Shoe Fetish: Thomas Teurlai

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Madeline Wheeler and Thomas Teurlai discuss The Wire, the spiritual experience of buying new sneakers, Baltimore’s growing arts community, and the artist’s first US Solo Show at The Copycat

Thomas Teurlai doesn’t like being photographed, especially not in front of his own artwork. When I ask him to pose in front of “Foot Locker,” the namesake piece of his show at Baltimore’s CopyCat Building, he does so begrudgingly. Selecting a spot, he stands towards me, looking at the camera without adjusting his facial expression, and it takes me a moment to realize that he’s ready. The one photograph I manage to snap appears clear on the Nikon’s small display screen, but once I download it onto my computer it is blurry, his face and work both out of focus. While the image’s cloudiness is undoubtedly in part due to my unfamiliarity with the camera, all the other photographs I take of his work that day are sharp. When I contact him for a reshoot, he doesn’t respond. Perhaps, like his work, the artist himself prefers to remain ephemeral.

Thomas Teurlai
Thomas Teurlai

“Clay is a really interesting material because it takes shape but if you put it in water it goes back to a liquid, and if you fire it, it lasts for 50,000 years,” Teurlai says, discussing his choice of medium for “Foot Locker,” the central piece in his show. The piece consists of 100 Nike sneakers and 25 Dallas Cowboy hats, all of which are made of unfired clay casts of the original products and arranged on five steel hanging racks.

The space, when emptied of ALLOVERSTREET visitors, is eerily barren, the silence interrupted regularly by the ongoing drone of the garage’s boiler room. In typical CopyCat fashion, the gallery’s chairs have disappeared, so we sit on the floor. Teurlai leans against a column. Teurlai pulls a pack of Marlboro Reds out of his jacket pocket and lights one, the familiar click of the lighter giving him away. If you were to see Teurlai around in Baltimore, he would fit in somewhat seamlessly; with his black Carhartt beanie, thick beard, clay splattered workpants, and nondescript hoodie layered under a green army jacket, the twenty-seven year old could easily pass for a MICA graduate or one of Station North’s many local artists. His thick French accent and bright blue Nikes—the very pair he slipcast for “Foot Locker”—are the only outliers that give him away as truly foreign. Teurlai is soft-spoken, so much so that one is urged to lean towards him as he is speaking. His English is strong and he has a clear affinity for the word ‘fuck’, and he is quick to apologize for his accent when it renders a word or name unrecognizable. There is something distinctly aloof about him and although he talks about his artwork and experiences openly, you get the sense that he would rather be somewhere else completely, and preferably alone.

“Foot Locker” is positioned in the center of the Copycat’s ground level space—a dark rectangular exposed brick room with large pillars and plumbing piping—and each rack is lit from above with minimal florescent lighting. Clay dust and clay cast ‘casualties’, as Teurlai calls them, are strewn around the floor, along with a makeshift kiln made out of a barrel. Nearby, a continuous cycle of muddy clay water pours from a tube hanging from the ceiling into a plastic-lined bucket below.

“Foot Locker” differs from the vast majority of Teurlai’s recent work as itis lacking in kinetic and electrical elements. The artist started experimenting with clay when he was working in Africa, inspired by the way tribes built clay huts. He is fascinated with clay artifacts’ ability to withstand the test of time, citing the Terracotta Army, Mesopotamian writing tablets, and African masks. He compared the piece to a post-apocalyptic shoe store, an anthropological relic frozen in time like the ruins at Pompeii. “Foot Locker” is a hybridization of ancestral rites and rituals mixed with modern day pop cultural references.

Foot Locker
Foot Locker
Slip cast casualties from Foot Locker
Slip cast casualties from Foot Locker

Teurlai described his selection of sneakers as the primary sculptural form, explaining the spiritual experience of buying a new pair. “[Sneakers] are nearly religious in their display and the feeling you get when you’re attracted to the colors and the music. They already kind of look like a religious artifact in the shop.”

One cannot help but to be drawn to “Foot Locker” with its bright lighting, bold seriality and grand scale. Although each clay sneaker was slipcast from the same silicone mold, no two are alike. Some are pristine, their Nike symbol prominent, while others have collapsed on themselves, warping into new abstract forms. “Foot Locker” captivates the viewer’s attention with its repeated shapes, drawing him or her closer to inspect each shoe’s individual flaws that distinguish it from the masses. Although it sounds like a slogan Nike would come up with to advertise its latest design, each of Teurlai’s clay sneakers really do have their own personality. But, unlike the footwear company, his monochrome red clay shoes don’t need flashy colors or music to attract an audience.

With the brazen Nike and Dallas Cowboy’s logos, “Foot Locker” is, in many ways, a shrine to consumerism. After all, the work’s title is taken from the American footwear retailer of the same name. Although Teurlai claims he did not select the specific brands for any reason, their repetition and elevation to the status of an art object forces the viewer to think otherwise. He chose the Nikes solely on the fact that they stood out to him in the store, and when he tells me this I find myself somewhat disappointed.

So, what is it exactly, that brings an emerging French experimental sculptor to the United States, and to Baltimore of all places to create work with iconic American brands?

