Wednesday, December 16, 2009

It's A Delectable Life

It’s A Delectable Life

By Tom Wachunas

To the very general extent that a work of art is a record of the artist’s technical and/or esthetic decisions over a period of time, one could fairly call any artwork autobiographical in nature. At a deeper level of autobiography, some mediums- like painting, for example- are particularly appropriate for “illustrating” the more ephemeral elements of a life, as in particular events, significant ideas, or memories. One medium that doesn’t immediately come to mind for such purposes is ceramics.

At the risk of underestimating the general viewing public’s familiarity with the depth and range of ceramic arts these days, I still sense that too many people over-associate clay with quaintly decorative, traditionally functional crafts. Not that there’s anything bad or wrong with decoration and functionality. What I’m talking about here is a medium fully transcending its traditional definitions and associations and moving into purer visual pleasure for its own sake, while telling a story at the same time. As a concept, this in itself is certainly nothing new. When looking at the work of Cincinnati ceramic artist Terri Kern, however, it surely and delightfully seems that way.

The current show of Kern’s new work at the Canton Museum of Art is called ‘45’. It’s named for the number of pieces on view as well as Kern’s number of years on this planet, though much of her work possesses a distinctly otherworldly or fantastical quality. In a parallel universe they could well be the pantry wares you’d find in the homes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbits. But these very real objects are signposts of a kind – commemorative markers, as Kern tells us in her statement, of her personal history. Wheel-thrown as well as slab-built and carved, her vessels and panels translate that history into an electrifying visual language that is as endearingly whimsical as it is deeply poetic.

Kern masterfully employs an ornamentation technique of clay carving called ‘sgraffito,’ wherein a top layer of pigment, or ‘slip,’ is scratched to reveal an underlying layer. The technique, along with multiple layerings of underglazes, has yielded astonishing results here in terms of both exquisitely delicate line quality, and colors so luminous and deep that they seem to breathe right before your eyes.

Some works appear to be celebrations of simpler times and memories, as in her free-standing triptych, “The Carrot Thief,” a gleeful depiction of caped rabbits and gravity-defying carrots. It is her hand painted ceramic wall panels, though, that speak of more poignant matters, perhaps. With titles like “Possibilities,” “Out of Darkness,” and “Waiting,” among many others, these are imbued with a profound sense of serenity, if not gentle melancholy. The background in “Shades of Morning,” with its floating leaves and stars amid spiraling swirls, is subtly reminiscent, though in a much more amiable way, of van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.”

One panel –“At Last”- is particularly stunning not just for its vibrant palette and figuration, but also in how it conveys what could be considered the spiritual essence of all these works. We see a tent-like banner of sorts, stretched between trees. One of the tree trunks is a human spinal column - a direct reference to a line in the beautiful poetry we read on the banner, written by Richard Hague:

At last she listens:
Pioneering the territory of herself,
she builds a lean-to of words
against the trunk of her spine,
camps for a season
near her own heart like a spring,
studies its upwellings and eddies.
Healing, her strength coming back,
she risks the ridges of dreams,
halloing in the dark.

As viewers we may not be privy to every emotional nuance, or the intended, specific “meaning” that these objects have for the artist. Some appear to be literal, others allegorical. I’m not sure it matters a great deal. A little mystery – indeed artistic magic - rendered here with eminent skill, goes a long way toward carving out our own connections.

So linger and look. These works are a sincere and compelling invitation to become immersed in the warm glow of a life delineated with enthralling passion.

Photo: “Shades of Morning,” hand painted ceramic panel by Terri Kern, on view at the Canton Museum of Art, through March 7, 2010.

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