Blown away

Visiting artist Claire Ashley's "Radiant Beasts" explode into some of Exeter's most iconic spaces. 

Jennifer Wagner
November 23, 2023
Claire Ashley's "Cosmic Gasp (Face of Boe)" in Rockefeller Hall

Claire Ashley's "Cosmic Gasp (Face of Boe)" in the Class of 1945 Library's Rockefeller Hall

When Claire Ashley’s colorful, in-your-space inflatables — some topping 25 feet across — blew up on campus this fall, they demanded attention. And that was the point. 

“I prefer that they are out in the world being irreverent, obnoxious beings rather than being polite and sitting on the wall in a calm way,” says Ashley, an artist based in Chicago. 
“I’m hoping the kids are like, ‘Whoa, what is that?’ That question allows them to enter a conversation about contemporary art that may be a different lens than they might think of when they enter a museum. It’s an experience-driven entry point.”

The “Claire Ashley: Radiant Beasts” exhibition included more than 30 works fashioned from PVC-coated canvas tarpaulin, Tyvek, expandable foam, spray paint and small blower fans, and installed in iconic and surprising spaces from the Lamont Gallery to a squash court in Love Gym.

“My vision for what I wanted to bring to the community was a sense of chaos,” Ashley says. “Really awakening students to these parallels, these intersections between things that they’re studying and contemporary art. And thinking about how the work is living amongst them, whether they’re coming to the gym to work out or to Phillips Church for meditation or prayer.”

Throughout the term, the gallery team also installed short-term, pop-up “interventions” of Ashley’s artwork in previously undisclosed locations. Each pop-up lasted for four days and students were encouraged to take pictures and share their thoughts on social media. “Inflatables are this perfect form because everybody recognizes them as either a bouncy house, a cuddly toy, or something they can hug,” Ashley says, “which I think is really important in terms of making people feel comfortable about looking at or talking about art. Whereas, for a lot of people, when they enter a gallery they feel like they’re either less than or, don’t quite understand what they’re seeing. I’m trying to make art as open and available to people as possible.”

Ashley’s work has been exhibited nationally and internationally in galleries, museums, site-specific installations, performances and collaborations. During her stay, she led an artist talk and met with Exeter students. Her visit was programmed through the Lamont Gallery and supported in part by the Michael C. Rockefeller ’56 Visiting Artist Fund.  

This article first appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.