Visual Arts Review: “Ceramics in the Expanded Field” — Playing with Clay

By Charles Giuliano

The curator’s intent is to stretch and subvert received notions of ceramics with their overtones of craft and functionality

Ceramics in the Expanded FieldMASS MoCA, North Adams, MA, through November, 2022.

Installation in pipe, ceramic, and video by Linda Sormin. Photo: Charles Giuliano

For Susan Cross, the curator of this special exhibition, the medium is the message.

The commonality is that the artists — Nicole Cherubini, Armando Guadalupe Cortés, Francesca DiMattio, Jessica Jackson Hutchins, Kahlil Robert Irving, Anina Major, Rose B. Simpson, and Linda Sormin — use clay as an aspect of their work.

The curator’s intent, however, is to stretch and subvert received notions of ceramics with its overtones of craft and functionality. Those signifiers have relegated the medium to lesser status in the hierarchy of the art world.

This engaging and aggressive exhibition strives to level the playing field. That mandate is accomplished by embracing video, installation, sound, performance, photography and dramatic scale. There is nothing precious about this strident project.

There are limitations to working with clay when it is fired in a kiln, the size of which determines the dimensions of the object. But, as we see in this exhibition, fired segments may be joined to create large sculptures.

Once a ceramic object is created it is normally displayed on a pedestal or shelf. The modernist Constantin Brâncusi (1876-1957) addressed that limitation. His pedestals were an integral part of the displayed sculpture, and that tradition has inspired the diverse and inventive approaches of the artists in this exhibition.

The large woven vessels of Anina Major are displayed at the end of a long “dock” which hugs the wall of a corridor. Resembling a motel sign or a tourist attraction,  neon lettering spells out “All Us Come Across Water.” Under the dock is a layer of shards and shells that further amplify a maritime motif. A video on a smaller dock shows the artist’s long-nailed hands weaving a clay basket.

The vast elements in an installation by Linda Sormin go furthest in separating us from the comfort zone of traditional ceramics. An armature of pipes supports a smash-up of ceramic pieces and shards in which she has embedded video and sound. The result is a soaring piece that takes full advantage of the two-story vertical space of the gallery. It’s a hodgepodge (a holy mess, really) of different elements, but the work is engaging because of its uniqueness and energy.

In its brochure for the show, MoCA claims avant-garde status for the exhibition, but it reflects rumblings in the clay world that go back several decades.

Caryatids and tile mosaic by Francesca DiMattio. Photo: Charles Giuliano

The globe-headed, big-footed Caryatids of Francesca DiMattio evoke memories of life-sized colorful figures by Viola Frey (1933-2004). I enjoyed  DiMattio’s delicious, gooey glazes in particular. They are charming riffs on traditional ceramic designs, their playfulness most evident in a wide expanse of tiled wall filled with many wonderful vignettes. The artist dexterously balances respect for tradition with brazen deconstruction.

The presence of the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei and his inventive use of ceramics hover over this exhibition. That obvious influence is most evident when viewing the deadpan video of Armando Guadalupe Cortes, who is seen swinging clay pots at the ends of his long braids. Eventually, he manages to smash the pots. That action — too precisely  — recalls the photographs of Weiwei dropping priceless ancient Chinese pots.

An adjoining room reveals another puzzling dimension in the work of Cortes. The pillars of the gallery have been encased in wood with rectangles filled with adobe. Along the window edges in the space are shards that frame views of the neighboring Porches Inn.

Though different in scale, the large, brightly glazed vessels of Nicole Cherubini recall those of the master potter Betty Woodman (1930-2018). Cherubini adds unexpected touches, such as a long hanging length of chain. Her pieces have pride of place at the center of the main gallery. Back galleries explore other aspects of Cherubini’s work, which combine photography, collage, and drippy glaze. These pieces are so different from what’s found in the main gallery that they could have been made by another artist. I had to check labels to stay oriented.

Vessels by Nicole Cherubini. Photo: Charles Giuliano

A non sequitur inspired a large format photographic diptych. The two framed images are hung edge to edge, meant to be viewed as one piece. The left side has an upside down view of a sideboard that holds Cherubini’s grandmother’s stacked Chinese dishes. The right side is a detail taken at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where she was an artist in residence. It is typical of that eccentric house museum that decorative objects are displayed with fine arts. Mrs. Gardner made no distinction, and that seems to be Cherubini’s point.

The gallery displaying work by Rose B. Simpson was starkly simple yet riveting. Three life-size tubular figures with earthy ceramic and metal lean against a post. The images are haunting and totemic. While abstracted, the faces evoke Native Americans who are taking part in what looks to be a ritual vigil. The artist grew up in the Santa Clara Pueblo of New Mexico. On the end wall was a life-size image of a 1985 El Camino that the artist restored. The region is noted for its lowriders.

The back gallery features a gathering of assisted readymades by Jessica Jackson Hutchins that partake of the tradition of the merry prankster Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). Unfortunately, the drab, klutzy work of Hutchins has none of his wit. The next gallery had two videos of dancers performing with her sculptures. They were numbingly enervating and inept.

The gallery featuring work by Kahlil Robert Irving explored the pedestal problem. His ceramic objects were displayed on tables or platforms designed by the artist. In order to stretch this presentation into an installation, a flanking wall with a large bright photo mural of bright blue sky and clouds was added.

Nearby was a low platform with a grid of unglazed stoneware and white clay, Wonder Land of many men, ro-man, Black and Black. Gazing down on it made me think of the grids of Carl Andre (b. 1935). I was put off by the warning next to it: “Do not step on the art.” Bummer, as I always make it a point to walk on an Andre.

Which is to say of this MoCA so-called “cutting edge” exhibition  — Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Charles Giuliano has published his seventh book, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: 1970 to 2020 an Oral History. He publishes and edits Berkshire Fine Arts.

1 Comment

  1. Mark Favermann on November 12, 2021 at 11:10 am

    I really enjoyed Charles’ review. He reached a thoughtful balance between recent art history and current art trends. As a sophisticated exhibition premise and a thoughtful m mix of artists, MASS MoCA seems to have grown up a bit with this exhibit. Bravo!

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