Nerman exhibits the power of ceramics - Kansas City, MO
Nerman exhibits the power of ceramics
By ALICE THORSON
The Kansas City Star
“I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics.”
Ceramics artist Matthias Merkel Hess wasn’t born yet when Mr. McGuire uttered those famous words to young Dustin Hoffman’s character in “The Graduate,” circa 1967.
Hess, a native of Iowa, now based in Los Angeles, where he earned a master of fine arts at UCLA two years ago, grew up in a world where McGuire’s prediction of “a great future in plastics,” had come true.
Ordinary household items once made from metal or ceramics — buckets and gas cans, laundry hampers and milk creates — all were remade in plastic.
In “.SUM,” an exhibit of room-sized ceramics installations by three artists at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Hess addresses this wholesale change, returning all those plastic wares to their ceramics origins. His area of the exhibit is “Bucketry II.”
“The root of this is me looking at things like crocks,” he said in a recent interview at the museum, where his slip cast porcelain and press-molded versions of plastic housewares form a colorful array on the gallery floor. “The 5-gallon bucket is the equivalent of the crock. I started as a potter, and thought about, ‘What is the place of ceramics today?’ Plastic changed things.”
Hess went on eBay and bought old plastic gas cans, and began collecting vintage Rubbermaid laundry baskets with the classic tulip-form pattern. He looked for older milk crates “that had more plastic in them.”
“I was looking at design history,” Hess said. “Someone took a lot of care with the industrial design.”
Hess echoes that care in his treatment and glazing of old forms, and occasionally works his own variations on classic designs. One is a triangular milk crate; another is a “double-tall” 5-gallon bucket. “I wanted to make it surreal,” he said.
In Hess’ remaking, glazing and texture confer individual personalities on formerly mass-produced items, elevating them from their quotidian functions into singular objects.
The 40 or so containers gathered in his Nerman installation seem to gabble and converse about their past lives and unlikely rebirth as artworks in a museum. Their display is not organized in any particular way, as if the artist, in a last loop to ceramics, had just removed the pieces from the kiln and set them out.
William J. O’Brien
A huge, white X-shaped table supports a rummage sale assortment of glitzy, funky, surreal and primitive objects in William J. O’Brien’s “(Untitled) X.”
O’Brien teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but his approach to ceramics is anything but academic. There is an implicit rejection of the standard container in his unruly sculptural creations, which find inspiration in everything from face jugs to modernist sculpture, Picasso and African art.
The display has several odd, bundled items incorporating cloth and string that speak to the artist’s background in fiber as well as ceramics. Scattered among the many evocations of busts and heads, they read as mummies; in fact, they represent O’Brien’s concession to a recycling ethic, containing items that would otherwise end up in the trash.
The display includes occasional hard-edged objects in the tradition of early modernist geometric abstraction, but O’Brien often softens and adorns them with colorful patterns and obsessive wrappings of string. The prevailing vocabulary of this assortment is one of expression and gesture that confers an animist spirit on the whole. As O’Brien said in a recent interview, “A lot of the work is about ritual.”
But it’s also clearly about a weird insistence on liberation from proper ceramics behavior. Anything goes when he sets out to create a work. The forms and their varied embellishments — bobbles and faces, pricks and perforations, glitter, glazes and yarn — seem to emerge from a state of trance, uncensored by the conscious mind.
In an interview in conjunction with a show last year at the Renaissance Society in Chicago, O’Brien said that what he makes is influenced by what’s going on in his life at the time.
In a way, each object — visceral, immediate, at times, needy — exists as a talisman of a lived moment, sweet or sad, frustrating or fulfilling.
As it turns out, all three of the installations in “.SUM” are haunted. The ghosts of Ken Price, Philip Guston, Louise Bourgeois and the Venus of Willendorf hover about New York-based Arlene Shechet’s quasi figural clay sculptures.
Each piece is more sensuous and seductive than the last. Yet with their gestural massings, hollowed deflations and fleshy protuberances and orifices, they are not beautiful in the conventional sense, nor does the artist want them to be.
“I’m more interested in some edge,” Shechet said. “I want to embrace, talk about, the human condition.”
Dominated by a gnarly fissured mass that rises like a fist or cloud from a low, pointy-ended vessel, the magnificent, metallic-glazed “Air Time” is a triumphal exhalation, a tribute to the power of all that is earthy and profane.
Elsewhere, Shechet glories in human vulnerability and imperfection.
“One and Only” evokes a charred figure — melted, lava-like and without a head — like an icon uncovered from a natural disaster.
Shechet said she was thinking about flesh when she created “So and So and So and So and On and On,” a pair of abstracted pink heads set atop stacks of glazed kiln bricks. She conceived the work as an homage to Philip Guston, transforming his painterly evocations of existential crises into totemic monads of petrified interiority.
Shechet employed the traditional coil method in the creation of “Better Than Black,” but she deliberately kept the construction loose to allow views into and through the sculpture and to convey a sense of precariousness. And the body references don’t stop — the animated, roiling coils evoke masses of viscera.
The saggy, folding mass of “Is and Is Not” suggests a Ken Price blob that has lost the battle with gravity or a human organ snipped from its bodily moorings. Richly glazed in an extraordinary shade of powdery blue, the form rests on a column of kiln bricks, deliberately chosen to contribute an element of geometric structure to the whole.
“Whatever you put it on becomes part of the object,” Shechet said. She doesn’t conceive of separate bases for her sculptures; nor does she think of glazing as embellishment.
In “Reclining Incline,” Shechet used 10 glazes, which glisten and pool in the crevices of a form that suggests an undulating figural landscape.
“The glaze is fired into the form,” she said. “The color is oozing from the inside out.”
The power of Shechet’s sculptures rests on the uncanny kinship she establishes between flesh and mud. Their tactile, visceral character speaks directly to and of the body — the artist’s and the viewer’s.
“It’s something more than you can think of,” she said. “I don’t want to make an idea.”