These 10 Female Artists Are Pushing Sculpture Forward These 10 Female Artists Are Pushing Sculpture Forward

Sculpture was once considered the domain of ambitious male artists, a medium as challenging in its physicality as it was limitless in scope. But for several decades, artists from Eva HesseEva Hesse and Senga NengudiSenga Nengudi to Phyllida BarlowPhyllida Barlow and Ursula von RydingsvardUrsula von Rydingsvard have carved a place for women working in contemporary sculpture. And in 2018, it’s arguably female artists who are creating some of the most interesting, challenging, and ambitious forms—freely taking the body apart, prodding taboos, and embracing the grotesque.

The eclectic group of 10 international sculptors highlighted in this blogpost ranges from emerging to mid-career talents. What connections can we draw between them? There’s the extraordinary influence of Louise BourgeoisLouise Bourgeois, for one—nearly half of these artists cited the late artist as one of their icons. Doris SalcedoDoris Salcedo looms large, too. Meanwhile, many of these practices underscore the fact that clay has comfortably reentered the artist’s toolbox, moving well beyond the realm of vessels to become a cutting-edge material—as capable as steel, wood, resin, and other materials in pushing boundaries and helping us to see the world anew.

Together, these artists are helping to define, question, and evolve the future of their medium.



Kris Lemsalu

B. 1985, Estonia. Lives and works in Berlin and Tallinn, Estonia.

“Mysteriously conceived and deeply felt”, 2018. Photo by Robert Glowacki. Courtesy of the artist, Temnikova & Kasela Gallery, and Koppe Astner Gallery.


Kris LemsaluKris Lemsalu famously captured the art world’s attention at the 2015 Frieze Art Fair in London, when she lay splayed on a waterbed underneath a giant ceramic turtle shell for eight hours a day for her piece Whole Alone 2 (2015). Lemsalu, who will represent Estonia at the 2019 Venice Biennale, is known for pushing materials to unexpected and sometimes subversive places, often combining ceramic sculpture with found materials to create wacky tableau that suggest ambiguous narratives or become stages and props for performances.



Genesis Belanger 

B. 1978, United States. Lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.

“Acquiescence” (bent hand), 2018. Courtesy of the artist.


“I’ve never met a tool or material I didn’t like,” said Genesis BelangerGenesis Belanger. Indeed, the sheer pleasure that the sculptor takes in her medium was evidenced in her 2017 solo show at Mrs. Gallery in Queens, New York, which she filled with her humorous, surrealistic ceramics that needle affectionately at human foibles and appetites. The artist’s objects are something like human surrogates, reflecting personalities and flaws“our desire, gluttony, obsession with power,” as Belanger said. “My objects reflect all the base and instinctual parts of our psychology. The parts that make us fantastic, and a bit fucked up.”

Belanger, who will show more of her work alongside that of Emily Mae SmithEmily Mae Smith in a forthcoming exhibition at Perrotin in New York, begins her process with sketches, making numerous loose drawings until she arrives at a few that she can’t leave alone. These images then become the basis for objects that she carefully hand-builds.



Rosha Yaghmai 

B. 1978, United States. Lives and works in Los Angeles.

Installation view “Made in L.A.” at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, 2018. Photo by Brian Forrest. Courtesy of the artist and Kayne Griffin Corcoran.


Rosha YaghmaiRosha Yaghmai began her artistic career making photographs. But experiments in the darkroom soon found her eager to switch gears, incorporating other materials to create multidimensional installations. “The flatness of photography prohibited me from exploring the one-to-one relationship a viewer can have with the three-dimensional object,” she said. At the Hammer Museum’s “Made in L.A.” biennial, Yaghmai presents her Slide Samples (Lures, Myths) (2018), an otherworldly glass-and-resin screen suffused with diaphanous light and overlaid with projected slides (drawn from photos that her father took after he immigrated to California from Iran).

The artist, who will have a solo exhibition at San Francisco’s CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in early 2019, is interested in capturing the possibility of metamorphosis and “feelings of transcendence and otherness.” To achieve this enchanted quality, she employs an aesthetic influenced in part by West Coast psychedelia and junkyard culture.



Monika Grabuschnigg 

B. 1987, Austria. Lives and works in Berlin.

“What Shall I Swear By”, 2017. Photo by Asaf Oren. Courtesy of Carbon 12.


Monika Grabuschnigg’sMonika Grabuschnigg’s fantastical ceramic works are indexes of emotional states—of intimate desires, longings, connections. Like contemporary fetish objects, they often suggest phalluses, organs, or bodily orifices, sometimes combining clay with metal armatures, resin, and acrylics in vivid or pastel hues. Her current solo exhibition at Carbon 12 gallery in Dubai is a surreal, tactile study in the way we form relationships with one another in our digital age.

For Grabuschnigg—who is nominated for this year’s Berlin Art Prize and will appear in the corresponding exhibition at the Shelf, opening in this August—examining the world intuitively through three-dimensional form is a fundamental human pursuit. “As little kids, we build things out of mud, sand, or toy blocks, and with that, [we] start to understand our surroundings,” she said. “Then we enroll in school and everything becomes flat, the mud and dirt are gone, and the horizon of our imagination shrinks. That’s how I felt when I started to work with clay—like I was rediscovering a way of understanding the world.”



