There are many reasons artists and audiences have been pulled toward clay for millennia. The thick, messy earthiness speaks to our fingers, our bodily-ness. And then that malleable solidity can be transformed into something hard, durable, nuanced, delicate. Or it can retain its slabbiness. It can be functional or expressive. But there’s always a transformation — through shaping or glazing or firing.
The fifth biennial exhibition of contemporary ceramics, currently on view at the Kirkland Arts Center, presents a stellar sampling of the transformational possibilities offered by clay. The entries — from around the world — were juried by professors from the University of Washington’s School of Art, well-respected artists in their own right: Doug Jeck, Jamie Walker and Akio Takamori.
I can’t find fault with their selections: The pieces are well-made and thought through. And the offerings are varied in terms of technique and concept, with frequent intersections between the two. Petra Bittl’s gorgeous “Homemade/Heim-arbeit” nods to traditional woven and ceramic container forms while Sarah Hahn uses a realistic sculptural style to playfully fuse classical and pop cultural references in her large scale “Bacchus/Lil Wayne.”
I can, however, quibble with the basic premise suggested by the title and description of the show. The title, “Clay?” has been in place for years, so I’m not faulting the jurors there, but here’s my problem with the idea: By turning the word into a question, we are asked to question whether the creations are made of clay. And yet most of them clearly are.
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The only work that demands this kind of double take is Andrea Clark’s “The Fold,” which seems at first to be a piece of folded paper but is, in fact, porcelain. The technical wonderment is part of the concept: Clark has captured the thinness and texture of plain white paper so realistically that it renders the ordinary sublime. It’s one of those works that makes you really, really want to touch it (I resisted, as did my daughters. But just barely.)
“The Fold” also asks us to contemplate a more complex question than the one suggested by the exhibition’s title: How do the artists deploy or dispute the processes or perceptions of ceramics?
Thomas Schmidt and Jeffrey Stephen Miller’s “Recycled China,” which deservedly received the Best in Show award, is comprised of textured, silvery, white and blue slabs created out of discarded factory porcelain fused with recycled aluminum. Working in Beijing, the team forces us to think about the term “china” while blurring the boundaries between tradition and newness, craft and industry, preciousness and functionality.
Matthew Groves also conjures up questions about materiality and form but through the creation of magical, grotesque figures. “The Earthly Glories” is a pair of sickly green-yellow mummies or cadavers — a man and a woman, eternally at rest in their husk-like sarcophagi which also kind of look like cellophane-wrapped gift packages. The fact that this is clay is important here: Groves is tapping into a long tradition of ceramic funerary art and he fully exploits the medium. The weightiness of the clay and the slippery, mottled glazing give a contradictory, fragile solidity to these creatures.
This is the rich territory unearthed by the exhibition: Clay’s potential to carry past and present and its potential to transform.