Jonathan Bridges knows that in ceramics, clay isn’t enough anymore

Kansas City artist Jonathan Bridges expands the vocabulary of clay in the same way that fiber artists expand the vocabulary of fiber — by co-opting material that exists outside the medium’s traditional boundaries. He understands that contemporary ceramics must embrace past and present as well as materials that seemingly have nothing to do with clay, such as plastics, the rubbery material of fishing lures and viscous substances that look like melted goop.

Bridges made “Guardians of Possibility” from porcelain, bronze, liquid plastic, glaze pencil, taxidermy eyes, wax, wood, antique cameos and Swarovski crystals. Despite its long list of material, the piece is cohesive, suggesting two ceramic pots of some kind topped by abstracted facial features. According to the label, it’s a 21st-century interpretation of Chinese guardian figures for tombs. That’s interesting, but the explanation is almost unnecessary because the piece makes so much sense in the context of Bridges’ other sculptures.

He moves with ease from making small, more traditional works with an unusual edge to larger, more complicated works. A series of small porcelain creamers incorporates the surprising element that seems to define Bridges’ work. The diminutive pieces are delicate, with muted glazes, but the handles are completely unexpected — in a few creamers, they look sexualized; in others, they simply look like small, crushed blobs of clay added to the form. They lend the works interest and unexpected dynamic movement.

“Petit Floral Amphora” is a large and complicated installation with visual sex appeal. Two delicate, burned-looking urns flank a double-chambered clear plastic box with brass fittings. The bottom of this two-sided box inexplicably turns into transparent bowls. It makes little sense but is extremely satisfying because of its unexpectedness and the craftsmanship in both the ceramic pieces and the plastic container.

This exhibition is ripe with such seductive sculptures and vessels (most of them nonfunctioning) made of varying materials in myriad shapes, ranging from tiny delicate objects to large installations. While his sculptures are wildly different from one another, they’re all clearly related to each other. Seemingly unrelated, however, are additional works on paper that have an offhand air. Drawings of nude women, color Xeroxes of random people and so on come across as curiosities, diluting the strength of the sculptural works.

Bridges, who attended the venerable Alfred University, a center for ceramics production, explains in his lengthy artist’s statement that the title of his exhibition is meant to convey a “commitment to perceiving the beauty in all of life’s experiences, and to translating these ephemeral moments into permanent expression.” He clearly enjoys the sculptural aspect of his work. It looks experimental, and it feels authentic rather than contrived or precious.

It’s adventuresome, a pastiche of styles and materials that becomes a self-referential examination of experience. As Bridges suggests in his statement, his work is not only about beauty but is also a way to cope with failure by celebrating the material he uses for itself and for its transformative effects.

Click here to write a letter to the editor.

Categories: A&E