So’s characters convey a quiet and poetic dignity, but are also humorous in their humble depictions. Rafiq, for example, with his patrician Romanesque tunic, is almost swallowed up by his bulbous hair. He becomes like a cartoon rendered in three dimensions, and to accentuate this, his features are ‘drawn’ or scratched on, not sculpted. So develops her portraits through a simultaneous process of sketching and sculpting, and the tension between flatness and form is important to her work. The portraits’ minimal style creates a challenge of how stories or narratives can be suggested through the barest amount of information.
So’s sculptures are defined by their process of making as much as by their fictional personas. Their scale is limited by what fits in her kiln, and though they look old, the slippery surface of the clay’s moulding gives them a slick modern finish. Ezra bears all the traces of So’s physical handling in his cut geometric layers and casual pock marks; his oversized moustache droops with the frozen weight of wet clay. By sharing her process with the viewer, So reveals her sculptures in a theatrical way, presenting their fantasy as our own willful suspension of belief and desire to participate in their makeshift make-believe.
Renee So’s sculptures draw from the traditions of Antiquity and historical portrait busts. Works such as Otto & Max were originally part of a larger group which So thought of as a tribe; however, as with people, her busts are unique characters and are meant to be considered as individuals. Otto & Max sit on a plain wooden plinth which, like their black and white heads, suggests a classical simplicity and order. This idea of aesthetic or stylistic purity is something that is valued throughout the history of portrait sculpture and So’s portraits evoke a reverence for uniformity and geometry: the same sized heads are like a template or body ideal, which then are ‘accessorized’ with idiosyncratic hairstyles and facial features.
So’s portraits look like artefacts from a non-specific place or time; they might be from the distant past or the future. In inventing her characters she draws from a wide range of research including art and anthropological history, military portraits, and costuming. So’s sculptures are made from ceramic, a traditional media that connotes ‘craftsmanship’ or ‘antique’, but also visually replicates stone. In Bellamy, the cracks are an intentional result of the firing process, and make the figure look like a fragile archaeological find or museum relic.