Glenn Adamson, Spring 2020 –

All over Chicago, if you know where to find them, there are old clay pits – remnants of a now-disappeared brickmaking industry, which built the very architecture that eventually obscured it. Saffronia Downing discovered the pits’ locations in an 1891 industrial atlas of the city. It’s a typical example of what she looks for: stories and connections, lying just beneath notice. Her work is evolved from procedures that have little to do with conventional ceramic repertoire. She is a professional noticer of things.

Downing habitually walks the urban fabric, keeping a sharp-eyed lookout for objects of interest, textures, configurations, juxtapositions. This magpie-like, opportunistic methodology eventually eddies and pools into sculptural situations, which are composed of found detritus, fabricated ceramic elements, and sometimes photographs.

There is something vaguely occult about these works; they suggest magical thinking in full flow. Yet they are also map-like, an oblique cartographic allegory of Downing’s own wanderings. One could say they are located where the mind meets matter – conceptual rubber hitting the recalcitrant road. Or that they are like archaeological findings from our post-industrial present, evidence of life in the anthropocene.

Recently, Downing has changed the physical orientation of her psycho-geographical sculptures. While they were previously held in low vitrines, echoing the ground from which her findings were scavenged, she has now been propping them up on metal armatures, as if to say: look at this. The rigid steel architecture of these mounts suggests a scientific framework – the display cases in a natural history museum, perhaps – while the amorphous scul pted elements instead evoke the trajectory of Surrealism, extending from George Bataille’s explorations of the informe through Jean Dubuffet and Jean Fautrier: an emotionally evocative, materially intense, nearly abstract type of figuration.

I asked Downing what she might do with the unstructured time she suddenly had on her hands; she responded that she could still take her walks. She also has at her disposal a backyard – and a shovel. She’s an artist who doesn’t need much to build a world.

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