Sally Clegg

MFA in Art


Auto-Affection: to give oneself a presence or a pleasure

In practices that are considered private––self-talk, self-touch, self-care––a gap is revealed between one and oneself. What objects and images enter here? This exhibition treats auto-affection as a creative process. Through sculpture, painting, and video, Auto-Affection teases out the theoretical and material relationships embedded in pursuits of self-experience and pleasure. It is a meditation on the meaning of our most intimate rituals, and an exploration of associated tools and traces.

This image and those that follow are documentation of my MFA thesis exhibition, comprised of sculpture, painting, and video.

To the left as you enter the gallery space are five 42″x56″ oil paintings made by vibrators on bedsheets, stretched as canvases. From left to right, the titles of the paintings are:

  • “Her Shirt, the Tablecloth, the Wall”
  • “Tangerine Lantern Love Poem Vibrator (for WW)”
  • “Polishing Grapes (interrupted)”
  • “The Sunset (the money shot, the cuff stain)”
  • “Pinky (with a hangnail)”

These titles correspond with the videos in the show.

This video illustrates how the paintings are made. In the gallery, a similar video is visible through a semi-secret peephole in the wall.

On the right-hand wall of the gallery space are three monitors with videos playing, and in the middle is a steel display table covered with black velvet. On the table is a series of 15 small-scale sculptures titled “Invaginations.”

Each piece is an unmanipulated, unpigmented silicone cast of an existing interior space: a light bulb, a poblano pepper, an Atlantic giant cockle shell, a condom, an avocado, a lemon, a tube of toothpaste, a blood orange, a Florida horse conch shell, a banana peel, a Campbell’s tomato can, a lobster tail, a cocktail onion jar, a pomegranate, and a nitrile glove. Each cast has a cavity housing a small vibrator with a button which, when pressed, causes the entire object to vibrate.

The choice of which objects to cast was a process of balancing the domestic (such as the lightbulb) with the more symbolic (such as the pomegranate) with objects that are considered tropes in feminist art (such as fruit) with personal care items (such as the toothpaste tube). There exists a history––across the internet, in women’s magazines, and in self help books––of suggesting random assortments of objects for use in masturbation. My favorite list comes from “The Sensuous Woman,” a punchy sexual primer published in 1969 by an anonymous author who goes by “J.” In the chapter titled “Masturbation” J writes, “popular objects are candles, hot dogs, bananas, sausages and, of course, those big rubber penises that are offered by a number of mail order houses… Don’t use coke bottles, test tubes or splintery wooden things.”

To actually use these vibrators is in some sense to masturbate with negative space. The title, “Invaginations,” is a term from philosophy first used by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, later adopted by Jacques Derrida and Rosalind Krauss. In part, the word describes a narrative that folds in on itself, destabilizing the inside/outside binary.

Among the video artworks in the show is “The Sunset.” In it, I create a sunset-for-one at the bottom of a cup using a glass of water, a blackberry, and a candle.

The videos in the show are intended to reference newer content forms such as ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), newer practices of digitally-mediated self-care and erotic-adjacent activities. Each of the videos involves a different ritual using fruit.

On the back wall of the gallery is an 84″x84″ piece titled “Eternal Feminine (self portrait as 121 dildos).” The piece consists of 121 individual 2”x2”x7” silicone casts of my own body in two poses and scaled down to 6”, each with a functional suction cup base. Each figure hangs from a steel ring hooked to the wall. 37 of the figures have other material mixed into the silicone, an array of found materials and personal ephemera including seashells, dryer lint, a razor head, dietary supplements, my grandmother’s old oil paint tubes, ibuprofen, half of a best/friends pendant, copper shavings, hair, and potting soil.

This piece began with a list, where I compiled instances from literature and theory where a woman is akin to a phallus. The list includes Jacques Lacan’s theory of woman as phallus, Ella Freeman Sharpe’s theory of a dancer turning her body into a “magical phallus” as she moves, and Frans Masereel’s wordless 1920 novel Die Idee, about a man’s idea which takes the form of a miniature naked woman who escapes into the world. The precise scale of the figure is a nod to Charles Bukowski’s short story “Six Inches,” about a woman who shrinks her husband and uses him as a dildo.

Another video on view in the gallery is “Tangerine Lantern Love Poem Vibrator.” In it, I gut a tangerine, turn it into a lantern using a candle, fill the rind with silicone and a motor, and peel it off to reveal the finished object. This video was inspired by Walt Whitman’s 1892 poem “I Sing the Body Electric” from his auto-affectionate opus “Song of Myself.”

The titles of the videos correspond directly to the titles of the paintings; they are intended to be seen in the same space, and to supplement each other.

“Betty, Me, Marcelle” is a large-scale floor sculpture made of wood, fiberglass, and foam, with the dimensions of a queen-sized bed. The mattress portion is covered with white fabric, pulled into the center of the bed as if it were being sucked down into itself from a single point. This void is filled with 22 gallons of clear water, and the surface of the fabric is also covered with water droplets.

This piece is intended as a desire monument. The title is a play on Lacan’s theory of registers (Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real, all of them interdependent): myself (real), my late grandmother Betty (symbolic) and the fictional character Marcelle from “Story of the Eye” (imaginary). Each of these three women has been integral in guiding this thesis as a whole.

Apart from the rest of the show, in an auxiliary space, is an area of the gallery set aside as a visual bibliography.

My piece in this space is titled “The Sensuous Woman (Machinic Assemblage for up to Nine Holes).” It is an electronic cluster of found and made objects. Among those “cited” in the piece are my alter ego MP (in the form of a 3D print, painted with model paint), Jacques Derrida (in the form of six vibrators hand-sculpted in his likeness), and Jacques Lacan (in the form of 27 hand-made silicone mobius strip cock rings). The title of the piece refers back to the book “The Sensuous Woman,” a copy of which becomes the base of a kinetic thrusting machine with a wooden banana, rubber fish, and Barbie arms. This sits below a hanging cluster––motorized by a vibration mechanism salvaged from the guts of a massage chair––which includes four padded coathangers which have been dipped in silicone and transformed into double-dildos. The electronics are connected to a motion sensor, and the piece turns on when a viewer steps in front of it.