Some art draws you in, but Joseph Seigenthaler’s ceramic figures leap out at you–fierce faces on creepily colored heads and shoulders thrust from the wall. They grab you with their grotesqueness at first, but his sculptures have long been inspired by his observations of ordinary people–of himself, his wife, people on the CTA, sunburned people on the beach.

The eight-foot-tall topless woman in Transformation is covered by a dense network of veins, and her feet are too large, but, Seigenthaler says, demanding correct proportions is “missing the point. We’re all distorted.” He recalls his wife’s pregnancy and the “transformation of a woman’s body–I was amazed by the appearance of all these veins on her stomach.” Next he looks at himself: an unfreckled part of his wrist with no melanin hiding the veins looks a lot like the skin in Transformation.

Seigenthaler, 37, builds his pieces by hand from the bottom up. “A lot of times if I want to do an addition I don’t just add more clay, I push with my hands from the inside. It’s like how we are built. This bulge is on my hand because a muscle is pushing it out.” But Seigenthaler’s method doesn’t allow for revision, and mistakes are inevitable: planned and unplanned “distortion and exaggeration happens in all my pieces,” he says.

A Nashville native who moved to Chicago in 1990, Seigenthaler made art in high school that was influenced by album covers and posters. “My work was a bit like what I do now, obsessive, time-consuming realism with a surrealist quality,” he says. Seigenthaler pursued abstract painting in art school in Memphis. He recalls field trips to Chicago: “I loved Ivan Albright, the imagists, surrealism. The work seemed more consistently gutsy and interesting than the here-today-gone-tomorrow fashionableness of New York.”

Seigenthaler also acknowledges being influenced by northern Renaissance painters, with their “attention to detail coming out in a very weird quirky way. Even now my work relies heavily on paint. It’s all painted after it’s fired, so I see it as almost a three-dimensional painting.” The coloring of the woman in Transformation was built up with “layers and layers of acrylic to get the depth and translucency of looking into flesh. I didn’t just paint it white and then go in and paint the veins all blue; I painted it blue first and then painted all the white in between,” so that the blue would appear underneath, giving the skin’s surface resonance and variation.

When Seigenthaler graduated from art school in 1981, he was unsure about his abstract painting. “It didn’t feel personal.” He got a job updating the collection of a country-music wax museum in Nashville–“one of the worst tourist experiences you could have.” But he valued the experience of making the figures. “The four years I spent in Memphis studying fine art in its purest sense and then the four years I spent studying the figure in a kitsch tourist-trap way both sort of mixed together.”

Around the time Seigenthaler graduated, his brother John, a student at the same school, “threw away all his art in a Dumpster because he wanted to start over.” But Seigenthaler traces his own abandonment of abstraction to a night a few months later when, while he labored over a Dolly Parton, John was killed. “It was one of those tragic deaths, a car accident with his best friend driving stoned and drunk. His friend lived, but he ended up killing himself a year later. I suppose he couldn’t live with the guilt.” At that point, Seigenthaler says, “painting abstractly just didn’t seem like it had anything to do with the world.”

An open casket was planned for the funeral. “He was pretty messed up in the wreck, and I had fears about what he was going to look like.” And while “he wasn’t all busted up, he looked dead. It was pretty fake. We’re a very materialistic culture. For somebody to spend time on him doctoring him up so that he’ll be presentable–for me, that’s not really where it’s at. I know that we’re a spirit inside; the body is the vessel. I knew that John had died before I was told. There was almost like this voice in my head. I knew there’s a life beyond. I knew he was fine. I was not happy that he was dead but was happy in the realization that you’re not just a stone or something after you die.”

Seigenthaler saw connections between his last sight of John and the wax figures. Working on them after his brother’s funeral was “kind of creepy at first.” But he realized he was “not actually sculpting away skin even though it can look that way. I could continue to keep doing it because it never was flesh.” He was creating illusions; his brother’s casket displayed an actual body. Seigenthaler, rejecting trompe l’oeil and referring to the exaggerations and distortions in his work, says it’s important for his sculptures to “look real,” but he doesn’t ever want viewers to mistake one of them for a person.

Seigenthaler’s sculptures are on view at Ann Nathan Gallery, 218 W. Superior, until August 29. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday, 10 to 5:30. Call 664-6622 for more.

–Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos of Joseph Seigenthaler and sculptures: “Ange”, “Walking Man”, “Swimmer”, “Freeman”, by J.B. Spector.