News Column

Exhibit: Nude self-portrait explores fragile "Armor"

August 4, 2014

By Teresa Annas, The Virginian-Pilot



Aug. 05--PORTSMOUTH -- The first time Charlotte Potter showed "Armor," earlier this year in a Vermont museum, the curator placed her glass sculpture on a rotating pedestal.

Then he had the museum install a screen in front of the piece, so no one who might be offended would have to look at it.

He also put up a sign to warn parents of what was inside.

Potter had spent months designing and creating the nude self-portrait in glass that held a deeper meaning for her than anyone might guess. The life-size piece consists of photos of her skin glued to more than 4,000 glass microscope slides to create a three-dimensional facsimile of her unclothed figure.

By trying to shield gallery-goers' eyes from the piece, the Vermont museum turned it into "a peep show," Potter said. "The intrigue factor was really high."

At the Tidewater Community College Visual Arts Center in Olde Towne Portsmouth, "Armor" boldly greets visitors entering the main gallery, with no such warnings or screens.

"Armor" stands out in a show of Potter's work that consists entirely of conceptually and technically ambitious glass installations. She also is exhibiting a sprawling environmental work made up of clear blown glass containing the ashes of her beloved dog. Also on view is a room environment on tilt featuring a glass chandelier and various animal trophy heads, mismatched creatures such as impala with deer antlers.

Potter, who manages the Chrysler Museum Glass Studio, had been thinking about the glass slides piece since 2010, when she proposed it as a project for a residency at Pilchuck, the legendary glass shop in Stanwood, Wash.

Her initial idea was somewhat vague: to "investigate skin and slides."

She didn't birth her brainchild at that moment; she went in another direction.

The notion had come from her fascination with the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, which contains medical oddities such as conjoined twins in jars. "It's half cabinet curiosities and half voyeuristic freak show," Potter said.

"I went there and was looking at their slides collection -- skin diseases catalogued on glass slides. And something sort of clicked for me."

She likes to connect historical references, such as the old specimens she found at the Mutter, to contemporary and personal issues. "So I was looking at these slides and thinking about skin."

Potter, 33, is an artist who fuses richly layered ideas to surprising forms incorporating glass. Art like that takes a while to germinate.

Her skin-and-slides idea finally sprouted last fall.

"My initial idea was to create this big library just of my skin. Every inch of my skin, printed on glass."

The concept evolved into a standing, three-dimensional figure. She took four photos of her nude body -- front, back and both sides -- and blended them into a 3-D version using Photoshop.

Then she and Hannah Fitzpatrick, a glass artist and her assistant, who did much of the labor on the piece, cut out images of Potter's skin to glue onto the slides.

Potter came up with a steel armature, fashioned by Portsmouth artist Chad Clark, to support the slides in a shape resembling a woman's figure.

To assemble the piece, each slide was painstakingly numbered and arranged, connected by sterling silver chains and draped over the armature like a heavy beaded gown.

She made the sculpture a little bigger than she is so that someone else might be able to wear it, as a performance piece. "How amazing would that be, if I got somebody else to wear my skin?"

But the piece turned out to be easily breakable and far from wearable.

"It's an armor that's fragile, that doesn't help you," she said. "Armor" is "really thinking about the fragility of our own skin."

The piece explores skin as a barrier, and questions what and who we let in.

"It's like exposing and shrouding, simultaneously."

Potter's art deals primarily with relationships, and she thinks that might partly be due to the dynamics of the team process of glassblowing, which requires trust.

But "Armor" is slightly different. She began making it around the time she and her longtime boyfriend broke up.

"It's talking about the self," she said. "How can you talk about a relationship until you talk about yourself? So you need to really analyze the self before you can embark on a relationship."

Besides that, "it's like putting myself out there," she said. "There is this level of intimacy where you're showing yourself naked, and I've never done that before" in art.

"It's not a perfect female form. It's a real female body, like the real ones that have poochy parts. It's sort of owning yourself."

Potter isn't the first female artist to use her nude body in her art. She is aware of those who set precedents, such as Marina Abramovic, a performance artist since the 1970s who once stood naked with her collaborator, the nude Ulay, in a gallery doorway so that patrons had to pass closely between them.

Potter believes "Armor" makes sense in the context of her body of work. But while at her reception last month, she felt embarrassed as she encountered a few conservative museum supporters.

"And they were loving it. I was the one starting to get bashful."

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If you go

What: "Charlotte Potter: Fragile Cartography"

Where: TCC Visual Arts Center, 340 High St., Portsmouth

When: Open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily through Aug. 28

Cost: Free

More info: 822-1888, www.tcc.edu/vac/

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For more glass

A show of glass sculpture by the talented studio assistants at the Chrysler Museum Glass Studio opened last weekend at the Portsmouth Art and Cultural Center, 400 High St. "Mapping the Next Generation" continues through Oct. 12. The center is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. $3, free for active-duty military through Labor Day. 393-8543, www.portsmouthartcenter.com.

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Teresa Annas, (757) 446-2485, teresa.annas@pilotonline.com

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(c)2014 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)

Visit The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) at pilotonline.com

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