Despite the successes of Peter Voulkos, Ken Price and other California artists who’ve worked with clay, the medium remains problematic. Heavy but fragile, sometimes bulky, tricky to move, difficult to display, and—still—burdened by notions, real and imagined, of “craft,” works in clay are rarely made and exhibited well. But artists continue to be drawn to this most ancient and earthy of materials, and Corporeal Impulse, guest curated by Allyson Unzicker for the Vincent Price Art Museum in Monterey Park, invites us to look at works by five Los Angeles-based artists working in clay.
The strength of this show lies in the strength of the artists assembled here, each of whom warrants a show this size of their own. In this small gallery, a single artist’s vision would benefit from repetition and intimacy. Collectively, however, with the only unifying thread being the medium, the show stalls out: there’s no cohesive theme or vision supplied by curatorial insight; instead, the show is a tiny survey of artists who get their hands dirty.
Jeffrey Mitchell’s Basket With Two Skeletons is featured on the press release, probably because the macabre reference suggests Vincent Price, renowned as one of the great scary actors of all time. But rather than a trip through the catacombs, the lumpy, imprecise figures here are celebrations of life – as with the personal totems Mitchell includes in Korea, Korea and 1976. Shamrock, Edelweiss, Seaweed, made in three tiers, bursts with blooms, chains, animals. A hand grasping a wilted flower protrudes from a shirtsleeve; a hatted skull hangs from a ledge. Bunnies cavort and necklaces hang on pegs. These are modern funerary urns: in design and glazing Mitchell references the hunping from ancient China, the “soul jars” buried with the dead.
Julia Haft-Candell’s Toupee is a rough clay infinity symbol topped by a fabric “hairpiece” that also doubles as a leaf. Toupee combines mathematics, humans, and vegetation, and through the inescapable earthiness of the piece offers an environment for their convergence. In her Side Hill Blue she reminds us that we are the burdens we carry. Candell incorporates an obsessively inked surface of a globby clay “hill” over a ceramic cage and a folded textile suggestive of pillow or blanket. The elements are bound with a rope like a hobo’s pack, and three arrows on the wall mark the direction of ascent, suggesting we climb the hill, while carrying the hill.
Bari Ziperstein utilizes clay for shape and to create a surface for custom decals of body elements – face, feet, bosom. She puzzles her women together. Fringe Lady’s feet move in every direction at once, yet the fringes of her leather dress aren’t spinning – she is frozen on her pedestal. Bust combines images that reference Cleopatra, Roy Lichtenstein, and Picasso: this woman is multiple and infinite, grounded on concrete blocks and leather. Like Fringe Lady, she is both strong and immobilized.
Kathleen Ryan’s Block Wall is a beautiful divide, a see-through, three-paneled work of clay over steel. Blocks near the bottom seem to melt and strain while those near the top are firmer, more cohesive. Fired to resemble copper patina, it captures the human desire to engineer permanence against the impact of time.
Matt Merkel Hess’s installation is a collage of several works combined into a singular piece. Taking as his starting point Mike Kelley’s 1993 exhibition of his own household spoons, Hess builds a self-portrait via functional, mass-produced objects that he’s rendered unique and personal, impressed with thumbprints and the curve of a palm. In these utilitarian objects he finds the simple elegance of everyday forms and reminds us of the visceral joy of tactile experience, pinch pots and mud pies. The handle and vessel shapes of ladles and ice cream scoops are by design both masculine and feminine. We are voyeurs of his artifacts, and everything invites and celebrates touch. Right Hand Sculpted By My Left Hand, on a lower shelf, and Flip Flops on the bottom shelf – worn and misshapen – complete the portrait of the artist.
When a curator or collector becomes confident about their own vision, a smattering of works by varied artists can still deliver a gratifying, holistic aesthetic romp. The eye of the collector becomes the third level of communication in the dialogue of art (along with viewer and artist). Unziger is an MFA candidate at U.C. Irvine: she has time to become more definite and sure-footed. Until then, she’s giving us an unassembled hors d’oeuvres plate – crackers to one side, a bit of topping, an olive across the way. Each piece is tasty, but it would be better if they came together with more purpose.
Make time if you’re stopping in to run upstairs to check out Macha Suzuki’s This is the End – a reprise of his brilliant, elegant, thoughtful 2012 solo show at the Laguna Art Museum. It’s more than worth a second look if you caught it the first time, and a must-see if you didn’t.
also by Retha Oliver
- Luke Butler at Charlie James Gallery - July 5th, 2014