Suellen Parker’s claymation figures break the mold

Artist’s subjects find their happy places in Parker’s Whitespace exhibit Letting Go

Unrefined clay sculpture and computer-generated imagery recall the relatively tech-deficient cultures of eras past. Movies such as 1987’s A Claymation Christmas Celebration and even Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, released in 1999, now seem kitschy because of their animation’s crude feel. For the photo illustrations in Suellen Parker’s current show at Whitespace, Letting Go, the artist embraces such rudimentary techniques, photographing clay figures against intentionally amateurish computer-animated backgrounds. Parker’s simple presentation reveals a calm joy in each of her characters.

Modern art is riddled with desperate, lonely, and imbalanced figures. It’s difficult to authentically portray someone in a moment of joy without going sickeningly sweet or turning it into an overwrought display of emotion. But the cartoonish qualities of Parker’s clay figures counter the realism that might have made these portraits cloying, had they been shot with real people. Parker’s settings serve as symbols of the characters’ states of mind, with figures perched atop rocky cliffs or lying nude on a beach. Others are in more personalized spaces, such as the grandmother sitting near her many knickknacks in “Moments of Pleasure.” Clearly they’re in their respective happy places, which gives the viewer an easy entrée into the characters’ personal lives.

The characters also appear to be seeking an escape from social expectations such as beauty or popularity. Many of the figures are gender nonspecific, lumpy, and/or bald. Each is seen alone, reposing during a calm moment. As Parker explains, “My characters are attempting to find a sacred space, a place of vulnerability, a place where they allow themselves to be really seen. By quieting one’s life, even momentarily, an opportunity is presented to learn truths about oneself.”

Some of Parker’s works seem like a snapshot of a stolen few minutes in which the figure drops its social roles. Take “Dressing’s” androgynous person, who is outfitted in the classic male uniform of jeans and a white T-shirt. The dresser in the background, however, overflows with bright blue floral dresses and a pink polka dot shirt. A classical portrait of a woman, reminiscent of a Renoir painting, is reflected in the mirror. The woman in the painting gazes at the scene, faintly smiling, perhaps representing the alter ego of “Dressing’s” subject.

Other characters unabashedly embrace their quirks. In “Twirling,” a particularly clumsily sculpted little girl, hairless and awkward, lets her girly pink dress float gracefully around her knees as she spins atop a coffee table. Her complete ease is similar to that of the businessperson in “The Tie That Binds.” Also ambiguously gendered, this person crosses one socked foot over a knee while kicking back in the office. A record player, a portrait of a Tibetan monk, and a delicate picture of ballet slippers are nestled into a series of cubbyholes.

Letting Go fondly points out the primitive aspects of elementary CGI and claymation. The sentimentality is unironic, which opens the door to an elegant study of small joys and self-fulfillment.