Joseph Shaikewitz, a senior Art History major at Johns Hopkins University, saw Teurlai’s work at the Parisian contemporary arts venue, Palais de Tokyo, while he was studying abroad. Joseph was immediately captivated by how the work addressed spectatorship, or in his words, the artist’s embodiment of “a certain type of relationship with the spectator through their works of art.” This concept of spectatorship is an ongoing issue Joseph had been exploring in his own art historical research, and was excited by the clear engagement and viewer response Teurlai’s work elicited.

With a $3,000 Andrew Mellon Arts Innovation Grant and additional funding from Hopkins’ Program in Museums and Society, he was able to invite the artist to Baltimore and began considering venues. Teurlai’s sculpture is site-specific and often created in industrial spaces, so the CopyCat’s ground floor space—a parking garage of a former manufacturing warehouse—quickly came to mind. “The area is pretty highly trafficked during ALLOVERSTREET, so I thought it would be a nice fit to use a space that is known for having artists live in it but not really responding to it,” Joseph explained. To the best of his knowledge, the room had never been used before as a gallery space.

Foot Locker consists of three works: “Foot Locker,” “Short Circuit,” and an untitled piece involving an industrial sized fan that remains unfinished.

Short Circuit
Short Circuit

“Short Circuit” is a sculpture stationed in the back left-hand side of the gallery, and consists of a dangling 40 ounce Miller High Life bottle filled with water hanging from a florescent light. The bottle hangs upside-down and is rigged so that when water drips out, it causes the light above to flicker.

A large, industrial sized fan hangs at the entrance of the space, greeting visitors with its loud whirling noise. The artist intended to integrate a tree trunk into the piece that would create a sound similar to that of a wind instrument and would cause the fan to move erratically, but ran out of time. After all, he spent a mere three weeks assembling the works in a studio space in Area 405, including the three days of installation.

Teurlai gained a classical art background while studying at the Nantes School of Art and The National School of Fine Arts at Villa Arson, and taught himself electrical and mechanical skills through a mixture of YouTube videos, online forums, and DIY websites. “There are thousands of guys that are just bored an make videos… I’m interested in [YouTube, forums, and DIY sites] as much as the classical craft.”

Foot Locker
Foot Locker

Like many other non-natives, Teurlai’s preconceived notions of Baltimore were shaped by The Wire. A fan of the hit HBO drama series, the artist was immediately enthusiastic about Joseph’s proposal, curious to explore another part of the country that was less world-renowned but still interesting. While The Wire is responsible for Teurlai’s perceptions of Baltimore as a dangerous, drug-addled city with little cultural stimulation to offer, he has formed strong opinions of his own.

“There are some cities like Berlin and New York which are cool and all artists go there but they have three jobs and when they finish their day of work they don’t have the strength to work anymore. Interesting places have moved from these big hubs that existed in the ‘80s and the ‘90s. And Baltimore, in my opinion, is one of them.”

He continues, elaborating on the differences he has witnessed between the art community in Baltimore and those in other major American cities, referring to “Anxiety4U,” the show he saw at La Bodega Gallery that premiered the same night as his own opening.

“I love Baltimore. I found that there’s a big energy in the arts scene without the pretension of the big hubs…In Europe there is so much heritage that everybody kind of has a stick up their ass…It is only in the United States that I’ve seen some performance artwork like a guy with the masking walking out into the gallery.”

Teurlai is well versed in the international art hubs, and has been involved in shows in major cities in both Europe and the United States, displaying his work in Berlin, Geneva, New York, Miami, and Paris, to name a few.

Foot Locker slipcast 'casualties'
Foot Locker slipcast ‘casualties’

On its own, “Foot Locker” stands much stronger than the eponymous show. At the opening reception, it was clear found the namesake piece the most captivating, as few visitors paused to consider the large fan at the room’s entrance or the flickering light and dangling Miller bottle. While “Short Circuit” is undoubtedly compelling for its innovative use of electricity, it is overshadowed by “Foot Locker’s” grand scale. The show as a whole would be better suited if only the title piece were to be presented, as the other pieces look a little like afterthoughts.

As with his work—which was dissembled shortly after the show’s closing—Teurlai’s time in Baltimore was limited, and he has since returned home to Marseille. In April, he will start a three-month long residency at Glasgow Sculpture Studios, where he will continue with concepts relating “Foot Locker” in addition to new work. He assures me that he “has plenty of ideas.”

In regards to Baltimore and the United States in general, Teurlai remains enthusiastic. “I love it. I’m not sure I’d live here but for working it was really great. The mood and energy are much more generous than in Europe.”

Although the next time Terulai is set to return to Baltimore or the United States is unclear, one thing remains certain. With his unlikely blend of archeological and contemporary references, unconventional found materials, and conceptual aesthetic, Teurlai has invigorated Baltimore’s art scene with a much-needed breath of fresh air.

Slip cast casualties
Slip casts in progress

The CopyCat Building
1501 Guilford Avenue
Baltimore, MD 21202

Author Madeline Wheeler is a Baltimore-based writer from San Francisco enamored with ALLOVERSTREET and art documentaries. When she is not secluded to her apartment writing, she can be found dancing at The Crown or finding the latest pho place.

Photos by Madeline Wheeler, Joseph Shaikewitz, and from the artist’s website.

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