her practice long. Neither history of creative usage and customs seem to influence her work. She does not gravitate within the evident tradition of sculpture nor to the known context of the ceramist, because she does not tread either path but flies through both ambits with her own lightness of being.

Paloma Torres reminds me, particularly, of a now famous answer given by a potter in the village of Metepec, Mexico, when he was asked if he considered himself an artist or a craftsman: “I’m only a lover of clay”, he replied. This reminiscence makes me think that classifications are always external and the creator does not necessarily experience them as they are felt from outside. Creative practice is something else. In the case of Paloma Torres it is a third way –new, paradoxical and very different.

Art historians classify ceramists into those artists who concentrate on the qualities of molding the clay on the wheel and those who achieve excellence in their pieces by playing with the possibilities of firing in an oven. The wheel potters and the oven potters. Paloma Torres does not allow this classification for her pieces –her work has the qualities of both and neither one more than the other. She molds and she fires, but her best work stops at neither of these stages, it continues to evolve.

In any case, contemporary sculpture is usually divided into the artists who create forms known as closed fist forms and those who make open fist forms: matter that seems to have been carved by the wind only on the surface without penetrating them or those that have holes in them and the wind can flow freely through them. Again, the forms created by Paloma Torres literally do not allow this classification: they appear to be carved, as if they were closed fist, but the subtlety of the surfaces often have the complexity of open fist in that thin area we could call its skin. And this is achieved as much by the varied formal abstract language generated by Paloma Torres as by the fact that they are made of clay.

Another external classification divides abstract art, such as Paloma’s, in an art that is true to geometry and another that is true to natural shapes, more sensual and organic. Again, Paloma Torres’ work is unthinkable only from the perspective of abstraction: her pieces are full of forms that are at once organic and geometric in their composition. And they are this –some more so and others less so– as much in their surfaces as in their entire composition.

Paloma Torres is an eccentric abstract sculptor as well as a heterodox ceramist. Doubly unorthodox, she creates her own canon. Situated on the margins of both these territories: that of contemporary art and that of the ceramist, she has created something ‘other’. She invents her own space for her art: a third territorial option, which, for the present, is her very own, or rather it belongs to her art. And here, in this new continent of clay and lines of expression, of abstract pieces that can be almost felt as close bodies, of fragility and transcendence, of intelligent installations and paradoxical traditions, her creativity – her vision of the world, is unarguably the center of a territory peculiar to contemporary art.


Paloma Torres’ Universe


Her very name raises

her own vertical forest

and takes flight.

Her hands

bring to light, life

ancient forms

nobody has known,

they touch us all

and sing in our ears

before beginning

to dance and

glide through the air.

It is the ritual bird,

swift, almost invisible,

a blot, a blur

on the fragile tip

of a walking totem.

The other is a horizontal tremor,

of a heart

climbing a whirlwind.

I find myself and

lose myself in

her forest of

the rings of Saturn,

in her brittle universe,

in the celestial scaffolding

of her uniquely

resistant soul. Where I

wish to enter, to rest

these hallucinating eyes,

the better to see,

with my hands,

all this wondrous anatomy

of a world apart,

that eventually,

is in our skin.


II The sacredness of clay

This double eccentricity of the world of sculpture and the world of ceramics, creates a separate universe that reminds me of a form that was so common in certain periods of art, the form produced by the partial intersection of two circles: the ‘mandorla’, literally an almond. In the history of art the mandorla has been traditionally used to situate and indicate the sanctity of the characters considered to be sacred because they belong to two worlds simultaneously: both heaven and earth. It is the golden almond that appears behind the images of the Virgen Mary and some saints in gothic painting, for example. The golden almond is more than just a halo, it shows that this is someone exceptional; what it suggests to the mind of the viewer, and by so doing evokes, is ritual art. It has the force and the presence to transform the viewer into a contemplative being, as in a religious experience: linked to mystery or a revelation.

In Paloma Torres’ aesthetic universe there is this intersection of the two circles, sculpture and ceramics, and they create a symbolic mandorla which is manifest in heterodox shapes, equally strange to both worlds. The symbolic mandorla manifest in the amphibian forms that the artists creates and in the materials and the obstinate shapes she puts them in.

Hence, differing from the worlds of the gothic mandorlas, here it is not gold but clay that invites one to contemplate a mystery. The force of an almost primitive, elemental order, the clay and the shape of a totem, is always full of mystery.

Paloma’s towers (torres in Spanish) exert this double elemental yet powerful fascination. A force that is not natural but supernatural in a primary manner –instinctive. The drawings and materials applied to the surfaces are aesthetically beautiful, but their force comes from something else because they are like tattoos that invoke ancestral beings, unknown myths, or beings belonging to another dimension. It is not surprising that she calls them totems, because they are just that in more than one sense: abstract totems. Ancestral symbols belonging to a primeval civilization –forms that go beyond themselves. Surface forms that seem to become protective figures. Not animals but organisms, geometric, trembling living lines, irregular rectangles, windows open to an infinite beyond. It is a language of totem-like forms that evolve from towers into spheres. Planet totems or asteroid totems traveling –floating through the simple imagination of humans thirsting for another life, for protection and a sense of belonging.

