Nature can birth some very bizarre creations. Clashing land masses lead to mountains and faults, light and space make phenomenas like Aurora Borealis, columnar rocks form as a result of tectonic activity, and the Earth gifts many diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and other very precious stones. Geodes are a great example of a weird and beautiful natural occurrence. Their surprising crystal, colorful entrails have been the point of fascination for school children and scientists alike. Artists have been inspired by them too, Angeleno Elyse Graham being a brilliant example of their influence. She creates sculptures that are a collision of the natural and the unnatural, an artistic representation of what the Earth gives us and what we will never know. Her geodes are voids, colorful rocks enclosing invisible sculptures that we’ll never see.
Graham’s voids are the subject of a small solo exhibition she has on display at Chinatown’s Fifth Floor Gallery. The collection is Inside Out, a show of her imagined geodes that range from cosmic neon stones to earthy spheres with complex innards. Graham, a petite woman whose art has made her a pseudo-scientific geology master, pokes around her pieces, examining them with a meticulous gaze. She points to the most subdued sculpture, one of her earliest works. “The first ones I made I was really trying to create something that looked like a natural rock,” she says, pointing at the piece pictured below. “This was my attempt at natural agate, where I treated the outside as I would a regular rock. Then I started to get into outer space, using graphite and even a rainbow sheen by way of custom car paints to push how unnatural I can make them.”
“You can see that there’s a lot of glow in the dark, which is something that I’m really attracted to,” she says passing under a black light to point out these particular rocks. “Visiting the Museum of Natural History and seeing that there is so much phosphorescence in nature was inspiring. I’m interested in pushing how surreal these objects are and how natural yet unnatural they are. That’s an important part of using the fluorescence and phosphorescence.”
Her rocks are made in a unique process she’s discovered that works from the inside of the piece to the outside. They all start very clearly, becoming more and more abstract as she builds them. “With all the things that I make, I switch off with having control and ceding it. The first thing I make is a small balloon sculpture, which I have complete control over (whether I want a lot of balloons or a little, etc). I have to wait so long between pieces which leaves a lot of guesswork and experimenting. I think it might be cool and I’ll have them x-rayed which shows that, yes, it is cool. When I finally get to open it, then I get to see which colors worked well: it’s absolutely trial and error and experimentation. I get control again when I open them and figure out how they’ll be displayed based on what is where.”
“It’s like playing the cup game though,” she continues. “I may have an idea of what they are and then, when I put the final layer on, I have no idea. They become a total surprise! I love that. It’s important to me in what I make that I am constantly surprised and unsure of how it will turn out. When I first started making art, I had a vision of what I was making, fully formed in my head. That made it hard to actually finish a project because it was better in my mind than I could ever actually make. I found a way to convince myself to keep making things by making them unknowable. I have a real impetus to finish them because I want to open them and see how they are.”
The idea of surprise is very satisfying for her and is a creatively rich point of departure. It has led to her literally entering the world of science: while her geodes are still whole, she has them x-rayed and CAT scanned to get an understanding of how they look on the inside. With this knowledge of their interior architecture, she makes cyanotype prints that she uses as bases to imagine how the interiors are. They become these hybrid science experiments and artistic exercises.
“The first drawings I did, I made the x-rays and inverted them to have the positive space surround the empty center. I would try to imagine and remember what I had built inside each piece,” she says. “I didn’t come that close.” She laughs and points out just how unpredictable and surprising these art pieces are.
Beyond their natural ties and being visually stunning, they are gifts to owners and viewers of the work as the performance of opening the piece is a part of the art experience. For Inside Out, she is opening a few of the pieces live, upon purchasing. “This is the first show that I’ve been able to open them live. I’ve been wanting to do that but you have elements like dust and a band saw–it’s a little scary for gallerists. Robert [of Fifth Floor] is very hands on and wanted to do it. It was great!”
There are currently two pieces that are waiting to be opened, two pieces that undoubtedly have extraordinary insides. This act of opening them hint at where this body of work could head and how their opening can be related to a ritual. “The larger ones I’ve always opened with a band saw. I’ve been kind of limited by the band saw that I find, which means I can only make it that big. Opening them here was exciting because this tool–a Japanese hand saw–may be a better tool. We put it into this device, put some padding around it, and cut through. I have a dream of making a boulder sized geode and having a big performance with a two-man saw.”
Elyse’s geodes are delicate, otherworldly sculptures that discuss other disciplines and concepts simply in their existing. They–like their source–are unique and intriguing creations that have you wondering how they were created even though you are vaguely aware of what went into them. Inside Out at Fifth Floor sees Elyse Graham opening up her collection of abstract geological oddities to Los Angeles, giving them a chance to see what could exist beyond us and what undoubtedly exists in absence.
Inside Out will be on view at Chinatown’s Fifth Floor Gallery through October 21. For more information on the show, visit Fifth Floor’s website.