Lenka Clayton has developed a way of making art that involves about as little overhead as writing poetry — i.e., her time and thought are the primary, and most valuable, components. No welding equipment, no 12-foot-wide canvases and, presumably, no monthly rental fees on storage spaces filled with unsold works. Her schemes are clever, her touch is light, and her modus operandi is extremely flexible.
Clayton describes herself as a British conceptual artist. As a movement, capital-C Conceptual art ran its course in the 1970s. But the aftershocks continue to be felt today in small-c conceptual art as a freewheeling approach that emphasizes insight and cleverness over traditional skills and subjects. Rather than toiling away to add more stuff to what's already here, Clayton typically makes art by transforming the pre-existing: thinking things through, accumulating or selecting items, and altering and arranging them so that they speak to us in unexpected and revealing ways.
Based in Pittsburgh since 2009, Clayton is currently engaged in her self-created An Artist Residency in Motherhood. She describes it as a fully funded residency in her home and life as the mother of two young children. In subverting the cliché of the heroic, unattached (and usually male) artist, Clayton emphasizes motherhood's potential for "exploration and artistic production." With a faint echo of Mary Kelly's "Post-Partum Document" (1973-79), Clayton's ongoing "Mother's Days" — which features in her Emerging Artist of the Year exhibit at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts — chronicles the eventful lives of various mothers, including their largely invisible labor.
Danger is a key concern in the parenting of young children, and it's not surprising that it shows up repeatedly here. In "Objects Taken Out of My Son's Mouth," 63 approximately bottle-cap-sized choking hazards are carefully laid out in a grid, the causes of a series of anxiety-provoking potential crises. "The Distance I Can Be From My Son" is a series of short videos that measure the short distance within which one can maintain any vigilance; each segment concludes with Clayton bolting after her young son as he goes out of view. In "Dangerous Objects Made Safer," 30 tools have been individually encased in felt to render them less threatening. Arrayed on the wall, they look harmless enough, but there is an undercurrent of responsibility and, presumably, worry. Even this transformation shows a light touch, as nothing has been permanently altered but rather only wrapped, such that they could be unwrapped and returned to their function as tools.
A fundamental aspect of Clayton's approach to art is that, while she might alter things, she doesn't generally make things beyond, say, the series of genial ink-on-paper "Typewriter Drawings." But she's not averse to having other people make things, soliciting content through crowdsourcing. For 2013's "One Brown Shoe," the ambitious project that is the exhibit's centerpiece, Clayton had each partner in a married couple (though why "married," I might ask) independently make a shoe out of any material. She stipulated only that the shoe be brown, a minimal dictum that was interpreted loosely. The parameters turned out to be just right, such that anyone could conjure the idea of "shoe" as the basis for creating an essentially sculptural form, which is also readily recognizable by the audience. The resulting display coheres through its shared subject, yet is incredibly varied and inventive. (One senses an artistic background among many though surely not all of the participants.) The project highlights the endless variety of human creativity while embodying the difference in perspective between any two people, including those in a close relationship.
Lenka Clayton's interventions are clever, surprising and delightful. Her artworks are not aesthetically pleasing in the conventional sense, though nothing is abrasive, either, and the effect is low-key and soothing, but also intellectually stimulating. Taken as a whole, they make the profound point that the lived experience of motherhood, including the insight and changes it brings, has barely been tapped as a basis for making art — with motherhood having considerable potential as a subject as well as a site.
One last thought: "Artist of the Year" and "Emerging Artist of the Year" — the titles of the concurrent shows at PCA — sound specific, but upon examination are rather vague. A posted statement (on a text panel in the gallery and/or on the PCA website) explaining the criteria for selection, and the process by which artists are nominated and chosen, would clarify just what the awards represent.