Friday, April 16, 2010

Tales from the Kiln

Tales from the Kiln

By Tom Wachunas

Since the blossoming of the Studio Craft Movement of the 1960s, the number of American artists working in clay has steadily increased. They are artists who have expanded the medium beyond the strictures of wheel throwing, and explored its versatility in making purely fine- art objects that transcend traditional ceramic functionality. The newly-opened exhibit at the Canton Museum of Art (CMA) – Form, Figure & Function: Contemporary Ohio Ceramics – is an ambitious curatorial collaboration between Charlotte Gordon of the Springfield Museum of Art, and CMA’s Lynnda Arrasmith. Featuring 52 works by 17 artists, it’s a thoroughly eye-popping cross section of Ohio artists who, for the most part, have pushed the niceties of the potter’s craft into fascinating sculptural realms.

The glistening shapes that make up the wall piece by Eva Kwong are inspired by bacteria. These oversized, brightly speckled escapees from a Petri dish are presented as a raucous calligraphy that celebrates, with child-like wonder, Nature’s more squiggly, amorphous forms.

‘Escapees’ might also be a way to describe the playful creatures that crawl all over the dog in “Juggling Dog,” as well as over the central figure in “Queen Mother,” both by Janis Mars Wunderlich. These intricate, marvelously textured statues are sculpted testaments to the precarious joys of raising kids.

Less ‘innocent’ though equally intriguing are “Ride” and “Head to Head” by Jim Bowling. The former, with its bulbous, anthropomorphic forms, is an eerily beautiful abstraction of pure sensuality. In the latter, the two abstract forms, with blistered surfaces of faded green and garish orange, have a similar primordial character as they appear on the verge of connecting, or perhaps drifting apart.

Speaking of heads, there are several works here that render human heads in a variety of ways, from delightfully whimsical to somber, or startling. Jack Earl’s red-shirted “Cloud Man” is a pleasantly surreal vision of a man with his head literally in a cloud, wearing it like a ridiculously large, cottony hat. The bald-headed, armless man in Tom Bartel’s “Figure Fifty-Five,” on the other hand, while surreal, is anything but pleasant. Bartel tells us in his statement of his interest in skin as a vehicle for connecting with the vicissitudes of living. Here, the skin of the figure has a convincingly sickly, matte pallor and texture, like the cracked, moldy surface of a very old oil portrait in need of restoration.

The stylized heads of babies that comprise two of the works by Juliellen Byrne have a similar patina of unkind aging about them, oddly reminiscent of antique porcelain baby dolls. These haunting visages exude the same poetic questioning and urgency that can be found in her statement about them. They are anonymous children of war. The torso of the doll (with praying hands sprouting from the top of the head) in “Toe Tag” is covered with pinned-on names of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and/or Iraq. “What seems most wrong about this conflict is the harm and sadness that it brings to someone’s baby,” Byrne muses.

There was a time, some years ago, when I thought that asking artists to write a statement to accompany their work was an inconvenience at best, an unnecessary imposition at worst. After all, if the work needed explaining in words, then perhaps the artist had chosen the wrong medium, or the work failed to “explain” itself. And besides, I had encountered too many artists who hadn’t the slightest clue as to effectively articulating their intentions, thereby confusing rather than educating the viewer. Looking back on that position, I realize now that it smacked of artsy hubris – an arrogant, selfish objection to allowing even the possibility of more efficacious communication with the viewer. Certainly, some artists are better wordsmiths than others. But to the extent that such statements can be efforts offered in good faith for genuine illumination, to that extent they are acts of generosity on the part of the artist.

And so it is that the artists’ statements posted in this exhibit are by and large revelatory and even entertaining invitations to better appreciate the work at hand. None of those statements is more intelligently transparent, compelling, and sensitive than that written by Byrne. She concludes, “Our roles in this world may be unequal in their impact or power, our fame, wealth, wit and courage, granted in different measure, the presence of a higher power staining us variously bright to pale, we are all someone’s baby.”

Byrne’s work is a sobering counter-balance to some of the more decorative and gleeful entries here, to be sure. Yet as such, it’s a necessary balance that fits very well into the vibrant aura of this exhibition. These are works executed in clay, that most common of materials. Malleable dirt. From such ordinary, gritty origins, this show is an extraordinary gathering of hands and voices that speak eloquently to the joys, absurdities both tragic and fanciful, and profundities of simply being alive.

Photo: “Cloud Man,” by Jack Earl, courtesy Canton Museum of Art. One of 52 works in clay, on view through July 26 at the Canton Museum of Art, located in the Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Avenu North, Canton. Museum hours: Thursdays and Fridays 10a.m. to 5p.m., to 3p.m. Saturdays / 1p.m to 5p.m Sundays/ 10a.m. to 8p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays / Admission: $6 adults, $4 seniors and students, free for children 12 and younger.

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