8 Artists Using Silicone to Create Strange, Radical Artworks
Silicone has a meandering, illustrious history. British chemist Frederic Stanley Kipping pioneered some of the first major investigations into the compound (which is made up of silicon and oxygen atoms) in 1927. Since then, its shape-shifting potential has inspired everyone from astronauts to plastic surgeons: Neil Armstrong wore silicone-tipped gloves during the first-ever moonwalk; cosmetic surgery has long relied on the material for breast implants; and it’s a favorite of both sex-toy and cookware companies.
Given its potency in popular culture, as well as its malleability, it’s no wonder that silicone has inspired artists, too. In its solid, rubbery form, it easily conjures distinctions between the natural and the man-made. It evokes a consumer society obsessed with performance, innovation, and the pliability of self-presentation—metaphor is, indeed, embedded in its chemical make-up.
Many sculptors who work with the material are also intrigued by its connection to the uncanny and grotesque. “I like silicone because of its flesh-like consistency and the way it holds light,” artist Hannah Levy explained. “There’s a kind of luminosity to it if you add just the right amount of pigment that makes it look like it has some kind of life of its own.” She’s used the medium to construct works that approximate objects as varied as a pink swing, a massive asparagus stalk, and deck chairs. Below, we examine Levy’s work and that of seven other contemporary artists who use silicone to unique, radical ends.
For Jes Fan, silicone evokes early memories. He discovered the material through his father, who worked as a mold-maker for toys. Early on, then, Fan already associated it with both play and consumer products.
Silicone has appeared in the Brooklyn-based artist’s work as platforms for soap and a candle (both made with sex hormones), slippers, and ropy flesh-toned sculptures—smooth in the middle, with screw-like texture on the ends. More recent creations, Systems II, Systems III, and Visible Woman (all 2018), resemble intricate jungle gyms. While lively, the pieces also engage serious perspectives on gender, race, and sexuality.
“Silicone is almost like a liquid skin, an abject net-flesh packed with erotic and queer connotations,” Fan said. “I generally gravitate towards materials that display characteristics of transformation, like liquid caught in a state of solidifying. Silicone is a great material to highlight that.” Yet his inspirations also range far beyond the body: Fan is fascinated by laboratories, factories, East Asian diasporic politics “by way of Chinese bakeries on Canal Street,” and more.
The artist’s oeuvre suggests an extended network of identities, philosophical ideas, and art-historical references (like the use of the everyday object, or “ready-made”)—and a creative mind more inclined to connect such disparate elements than to divide them.
For a 2017 performance at MoMA PS1, Levy dressed three dancers in silicone and latex costumes. They all appeared to be wearing transparent rain boots, and two donned what looked like ivory-hued, bubble-textured hoodies with extra-long sleeves. If the outfits were out of the ordinary, they weren’t all that different from what one might see on a high-fashion runway. Levy, who is now represented by New York gallery Casey Kaplan, often riffs on design through creating her own approximations of clothing, furniture, and even objects entirely unexpected in an art gallery setting. For a recent group exhibition at Company Gallery, she created giant orthodontic retainers from alabaster and nickel-plated steel.
Humor pervades much of Levy’s practice, and stretchy, unserious silicone aids her to that end. It lacks the gravity of marble, the gentleness of wood, and the fragility of glass. Levy described the texture of silicone as “relatable to the experience of having a body.” Pinching it inspires a similar feeling of pressure in the viewer. “There’s also a delightful stickiness to the material,” she said. “It’s ultra-clean, ultra-slick, and completely filthy in its propensity to attract nearly all particles to its surface. Everything leaves a trace, but nothing permeates its slick exterior. It’s the material of prosthetics, medical equipment, Hollywood horror films, and non-stick baking sheets.”
When asked what she finds most interesting about silicone, artist Donna Huanca offered an equally intriguing answer: “the ephemerality of it, the smell.” The material does, indeed, produce a synthetic reek. Embedded in artwork, it produces olfactory sensations that can intensify a viewer’s visual experience.
Huanca (who shows with Berlin gallery Peres Projects) has long been known for her performances that situate paint-covered models in the gallery setting among her multimedia sculptures, and she’s recently added silicone to her repertoire to heighten the drama. She gives her performers glass vials filled with liquid silicone and their choreography invites them to paint it, intuitively, onto plexiglass. “These silicone paintings are temporary, as they peel the silicone once dried,” Huanca said. “I love the idea of creating ephemeral paintings.” The fleeting nature of the artworks encourages the audience to enjoy the moment.
Huanca said she’s particularly interested in Andean futurism and meditative practices. Her art often suggests an alternate realm, decades from now, where nude women aren’t watched for titillating purposes, but for their own creative potential.
For a 2016 photography series entitled “I am a woman and I cast no shadow,” Los Angeles–based artist Ilona Szwarc cast a silicone mask from the contours of her body double’s head. The artist regularly employs women who look like her to participate in her projects; she takes on the role of “casting” director, in two senses of the term. Szwarc often paints her doppelgangers’ faces in grotesque new ways for the sake of compelling pictures. A Hollywood element prevails throughout her oeuvre—where else but a Tinseltown stage can we adopt new identities and personas so quickly?
