The Soft Inside Meets the Hard World: Kay Healy’s What is Real: An Essay by Daniel Oliva

The Soft Inside Meets the Hard World: Kay Healy’s ‘What is Real’

An Essay by Daniel Oliva

A Kay Healy wall relief would not hurt you if it fell off the wall and landed against your body. Her stuffed textile sculptures hide their hanging hardware and sometimes appear to hover, like memories, and they promise to cushion your hands if you touch them, which people have been known to do. Healy’s new work continues to expand towards a figurative area of soft-sculpture, often using found textiles sourced from thrift stores to cover armatures of Polyfill, a white billowy material perfect for stuffing sacks or standing in for a cumulous cloud.

To gaze upon Healy’s current work is to fill your senses with softness and to delight in shifting textures, from the organized rows of corduroy to the even hum of black velvet. A Healy piece confronts you gently, and as she moves away from depicting household objects and towards figures, we begin to recognize that her pieces can relate directly to us, to our own bodies. These works are supremely poised between two hard surfaces, the white wall and your tough skin.

Healy’s previous works found their genesis in the stories and memories of people she interviewed. In an early installation, Coming Home, she interviewed four Philadelphians from different socio-economic, cultural and geographic backgrounds, recreating furniture based on descriptions of their childhood homes. In a 350 square foot diorama installed in the Philadelphia International Airport she placed hand-drawn and screen-printed fabric representations of sinks, stoves, hutches and love seats into four elaborate interiors. By combining their memories into one installation, Healy found commonalities between people of different backgrounds. She is now mining more of her own memories, which include recollections of her parent’s divorce when she was six years old. She has found garments in thrift stores that remind her of her mother and father, but as an artist who pays close attention to a material’s associations she recognizes that these “pre-loved” garments are already stretched by other elbows or kneecaps; they come with their own history. When she began pulling the stitching out of one suit jacket several business cards belonging to the previous occupant slipped out of the pocket. Healy held them for a moment and placed them back into the pocket, asserting the material’s own memory. She sometimes even sews the original label back on the clothing she has disassembled, hidden from view but there nonetheless.

Coming Home

Coming Home (2012)

As her work develops, we see that it is no longer so much an interpretation of memories as an interpretation of dreams. The adherence to mimetic reality has given way to an exploration of emotional states through a combination of architectural and figurative elements. Healy is interested in exploring the surrealistic notion of a body in union with its favorite furniture, embedded in a wall, or turned in with the sheets. Healy’s figures and objects become unified, a person can be made of cedar shingles while a camera which is both an object and a face, can glance at you shyly as it prepares to snap a shot.

Healy responds sensually to her materials. Her Mom Bust is a stuffed black velvet bust with a blond wig representing her mother. She relishes rubbing her hand gently up the velvet to draw out its softness, like petting a cat to elicit a purr. While velvet is a material she associates with her mother, corduroy is a material that evokes her father. She taps her fingers against the pocket sewn into the face of Corduroy Bust, which jingles because she has filled the pocket with loose change, about as much as her father used to keep in his pockets. “People touch my art all the time,” she says, admitting that the everyday materials and stuffed doll aesthetic beckon viewers to engage with the work.

She uses her own head and body as a template for the figuration, bringing the size and scale of her work into the real world. In this way her work evokes the full-body indexes of Ana Mendieta’s body forms, though both artists use vastly different materials. Mendieta explored the fusion of feminine forms with nature’s earth, wood, flora and fire, navigating in a world apart from the mundane. Healy, in contrast, suggests that the everyday is almost a “natural” state, she embeds the textures of our clothing deep into our psyche. Healy’s work plays with the simulation of domestic materials by using drawing techniques of hatching and shading, typically used to create the illusion of three-dimensional form on a flat surface, but as Healy uses them they suggest awkward flatness on stuffed objects that bulge roundly towards the viewer. The symmetrical, straightforward presentation and life-size scale directly confront the viewer and invade our actual space. Her work can be so confrontational that it resembles a reflection; we may feel that we are looking into a mirror and begin adjusting our own limbs in relation to the image facing us. Healy says of her work that, “it competes with your world because it’s the same size as you. The scale is the same.”

Corduroy Bust and Mom Bust

Corduroy Bust, corduroy pants, Polyfil, .99 cents, 2016, Mom Bust, velvet shirt, wig, Polyfil, 2016

Healy is very focused on the ways in which we interpret our relationship to our bodies. Body-oriented metaphors yield material for Healy to explore. She is particularly fond of sayings such as, “finding your feet”, which suggests finding confidence and solid ground in a new situation. Another artistic influence on Healy is the sculptor Robert Gober, whose sinks without drains or faucets and legs popping out of walls (wearing old-fashioned pants, socks and shoes) have informed her surrealistic tendencies. She explores the acts of carrying and building in her piece, Carry, a bust with arms that is holding (its own?) legs and is also covered in a brick pattern. Does the brick add weight to the legs, strength to the arms, or both? Healy, who often has to carry “limbs” while making her work, explores both a parental gesture of support and an artist’s necessary motivation in building one’s own body (of work) while living within it.


Carry, screen printed and stuffed cotton, 2016

“What is Real” is not a question and a yet it is also not entirely a statement. By refusing to include a question mark in this phrase Healy suggests that real is a slippery term, she says that her work, “becomes real in going from the drawing to creation”. Her objects have all begun as sketches and developed through smaller maquettes towards their endpoint, which is the size of our “real” world. Healy admits that the representation always fails because it’s unmistakably made of cloth. In this current body of work she is trying “replicate the feeling”, using the object to capture emotion. While Healy’s work develops in the direction of our reality, once it has arrived we, as viewers, are welcomed to slip back towards a surreal state. While we contemplate the form’s state of being, we can also recognize the way Healy powerfully weaves the twin senses of longing and hopefulness by creating intimate material associations.


Kay Healy, self-portrait in the studio

Healy has found a way to explore themes of memory and loss while continuing to expand her toolkit. Her works are no longer obligated to express another person’s recollections and yet the previous owners of used clothing are welcomed by Healy as contributors to the growth of each sculpture. With each new combination of limb, gesture, clothing and object Healy expands the narrative possibilities of her work, and invites the viewer to add their imprint, or at least to take a new memory with them as they leave the show.


About the Author:

Daniel Oliva is an artist and writer based in the Philadelphia area. He was the Curatorial Assistant at The Galleries at Moore and is a professor at Penn State Abington.

To download a PDF of this essay, click Oliva_Healy_May_2016

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