New works form ceramics exhibit
Sometimes, simple is best. That’s certainly the case with Linda Swanson’s “Cypreus Lumen,” an abstract ceramic sculpture comprising a 20-inch-round porcelain disc glazed with the colors turquoise and the slightest hint of oxblood red. Housed in a painted aluminum rim, the turquoise glaze looks luminous, like the surface of a pond, as if the faintest breeze will cause a ripple across the surface.
On display in “Transformation 9: Contemporary Works in Ceramics” at Society for Contemporary Craft in the Strip District, the piece garnered the Montreal-based ceramicist the $5,000 Elizabeth R. Raphael Prize in 2013. The award has been given every other year since 1997 as a component of the society’s biennial Transformation series of exhibits, which seeks to identify artists who are “redefining the boundaries of their media,” says Janet McCall, Society for Contemporary Craft executive director.
McCall was among six jurors who chose Swanson for the prize. The others were Joshua Green, executive director of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts; Jae Won Lee, a Korean-American ceramic artist and associate professor at Michigan State University; Alexandra Raphael, a London enamel artist; Catherine Raphael, Pittsburgh metalsmith and storyteller; and Kate Lydon, the society’s director of exhibitions.
Swanson’s piece, and an installation by her, as well as works by 30 other internationally recognized ceramic artists, make up the exhibit, which highlights outstanding and innovative examples of contemporary works in clay, all of which have been created within the past year.
Her installation, titled “Terra Muto,” takes up the entrance to the exhibit. In it, five pouches filled with water suspended from the ceiling hover over a bed of Bentonite clay, a highly absorbent natural clay often used as a cleanser. With the water slowly dripping into the clay, “It almost appears as if the clay is growing,” Swanson says.
“It’s mineral and seems inert, but it’s full of life,” she says of the powdered clay. “It will go through phases of getting wet and dry, kind of like a tree ring in a way.”
That results in a bulging mass that has formed in the center of the bed of clay, which is arranged on thin sheets of steel. “There are some colorants mixed in, and the steel will rust over time, so there will be an iron-like color that will come up in a mix of oranges, yellows and reds.”
The installation is surrounded by several of Swanson’s disc sculptures she calls “Lumens,” including the award-winning “Cypreus Lumen.”
“These start out as a bowl full of glaze, and then, in the heat of the kiln, everything melts, even the clay, melts down into this base that I’ve sculpted that’s kind of like a sand beach with hills and valleys,” Swanson says. “So there is pooling where it’s deeper and there is rising where there is kind of a hill. So, while it looks like its flat, the way liquid looks flat in a pond, underneath the surface is uneven.”
Swanson says that, ultimately, the pieces contain “every mistake you could make” in ceramics. As for these “glazed faults,” as she calls them, “That’s where interesting things happen.”
In a way, Swanson says the installation and the Lumens pieces share a common theme: “I set up the conditions for the thing to happen, but once it’s set up, it takes on its own form,” she says. “It’s the same thing with the fired pieces in the kiln. Once it’s set up in that bowl, the heat and time of the kiln take over. I could set up these exact same pieces a second time in the kiln, and it wouldn’t come out the same.”
Beyond Swanson’s installation, the work of Thaddeus Erdahl of Princeton, N.J., is sure to catch your attention. His piece “King for a Day, Queen for the Night” is a narrative bust depicting an aging drag queen, with cracked, weathered skin that is a testimony to layers of makeup and an obvious veneer created to hide the subject’s true identity.
“I am intrigued by the subculture surrounding drag queens,” Erdahl says. “The double life, the secretiveness and the concealment of identity.”
In similar fashion, San Francisco artist Calvin Ma’s piece “Not Out There” showcases a figure with an unusual skin, in this case being made to look like exterior house cladding.
Contained under a glass dome, this piece was inspired by action figures he played with as a kid, Ma says. “There was something about picking up your favorite character and creating adventures that captivated me. It felt only natural to tap into this childlike sense of storytelling through my artwork.”
Of local interest, “Where we meet” by Martina Lantin of Marlboro, Vt., is based on a map of Pittsburgh.
An installation of sorts, it is drawn from a map of the center of Pittsburgh, the lines of asphalt and water delineating the heart of the city. Repeated, these lines become the wallpaper motif that, in turn, frame and display plates ready for use.
“This interaction fosters the mutable relationship between usable object, display and viewer that forms the core inquiry of my work,” Lantin writes in her statement.
Also of interest to those looking for regional ties, “Goat” by Chuck Johnson is a piece about “social mobility, institutionalized religion, cultural conflict and especially our declining environment,” says the artist who lives in Venango, Crawford County.
“I combine these broad concepts with my more-formal interest in three-dimensional forms, including Gothic architecture, industrial objects and endangered animals,” Johnson says. “Basically, I am interested in exploring contemporary issues by creating narratives using imagery with metaphorical possibilities.”
Though it’s not meant to be a humorous piece, visitors will no doubt take delight in the perversity of scale in the objects represented.
The show wouldn’t be complete without an element of humor that Philadelphia-based Peter Morgan delivers with his piece, “The Awful Waffle Walrus Surprise.”
The most recent iteration of a sculptural series in which he combines food and animals to create landscapes, this piece is both grandiose and absurd.
Morgan says this is achieved by juxtaposing dissimilar objects, and shifts in scale, to generate an expanding and contracting spatial experience.
“This continues my exploration of how representations affect our perception of the world,” he says. “Sure, few people have experienced an iceberg up close and personal, but, undoubtedly, whipped-cream topping a waffle would make an excellent environment for a walrus.”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected].