Dawn Cerny: Pleasure Garden

Belonging to a thing

Let’s say you get to the Victoria & Albert Museum or the Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art in the Met right as they open. You spend 5 hours looking and looking and looking. Looking for what you belong to. What is it made out of? What shape does it have? Is it symmetrical? Does it have an inside? A use? Are you a glossy lapis lazuli? Matte cinnabar? When was it made and who was it made for? On and on, row after row, case after case, you look and look. You leave and get something to eat and rest a bit. After you are done you walk a few streets over and enter a series of charity shops, so you can keep looking only this time you can touch and own. This bowl? That salt shaker. Silk, wool, wood, plastic on and on.


The maquette is a method of sketching sculptural propositions in three dimensions for larger-scale projects. It is an economical way to convey to the people funding the fabrication of a “thing” that you are wanting to make very large. The scale of the maquette is around the size of a pair of tall candlesticks or a Taschen coffee table book or a vase large enough to display a bouquet of flowers from a partner who forgot your birthday. Do people read small-scale sculptures as rigorously as they do larger sculptures?

Come to think of it, once a sculpture reaches a particular scale (say, a Calder as tall as a McDonalds) don’t many of us assume it is important without knowing why? Yet even a massive sculpture can be made to be invisible when plopped in front of a 42 story skyscraper. I wonder what scale a sculpture should be to invite most people to judge it most critically? I bet it’s around the size of a woman.


Officials, academics, and the cultured of the Tang Dynasty used these bewildering natural stones for contemplative purposes like meditating or composing a poem. Gongshi could also be used as utilitarian inkstones or incense holders or brush rests.

Gongshi are judged in many different ways but they generally fall into two familiar categories; abstract and representational. The abstract stones are called “scholar rocks” and are prized for looking like a multitude of unnamable things. The ones I like most look like frozen smoke but pockmarked, and opaque. There are also the equally perplexing but slightly more representational “spirit stones” whose forms or inclusions evoke representational creatures, figures, or places—  nouns that quickly become swallowed up in something intergalactic. Gongshi are like bootleg recordings of Grateful Dead shows but silent, still and less polarizing.

Madonna & Child / Pieta

He is always on her lap. If the two of them are together he is mostly hanging on her physically or pulling on her or draped over her or leaning on her. She holds and holds and never really ages.


A shape is flat, and a form isn’t. A form can change as you move your sightline around it; a soft pretzel, a primary school, a teapot, a wedding ring. I wonder about the interior life of form and its potential to hold or telegraph sensations that are not explicit. What is it like to demand that form do something past the sum of its parts and what is it like to derive an acute pleasure from looking at a form that is past your comprehension? What is it like to be ok with the mild discomfort of not knowing or understanding what you are seeing?

-Dawn Cerny

Dawn Cerny was born in Carpinteria, CA and lives in Seattle. Her recent work examines ideas of furniture and mothers as metaphors: figures that secure value for their potential to hold, display, or be absent-mindedly left with things. This pattern of holding as the creation of intimacy and belonging, pleasure, and self-preservation plays out repeatedly in her work. She received a BFA from Cornish College of the Arts (2002) and an MFA from Bard College Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts (2012). Cerny has exhibited across North America for the last 20 years and her work is held in public collections, including The Henry Art Gallery, Seattle, The Portland Art Museum and The Seattle Art Museum. Her exhibitions and work have been written about in Art Forum, International Sculpture Center, The Stranger and The Seattle Times. Dawn Cerny currently teaches at Seattle University.