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The most basic element of social bonding is the sharing of food. Food is so much more than nutrition. It facilitates diplomacy, politics, prestige, business and romance. We usually don’t pay much attention to the plate that holds the food, but “At Your Service,” curated by Niki Johnson and Amelia Toelke at Bellevue Arts Museum, insists we do.

The exhibition features work by 10 artists, most of whom are ceramists. They look beyond the food and examine the broader social and cultural significance of the plate underneath. Their pieces range from the funny to the stunningly beautiful, plates that have been reworked in ways that invite new thinking.

Amelia Toelke’s wall installation makes a viewer think of Gothic church windows. Composed of faux gold-leaf plates within segmented blocks, it’s a study in light and shadow. Its shape can be seen as a reference to our cultural history just as its gold is a statement about what we cherish even today.

Sue Johnson’s plates are whimsical. From her series “The Incredible Edibles” we have five shiny, jet-black slip-cast vitreous china plates. Look carefully at them. There are surprises waiting for you. Two baby turtles swimming in “Turtle Soup” might first grab your attention. But look further. Is that a small pig in “Pork & Beans”? And what do you see in “T.V. Dinner with Venison”?

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Niki Johnson’s “God and Country” is a wall installation of 19 vintage plates that depicted the churches for which they were used to raise funds. The artist has removed the images of these churches, leaving in their stead a great white space. By creating invisibility, she suggests that God becomes visible in the clouds and nature.

Garth Johnson will make you laugh with his “Proverbs,” a work created after two visits to China. On his trips, he noticed people wearing T-shirts with incorrectly translated English expressions. They caused him to reflect on cultural differences, and the result is his sandblasted porcelain plates with gold PVD coating that display ridiculously inept English phrases. It’s a reminder that in a lot of communication, there’s a slip between what is said and what is heard.

German-born Gésine Hackenberg, who works in the Netherlands, is trained as a goldsmith. Here she has transformed a blue-and-white earthenware plate into jewelry. The necklace, rings and earrings on exhibit combine gold, silver, and silk thread with blue and white circles, precisely drilled out of a plate. That plate, now redesigned by its missing elements, is exhibited alongside the jewelry. It too is a new piece of art whose functionality has transferred to the wearable pieces.

Among the most arresting works is Molly Hatch’s “Rigaud,” a wall hanging composed of 78 plates each painted to represent a tiny bit, a pixel, of one decorative historic plate. In this fractured form, we see the entire original plate, but in an abstract way, drawing together contemporary and historic time. Another artist has carved through layers of plates; still another has painted a traditional Chinese scroll scene on the rims of a plate stack.

The curators remind us that plates do so much more than hold food. This exhibit will convince you that they know what they’re talking about.

Nancy Worssam:

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