“To make this work in Los Angeles is to dissect the everyday work of makeup artists working on film sets,” said Szwarc. “It’s to slow down and really look at every step of the processes that so many women and actresses go through daily, quickly, fully normalizing the experience.”
The artist is interested in what happens when she photographs the silicone molds themselves, while experimenting with lighting. According to her, “there is a moment of optical illusion in which the mold, although protruding away from the camera, registers in a photograph as if it were facing the lens.” Szwarc’s photographs are haunting intermediaries between fact and fiction, self and other, natural and contrived. They evoke that famous
Silicone’s versatility is a major draw for 24-year-old Zimbabwean artist Troy Makaza. “It does not confine me to a particular discipline,” he said. “I can paint or sculpt with it. I can create a wide spectrum of colors and textures, which are permanently flexible. It is a very playful medium, and play is key to my approach to making work.”
At first, Makaza’s works appear to be colorful, wall-mounted tapestries—twists, tangles, and droops of bright yellow, gray, and red threads. Upon closer examination, however, the “threads” reveal themselves to be squiggles of silicone-infused paint. The compositions, then, combine elements of painting, sculpture, and traditional craftwork. Their sheen and slick texture make them distinctly contemporary, even as they reference age-old art forms.
Yet Makaza’s ideas extend far beyond material innovations. “The flexibility, adaptability, and resilience of the medium also speak very strongly to how I see our lives here in Zimbabwe, navigating changing circumstances and balancing traditional modes and contemporary realities,” he said. Geopolitical concerns are especially evident in Dislocation of Content, Part 1 (2017), which resembles a tattered, misshapen red flag, and its sister piece, Dislocation of Content, Part 3 (2017), which looks—with its fields of different hues bumping against each other—like a fractured topography.
While some artists believe that their materials are talking to them, Hayden Dunham describes a more significant give-and-take with silicone. She spoke of the material as a personified being with its own agency. “I love how sensitive it is,” she said. “If it is raining out, it won’t cure. It responds to touch. It is a material that is listening.”
Dunham uses silicone in her sculptures, which often resemble solid puddles supporting a variety of other sculptural forms (a block, a pillowy roll) and even gases emanating from tubes: Walk into a gallery exhibiting her work, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d walked into a mad (color-fixated) scientist’s laboratory.
While Dunham has used bright blues and yellows throughout her work, she’s particularly fond of jet black—the color of ash and carbon. She’s interested in activated charcoal and its potential to clear out the human body by absorbing toxins and releasing them back into the universe. “Human bodies are large-scale filters,” she said. “They hold material dialogs we come in contact with everyday. When bentonite clay comes in contact with skin, it leaches heavy metals through pores. This process can’t be seen, but is present. So many of these interactions are not visible.” Dunham’s work argues that there’s enough fodder in the human body to inspire an entire artistic practice.
Ivana Bašić’s 2016 sculpture Sew my eyelids shut from others resembles a slab of slick, pink raw meat draped over a thin metal spit. The artist lists her materials as “wax, silicone, oil paint, stainless steel, weight, [and] pressure,” suggesting that invisible physical forces such as gravity are as much a part of the work as tangible media.
It’s no surprise that Bašić discusses silicone in scientific terms. She’s intrigued by the fact that it “has no specific innate state and characteristics, except for its capacity to perfectly simulate reality, which is why it’s used in special effects so much.” For her, it’s “a blank canvas with an endless amount of possibilities.”
Bašić has a background in digital scanning, 3D-scanning, and 3D-printing—which she’s explicitly decided not to employ in her sculpting practice. Instead, her pink or white sculptures often evoke bone or her own skin: They relate more to the human body than to any machine. She even titled a 2015 sculptural series “Fantasy vanishes in flesh.” Comprised of “feathers, pressure, cotton, silicone, [and] stainless steel,” the works look like pillowy bodies, torquing and bowing on the floor.
Suspended from the ceiling, Amy Brener’s colorful silicone “Flexishields” (2015–present) resemble newfangled, feminized chainmail. Many take the shape of evening gowns, with protuberances at the bellies and breasts. Brener (who shows with Jack Barrett gallery in New York) encases found objects such as flowers, leaves, combs, and nails in the material, turning them into repositories for organic and man-made artifacts. She also embeds casts of her deceased father’s face, enhancing ideas about memory and time. “These imagined garments are protective barriers—shields—that are also delicate and translucent, addressing our ability to gain strength through vulnerability,” Brener explained.
While many of the artists on this list gravitate towards silicone’s slickness, Brener favors rough, worked-over surfaces. “Silicone is an amazing replicator of fine detail,” she said. “It has the potential to resemble anything from human skin to computer screens. I’m especially excited by its ability to imitate textures of cat-eye and fresnel lenses to create optical effects.”
For her 2018 “Drifter” series, Brener created silicone sculptures that sit on the floor like tombs or caskets, and filled them with light. Death and preservation still prevail as dominant themes, albeit with a very literal glow. For artwork that addresses morbidity, Brener’s approach is remarkably hopeful.
Alina Cohen is a Staff Writer at Artsy.