Let us start from the mythological principle that these abstract towers are bodies without limbs, or rather, like bodies. The philosopher Gilles Deleuze called them “bodies without organs” when describing one of the essential qualities of human beings: their infinite possibility of connecting with anything whatever, beyond any specific organ. Bodies like “machines of desire” that operate in innumerable ways with whatever can connect with them. These are figures that adapt to the imagination of desire of whoever contemplates them; bodies that make no distinction between humans or other bodies in nature.

Deleuze borrows the expression from a poem by Antonin Artaud that states: “the body is the body and it does not need organs”. Artaud seems to describe these totem-like figures of Paloma Torres. Figures from an interior world – of a quality interiorized within each body. If one can use the term “the body within”, it is applicable to these figures which are like moving portraits of an infinite interior. Bodies that by going into themselves go beyond themselves, therefore, at the same time, they reach out to something unattainable, towards a certain sacredness.

These towers that seem to extend upwards as well as inwards, with their strange vitality of clay figures, recreate myriad myths in our minds eyes. Firstly, the Biblical metaphor of the creation: the myth of man being molded by God out of clay. A biblical ghost that we can add to the myth of the Golem: the clay figure, which came to life thanks to certain sacred words, taken form the Talmud or the Kabala, issuing from the mouth of the Creator. According to Borges, the word golem in Hebrew means “amorphous, lifeless matter”. Paradoxically, it is now the proper name of the clay creature that came to life and whose actions went beyond the will of its creator. A golem is, therefore, clay that comes to life. In both cases, the Bible and the Talmud, mention these clay figures that become human, we are mud become flesh.

Standing here, facing Paloma’s towers, we are mounting another step up into mythology: that of bodies without organs that, by being tattooed or marked in different ways, create a surrounding aura that transforms them into superhuman and supernatural beings, endowing them with a ritualistic sacredness. We now move from the flesh to the symbolic world where matter signifies something substantial but immaterial – participation in something sacred.

These towers that are bodies without limbs, exceptional, bodies when placed all together make a sort of forest of tattooed trunks, covered in incisions, of unrepeatable textures and shapes. The forest of tattooed giants. The forest of transitory and profound beings.

It is clear that what makes them sacred is, among other things, the incisions, the applications or drawings on the surface. In some tribes, tattoos are often secret writings that tell of a myth, put into action on the skin. It is a language of symbols. Tattoos create a unique ambit where things, at once, are and are not what they seem. Where the double and triple significance of things pulsates before our eyes, in our skin; makes us feel the exceptional qualities. And this is what happens with these vertical sculptures of Paloma Torres’. We lose ourselves among them, our vision and our senses stray to find a new level of meaningful sensations that appear very different. They are powerful figures.

This is also why one can think of them as presences, they are much more than mere objects. They are sculptures full of the qualities shared by art and poetry: they invoke presences; often mysterious or difficult to define. Not to evoke them as one remembers someone or something, but rather to invoke them –call up their overwhelming presence, resolute, irrevocable. A presence begins by being a very strong feeling. And these sculptures are presences. Facing them, no one with the most elemental sensibility can remain unmoved.

Later, these presences start to penetrate the mind and throb in the surface of your skin, breathing new life into that idea of Paul Valery’s: there is nothing deeper than one’s skin. And in this case it is applicable both to the skin of those of us who are exposed to these presences and the very surface of the totem-like pieces, as fragile as clay and also as powerful as the significance of clay.

One gets the impression that the skin of the sculptures leaves its mark on the skin of those who move among them. And we, ourselves, have some part of clay in us, we become beings who are tattooed inside and start to form part of this magical forest of presences. The sacredness of the clay exerts its effect upon us, the witnesses of their rituals. Thus the sculptures offer us their:


Sanctuary of Heretical Towers


The forest of presences

walks by our side

and as we close our eyes

it walks within us.

Throbbing in my eyes

a tree with thick thorns,

invisible fruit and silent powers.

Every night is full moon

in this forest of clay and dreams,

of rings and spheres,

of landscapes that climb

earthy whirlwinds.

And every daybreak,

like a heresy in clay

inside the tower

another denser night awakens

with another full moon

and another lake

as wide as the sky.

And this wall of curves

gives consistency

to a dilated sky

that permeates everything

and gradually penetrates us.

So we are led

to view everything

as an elemental


it is the first day

and the first towers

were created

inside and outside

these creatures

of excited flesh

towards a heaven

of clay.