Letha Wilson 

B. 1976, United States. Lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.

“Hawaii California Steel”, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and GRIMM Amsterdam, New York.


Letha Wilson’sLetha Wilson’s objects exist somewhere between photography and sculpture, image and form. She plays with the materiality of a photograph and she is interested in the subtle shifts in one’s perception of space, and the “limitless freedom” of sculpture—how it “cannot be defined by material or process,” as she says. At her current exhibition at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Massachusetts, she has installed objects that instill both nature and artifice into the park’s outdoor setting so that they quietly reconfigure the surrounding greenery into flattened, intersecting, abstract shapes.



Juliana Cerqueira Leite 

B. 1981, United States. Lives and works in New York and São Paulo.

Installation view of “Blind Spot 2” for Lustwarande, at Oude Warande, Tilburg, Netherlands, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.


“Creating new forms is a mission for me,” said Juliana Cerqueira LeiteJuliana Cerqueira Leite, “a way of not reasserting the world as it is, but of positing a transformation.” Leite’s sculptures testify to one’s ability to transmute the world around them. Her work is often the result of casting her own body parts in clay or plaster—materials she is drawn to for their timelessness—and sometimes feature striated colors in shades of citrus, or finger marks that recall the work of David AltmejdDavid Altmejd. Leite, who will open a solo show at New York’s Arsenal Contemporary in September, is interested in the parameters of the body and the space that it creates.



Sarah Peters 

B. 1973, United States. Lives and works in Queens, New York.

“Woman with Headdress”, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Van Doren Waxter.


It’s easy to see why Sarah PetersSarah Peters feels an affinity for “the oddballs of figurative sculpture”—artists like Robert ArnesonRobert Arneson, MarisolMarisol and Elie NadelmanElie Nadelman—as well as the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Sumerians. Her bronze heads, with their accentuated locks, towering beards, and sunken eye sockets, feel both idiosyncratic and curiously timeless—suspended somewhere between classical sculpture and a dream full of Surrealist monuments. “I’m satisfied when the sculpture feels to me like it dropped out of the sky,” Peters said of her clay modeling and lost-wax bronze-casting process. Those pieces that don’t have this ineffable presence end up on the scrap heap. The artist is interested in the “talismanic properties” of sculpture, she said, as well as its relationship to “symbolic power.” Peters hopes to disrupt the male-dominated history of the medium with her own sculpture: “Merging ancient and contemporary vocabularies is my way of infiltrating the authority of historical tradition,” she explained.



Sydney Shen 

B. 1989, United States. Lives and works in New York.

“Sea, Storms, Rain, Steam, Fluid, Mud, Slime, Sludge, Prism, Salt, Time, Pressure, Shadow”, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.


There is something quietly apocalyptic in the work of Sydney Shen, whose sculptures might take the form of a patent leather lace-up boot fixed into a point by a metal harness, a metronome encased within a cage, or straitjackets holding bunches of hay. Scorpions, spiders, and animal remains sometimes surface in her work, too, suggesting an encroaching, menacing environment outside of our control. Her eclectic practice has drawn the attention of the Institute for Interspecies Art and Relations (IFIAAR), which will include her in an upcoming group show at New York’s Entrance gallery. “I think my sculptures are anchors in a practice that sometimes feels like an abyss,” said Shen, who characterizes her work as “the abject desire latent in repulsion” and “the fine line between transcendence and annihilation.”



Mariana Castillo Deball 

B. 1975, Mexico. Lives and works in Berlin.

“Vista de Ojos”, 2014. Photo by Estudio Michel Zabé. Courtesy of the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City.


Mariana Castillo Deball’sMariana Castillo Deball’s objects and installations are the result of research into ethnography, archeology, literature, and museology, among other disciplines. Her work often revolves around the power structures locked into the culture of how we display artworks, and the problems and challenges of communicating historical narratives through artifacts. Past works have included totems, created as part of a collaboration with a workshop in Oaxaca, which combined archeological references with everyday motifs (ears of corn, dogs), and grappled with the question of how to represent a community’s past and present.



Nnenna Okore 

B. 1975, Australia. Lives and works in Chicago.

“Here and Now”, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.


For Nnenna OkoreNnenna Okore, working in three dimensions is liberating, allowing her to immerse herself “in the well of sensory experiences,” she said. Okore engages in a “slow, arduous” process of weaving, dyeing, winding, and teasing materials like burlap, wire, and paper—sometimes sourced from West Africa—to create dramatic textile installations that resemble the undulating fabric forms of artist El AnatsuiEl Anatsui, who was once Okore’s teacher. Her sculptures often reflect on the wildlife and craft culture she encountered in Nigeria, where she grew up observing the natural world and watching people engaged in repetitive manual labor, like making brooms by hand. Okore, who will show her work in a solo exhibition with Chicago’s Threewalls gallery and in a group show with Jenkins Johnson Gallery at this year’s EXPO Chicago, has, in the past, combined her sculptures with audio and video elements to create multimedia explorations of her childhood memories.



Tess Thackara |

This article has been edited by The Art Dose for shortening purposes.