Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Clay another way

Guilford Art Center
411 Church St., Guilford, (203) 453-5947
Contemporary Ceramic Sculpture
Through July 24, 2010

Contemporary Ceramic Sculpture at the Guilford Art Center is a wide-ranging show of non-functional ceramic works, essentially using clay as sculptural material. Lisa Wolkow, longtime head of the center's ceramics studio, juried the show, which features 20 artists from across the country.

Most of these pieces reference natural or architectural objects. Even the most abstract worksAndrew Maglathlin's (Web site) two sculptures—are inspired by natural forms.
A number of works incorporate found objects and/or non-ceramic materials, as well: wire mesh in two works from Lauren Sandler's (Web site) "Artifact Series;" rusted metal scraps and leather used in Barbara Broadwell's (Web site) creepy yet evocative "Abbadon;" a wood and glass display case that houses literal "feet of clay" in Justin Hackett's "Anthropomorphic Collection." (In some cases, there are objects included in the works that look like found objects but are actually ceramic facsimiles: the small pair of scissors with orange handles in Trisha Coates' (Web site) "Cleo's Famous Sprouts Teapot" and the trash objects—toothbrush, bottle cap, electrical cord—in Holly Dowidat's (Web site) "Scraps 'The Garbage Dog.'")

Among my favorites are those works that attain a fine balance between form, contrasting textures and color combinations. Virginia Jenkins' two small pieces ("Open and Broken" and "Pragle Rock") are abstractions that deftly evoke the natural world. Soft, blob-like curves meld with hard-edged surfaces. In "Open and Broken," the object has both a notable outer surface with contrasting textures of shiny glaze, matte coloring and flaking paint and open, inner surface. It is suggestive of an inner life for an inanimate object. Her coloration of "Pragle Rock" is serenely beautiful, conjuring a natural world that is in process rather than static.

Nancy Hayes' two sculptures more directly evoke the process of nature. The two works build outward from a foundation element, like vines and brambles on a tree trunk. Hayes' "Expanding Growth Form" seems at first glance to be plant-like, woody vines clamping on woody vines. But further consideration conjures the idea of subatomic form or—and here I'm really reaching for metaphors—life and art itself, always building ever outward from experience, perception and concepts.

Zach Tate's work, according to his artist statement, often uses the human form as a starting point. Tate's entry here is one of the darkest works in the show. "Not Everything in Red White & Blue is So Perfect" features three cartoonlike human figures, each standing about a foot and a half tall. The first two have on red and white-striped jumpsuits; the third figure wears a blue jumpsuit. The middle figure wears a KKK-like peaked hood with eyeholes. A black balaclava mask covers the lead figure's head while the figure bringing up the rear has the lower part of his face masked with a red kerchief. All three are splashed with what looks like oil. While Tate's work was likely made before the Gulf of Mexico oil spill it seems to reference that catastrophe as well as the racism and deception that simmers masked behind the myth of American exceptionalism.

On a more elegiac note, there is Cate Bourke's "I Shall Never Tire of Representing Her." Bourke's work was inspired by finding a cache of a dozen sets f her late mother's rosary beads. Working in porcelain—held together with steel and wood—Bourke has created nine totems of oversized beads. It is a touching memorial, each form unique and all of them celebrating the dynamic complexity of a treasured individual human life.

Where many of the works in this show benefit from their juxtaposition of different colors, Bourke's tribute soars on the wings of its stately monochromaticism. Lit from above, the grooves and textures of each bead are set in dramatic relief of light and shadow.

It is a particularly fitting work in an exhibit of earthenware sculpture. The line from the funeral service in the Book of Common Prayer comes to mind: "earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust." In Bourke's hands, the prosaic stuff of earth becomes a poignant and enduring remembrance.

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