The New Evolution


Creation myths from virtually every region of the world assert that man, and often woman, were created from clay. In China, for example, the female god Nunga used clay from the Yellow River to form humans. In West Africa, two ruling spirits hid their children, who had been fashioned from clay, in fire; their varying skin tones resulted from how long each had baked. The Hopi’s Spider Woman formed people out of clay, as did the Acjacheman god Chinigchinich. In Judeo-Christian culture, the name Adam is thought to be derived from the Hebrew words adamdam, meaning “reddish,” and adamah, meaning “clay” or “ground.”

The relationship of clay to the human body is more than mythological. Both are simultaneously wet and soft, durable and fragile. In skillful hands, clay has the potential to conquer the commonness of its materiality and become a thing of beauty, function or functional beauty. In the hands of artists who have outgrown the debate of form versus function, clay can address enduring existential issues. Since Marcel Duchamp submitted a real porcelain urinal for exhibition at the Independents Salon of 1917 (it was rejected) and Meret Oppenheim dressed a cup and saucer in fur in 1936, ceramics has made a slow but steady retreat from the unstated requirement that ceramic objects be usable (a bowl, a teapot, a tile). Today it’s allowed to be just another art medium, like paint or steel. The artists can become gods whose creations transcend themselves and their makers, and the consequences of this evolution can be startling.

The group show at H&R Block ArtSpace, Material Speculations, proves that ceramics can thrive within the fine- and conceptual-art traditions with little or no reference to its functional past. Artists Mary Jo Bole, Sadashi Inuzuka, Walter McConnell, Jim Melchert, Jeanne Quinn, Annabeth Rosenk, Deborah Sigel, Jaimie Walker and Frances Whitehead allow clay to coexist with other materials to create works of art that speak with voices loud, clear and sometimes bizarre.

Inuzuka’s “Substrata” combines porcelain, unfired clay and video in an installation that evokes a silence that’s simultaneously lyrical and haunting. In a small darkened room, with walls painted black and the polished concrete floor nearly invisible in the dim light, a circle of small gray sea creatures forms the earthen bank of a pool. The clay creatures exude the stony colorlessness of fossils, their shapes resembling the shells of primordial anemones whose animated tentacles rotted away millennia ago. The pool contains no water, only the video image of blue lapping waves projected on a sea bed of cracked clay. This juxtaposition of wet upon dry, animated upon motionless, implies either that the sea has healed the drought, or that the drought has desiccated the sea. Regardless, what once was is no more — like the cretaceous snail form displayed in a glass box on the wall above the pool. This artifact also appears fossilized, permanently adrift upon a shape resembling a warped sand dollar. In fact, Inuzuka has etched the word “drift” on the glass encasement, its faint shadow like a visual echo on the curled tail of the fossil form. “Substrata” speaks about our reverence for the dead and extinct and our fascination with what one day will be our own fate.

Similarly, Jamie Walker’s “Natura Morta” is a monument to the death of nature, of which we are a part, though some people consider themselves above it. Humanity’s destruction of the environment is seemingly relentless, a slow but steady suicide. Walker’s installation is in many ways a negative of Inuzuka’s. Whereas “Substrata” refers to what has been, “Natura Morta” refers to what is to come. In the most brightly lit space of the gallery, a “pool” of black tiles surrounds a black pedestal holding up a black urn that contains a bouquet of black lilies. All objects have the same matte surface that completely absorbs light — the way black holes in space swallow up everything that comes near — and the forms open up multiple narratives: from the bulbous urn shaped like a woman’s pregnant belly, to the floor tiles resembling “Flower Power” cutouts from the idealistic 1960s, to the lilies symbolizing the resurrection. But the work’s main indictment arises from its interactive component, which allows viewers to tread upon the thin, relatively fragile tiles strewn like fallen leaves. The sound of their destruction — a shrill crunching entreaty — is an unsettling reminder of our own participation in the destruction of nature (which we’ve placed on a tenuous pedestal).

Annabeth Rosen also uses a pedestal form in her at once beguiling and repulsive “Untitled (Sample).” Her pedestals, however, are twelve steel bases of laboratory stools upon which, it is implied, researchers sit to anatomize, scrutinize and probe specimens under a microscope. But on these stools sit Rosen’s ceramic “specimens,” magnified to 2-foot-by-2-foot squares, stacked two high between a pallet and seated on the stools as if awaiting purchase — or the uncomfortable buttocks of scientists. Her samples resemble arteries or intestines, sometimes combined with cell structures that have the beauty of halved papaya. Surfaces are glazed in industrial yellow — the color of police tape — with what appears to be a clear resin accumulating in the hollows of the forms. The sterility of the stool bases, the samples aligned like sale items, and their multiplicity push meaning far beyond what is the nature of clay, toward what is the nature of humanity.

Rarely does a group exhibition contain so many works equally rich in content and equally deserving of profound contemplation — but not because of speculations regarding the nature of ceramics. Clay’s religious associations may be more deeply rooted in its use than we understand.

Categories: A&E, Art