Ritualistic towers


holding up

something invisible

that only you and I

can see

at the full moon.


III Dance and Counter-dance

These are ritualistic sculptures that dance inside us: Paloma Torres leads us to feel that deep down, at the time of creation, she has danced with these powerful forms. Simply because they invite us to join in a surprisingly passionate choreography where there is no static truth and even what appears static holds a profound movement on the surface and within it. It was not by chance, by instinct that Juan Quezada, that magician from the village of Mata Ortiz, has been explicitly concerned with the dynamics of each piece, ever since he began his craft as a potter.

Clay always moves –it never stops moving. Not before, nor during, nor after the firing. Whoever thinks that it ever stops, is wrong, only by killing it can you stop it moving. And the true works of art in ceramics never cease moving, dancing at their best moments.

According to this elementary, but not obvious, principle the ceramist must always be a choreographer who carries out a composition of movements, sets the stage for each piece or group of pieces. That is why the classic master ceramist, Michael Frimkess, who knew something of this, maintained that each piece contained its own music and dance, and the potter, in his best moments could hear it through his hands. His craft is to make them visible like no one else can.

And, only by listening can each piece be given its best shape. It is not strange that such a statement of heightened sensitivity to the latent movement of a composition should come from an artist who suffered from multiple sclerosis in his later years, and who, together with his wife Magdalena Suarez, did work that reverted to classic Grecian forms, openly Dionisian, illustrated with an ironical pop mythology which actually illuminated them. This was the dance that his hands could hear.

His teacher, the genius Peter Voulkos, the paradigm of all ceramists in contemporary art, the great abstract expressionist in clay, the man who broke all the molds and all the old limits between modern art and traditional ceramics, he also maintained, in his way, that pottery is choreography. He liked to make his pieces before an audience who would applaud, as he took on the role of orchestra conductor and choreographer. He would say, smiling broadly, that making pottery was a ‘performance’, like dancing. He used to tell his students that “as you touch it , it moves and you must learn to dance with it”. In his pieces there are some with tremendously aggressive gestures and other that are calm. One can easily imagine the dramatic choreography that they imply. Before he died of a sudden interruption in the music of his body, a heart attack, he made pieces that danced to continuous atonal music, rebels against melody, so he said.

The music that Paloma Torres’ pieces dance to is made up of amphibian city sounds and tribal drums. She makes music out clay even with rivets and rods. She makes us hear the music that fell silent in the wasteland.

In the same way as primitive ritual objects borrowed any shapes from nature: forked tree branches or stones, Paloma gives a new aesthetic dignity to our new ‘nature in concrete’, these permanent ruins that are merely renovated as ruins. And, she turns them into part of a new aesthetic dimension because she can see and hear even the inexpressible with her hands.

If what Michael Frimkess says is true about the interior choreography that each piece contains, these pieces of Paloma`s are documentary choreographies and at the same time so fantastic that they lead us to look, listen and experience our cities with new eyes. Her art helps us to see the city. Not the city to see art. The city, through her eyes, through her hands, is a piece of ceramic with discontinued applications, many shaped, rebellious reticule, an organic space. In this way, like a choreographer daring to the unbelievable, Paloma Torres has directed her work to a discreet but very consistent choreographic experiment of abstract figures and rituals in collective ambits. Her sculptures in the city remind us that there is an aesthetic dimension in everything. That amazement is in the eye of the beholder. Nothing is seen without a dancing look, feeling the music that the clay has within it when touched with magic, when it is molded softly and deeply, as it molds us.


Lines of escape with no perspective


Dance with me

you white giant,

your skin of dirty mosaics

covered in ancient smoke

moves the tide

of my darkest moods.

The palest part

of my eyes hides

under thin eyelids.

You turn my movements

and my shadow

into sheer, clear joy.

I dance with you

bones of a bird

without feathers,

the spinal column

of an urban dream in ruins.

They’re dancing with us

these corkscrew totems

and the bent towers,

the totems scratched

by the coming and goings

of ants.

These blocks

concrete yet organic

and restless,

crowned with metal rods

like a radiance

or a rain of coarse rays.

The onlooker’s hand


the eye that listens,

the skin is now

a scar and a drum

of the unfinished city.

Chaos rebels against chaos:

music dancing inside

and the counter-dance outside

dancing in the skin

and out there

ritual counter-dance

of substantial and primitive

new ruins.

The sacred wood,

and the totem

from outer space

exhort with their smiles

and their steps on a ground

turned into a drum of clay,

into a sonorous

reflection of the sky.

Dance with me goddess of baked earth,

of strong, sure hands

that cannot see as they touch me,

goddess filled with strange music,

with fleeting water and cold fire.

I long to be a denizen of your magic,

of your exploring and peregrine skin.

to climb in and with you.

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