Body language: Across mediums and decades, Candace Garlock holds a mirror to the symbolism of the human body

Candace Garlock’s studio in Sparks is full to the brim with artwork executed in a wide variety of styles—ceramic birds standing on doll legs; prints on irregularly cut paper that dangle and curl from the ceiling like sheafs of seaweed; larger-than-life photographs of male nudes. 

“I guess I like taboos,” she said of the third category. She’s not the sort of person who enjoys rubbing people’s noses in things just to get a reaction. Rather, when her interests and experiences steer her toward taboo areas, she pushes forward, undeterred. 

That said, “taboo-busting” won’t likely be the first phrase that comes to mind regarding her recent show at Sierra Arts, Bird Chatter: The Rise of the Fashionistas, which was slated to close June 1. This is where some of the ceramic birds with doll legs are roosting. The birds are rendered with cartoonish extravagance, goggle-eyed and bright-plumaged, often spackled with dots or ceramic details, as if they were magnetized to attract simpatico bric-a-brac. 

This ceramic bird from the “Fashionistas” series is named after—and nods to the hairstyle of—Garlock’s granddaughter, Maddie, who was, in recent years, a toddler with gravity-defying locks. Photo courtesy of Candace Garlock

The bird sculptures are displayed alongside linoleum-cut prints that integrate them into landscapes. Garlock hops from one medium to the next. The habit partly stems from her background as an art professor at Truckee Meadows Community College, where she has to cover a lot of bases, running classes in printmaking, ceramics, digital photography and painting. 

Moving through media is also a way of modulating her art practice through the constraints of multiple sclerosis, which she was diagnosed with in 2011. Painting and drawing became more cumbersome for her—a matter of translating signals from the eye, through the brain, to the hand—a chain that is interrupted by the MS lesions in the brain and spinal cord. Those modes of artmaking became extremely fatiguing for her, and working in clay provided something of a reprieve. 

Charged territory 

On the heels of the Fashionistas, Garlock is also preparing another exhibition, Grid-Body-Place, which will take place at the Lilley Museum at the University of Nevada, Reno, this summer, opening on June 25. This one will veer more frontally into taboo subjects, directly addressing the human body, with all its complications of desire and function. 

Her photos of male nudes will appear in this show, forcefully organized onto a grid. The grid concept came from Garlock’s mentor, the late Jim McCormick, who taught at UNR when she was an undergraduate art student in the early ’90s. McCormick used grids to reference cartography, map-making and the human impulse to understand and control the environment. 

Garlock decided to apply this process to the human figure—“mapping” out the body, with all its analogies of analysis and jurisdiction. For her subject back then, she used her first husband. 

Inspired by an assignment by the late art professor Jim McCormick, who often imposed a grid format onto landscapes, Garlock began imposing grids onto mixed-media male nudes in the mid-2000s. Photo courtesy of Candace Garlock.

“He was always naked,” Garlock explained. “He didn’t care. There was no modesty. I grew up in a household that was very strict. We did not show our body. I was just playing, and I said, ‘Well, I’m going to do this assignment with his body,’ because he was just laying there, laying down.” So she opened up her tripod and got to work. 

It is fairly rare for women photographers to train their lenses on the male nude. Garlock realized this could be a fertile, novel avenue of exploration and embarked on a series of large-scale photo works. 

She began working with fellow graduate students at Boise State University, and then was able to complete her degree remotely in Reno, where she worked with local models, setting up in whatever spaces were available—her home, her bedroom, wherever they could set up lights. It became evident she was moving in very charged territory. She had a show of the work at Whitman College in Washington, and after her artist talk, she learned that there had been complaints: She had said the word “penis” too many times. She was at a loss. “That’s the correct word, right?” 

Adapting to MS 

Her explorations in photographing the male nude were cut short by the escalation of her MS, which gave her debilitating attacks. She gravitated toward work that was explicitly recuperative.  

“Nodes, Day 1” is part of a series of prints that originated after Garlock began keeping sketchbooks to help preserve her memory, which can be hindered by multiple sclerosis. Photo courtesy of Candace Garlock

One of the features of MS is that it erodes memory. Garlock’s neurologist, Melissa Bloch, suggested she keep an art journal. Her practice of keeping sketchbooks evolved into something more expressive and diaristic—colorful pages full of collage, drawing and painting. (Some will be on display at the Lilley.) She began a practice that became a body of work called “Daily Nodes,” also to be included at the Lilley—sketches, often of her unfinished sculptures, accompanied by notes on what she was doing or thinking about. Partly this was a way to retrain herself in drawing, through the cognitive fog of multiple sclerosis; partly it was a way of fixing memories that the brain lesions would otherwise steal. Many of the drawings show connection points and forms branching—as though Garlock were documenting a process that was being eroded, at the microscopic level, in her own body. 

Artfully mixed metaphors 

Garlock is also creating new material for the Lilley show. In a body of work she’s calling “Grilles” (calling up the grid as a protective barrier, like the grille of a car), pale ceramic forms evoke a figure, or internal organs, or flowers past the peak of their bloom. They stand in pools of red resin—some of them could be giving birth, going through a menstrual cycle, or bleeding out from injuries or internal disasters—leaking their life onto circular wooden bases that are scored with tight grid lines. 

“Imbalance” is a ceramic and multimedia sculpture from the series “Grilles.” Photo courtesy of Candace Garlock

The sculpted ceramic forms are unruly, unpredictable and messy. The grid suggests that perhaps they could be understood—or at least studied, and organized into a system.  

“I was looking toward artists who record the body, the way that the body really is—the monster beauty,” Garlock said. “It’s grotesque in a way. As we get older, our bodies get lumpy, wrinkly. But there’s such beauty.” 

Garlock laughed. “You get it out of the little kids. I have the privilege of being a grandma, and little kids have no filters whatsoever. They have names for things like this.” She held out her arm, dangling the bit of flab hanging from the underside. “This part is a ‘chicken-leg-arm.’ But they like it. They love the flab, and they say it’s a really nice pillow. At the same time they’re saying something mean about my body, they love it.” 

In the midst of a discussion about how MS changed her art—and also her perception of her own body—Garlock said, “Do I feel beautiful? No. But do I feel OK and content? Yes. I wouldn’t want to go do plastic surgery or anything like that.” 

It’s possible to find contentment through pain, ambiguity and outright disaster—but it is a necessarily complicated contentment. Garlock’s work bracingly traverses that intricate, convoluted terrain, in all its modalities of grace, humor—and abject, lucid acceptance. 

Grid-Body-Place will be on display at the Lilley Museum of Art, at the University Foundation Arts Building at UNR, from Tuesday, June 25, through Saturday, Aug. 3, with a reception Thursday, June 27, 5:30-7:30 p.m. Garlock’s 2024 exhibition calendar continues with shows at the Oats Park Art Center in Fallon in August and September, a booth at the Reno Tahoe Art International Show Sept. 12-15, and a show at Savage Mystic Gallery in Reno in December. Learn more at candacenicolgarlock.com. 

This article was produced by Double Scoop, Nevada’s source for visual arts news.