North Adams, Massachusetts
Once sidelined as the nice girl you could bring home to meet the family, over the past decade, ceramic work has become the wild “it girl” of the art world. “Ceramics in the Expanded Field” (on view through April 2023), organized by MASS MoCA senior curator Susan Cross, presents work by eight, multi-generational artists from diverse backgrounds who are furthering clay’s move out of isolation to play with other media in dynamic ways. Incorporating performance, video, neon, talismans, photography, prints, painting, and even a mother-in-law’s furniture, these artists are reimagining ceramics in installations that range from the frenetically energized and sociopolitically laden to the quietly contemplative. Many of the works mix high and low, merging archaeological, traditional, and experimental techniques and materials. Some shift scale and inject humor—things not readily associated with ceramic art.
Identity, culture, heritage, and earthen sensuousness are embedded in the exhibition and most evident in projects such as Armando Guadalupe Cortés’s constructed environment incorporating the traditions and folklore of his birthplace in Mexico. Gallery columns, covered in adobe and wood, display objects such as masks (including one made from an armadillo), a remedy for scorpion bites, and the artist’s leather sandals fashioned with a blade, like those attached to a fighting cock’s claw, alongside images of Cortés and his brother emulating the bravado and machismo of a cockfight. The three-channel video El Descanso en la Gloria (2017) is the attention-grabber, featuring the artist with clay vessels attached to his long braids, spinning trance-like until the stoneware smashes into shards on the floor. Kahlil Robert Irving references race, class, power, and colonialism through the lens of that ubiquitous industrial material, the brick, and its history of use by Black labor to create white industry and wealth. WONDER Land of many men, ro-man, Black and Black (2019), an unassuming plinth of unglazed stoneware and white clay tiles that elevates another building material, is surrounded by prints of chain link fences and urban detritus documenting elements of the street. In a separate room, a dreamy blue sky mural serves as a surprising, idealistic backdrop for everyday objects of personal and cultural relevance, created in earthy clay and arranged like an archaeological excavation. Anina Major focuses on histories of the African Diaspora through the act of making, specifically basket weaving, and the positioning of cultural wares in an installation designed like a tropical island stage set. Clay baskets, created from traditional weaving practices, are displayed on a pier-like table above ceramic shards forming a floor of seashells. A neon sign reiterating the title of the installation, All Us Come Across Water (2021), captures the contradictions of commodifying culture, not quite sending the welcome it seems to convey at first glance.
Ceramics have an inherent association with the vessel, and the figure is present in myriad ways. Rose B. Simpson’s “Countdown” series (2020) features a group of nearly eight-foot-tall androgynous figures—armless, footless, and with bowed heads leaning against a center pole, they are powerful yet vulnerable. The tan and red clay of the sculptures and the full-wall print of a 1985 El Camino painted with a black-on-black Tewa design (Simpson’s restoration passion project) connect to her ancestral New Mexico home, where she resides and grew up living off the land, and the contemporary influences from nearby Española, known as the “lowrider capital of the world.” In Francesca DiMattio’s unrestrained “Caryatids,” named after the carved female figures used as columns in classical Greek architecture, porcelain and stoneware replicas of historical objects and familiar everyday items, including a teddy bear foot and a teapot head, lend a sense of whimsy and connect with the history of pattern and decoration. The installation is completed by a three-tiered, figurine-filled chandelier and a 25-foot-long, tiled mosaic interweaving styles from various cultures across time and place (from ancient Rome to Turkey to the Netherlands), marked with evidence of DiMattio’s life as a mother—including graffiti strokes courtesy of her children. Jessica Jackson Hutchins molds wearable ceramics—clay aprons and collars, for example—that allude to the body and everyday domestic activities as they straddle the furniture in her constructed familial environment in a state of disarray. The work stands alone as an installation, but comes alive when inhabited by musicians and dancers donning and interacting with the ceramics as seen in a performance video.
Exuberant experimentation sets the tone for works by Nicole Cherubini and Linda Sormin, who explore the medium’s tactile malleability and challenge its perceived fragility and preciousness. Cherubini supersizes and deconstructs traditional pottery forms through a range of processes, transcending any functional or ornamental role: objects are rendered gnarly, embellished with chains, layered with prints and photographs, glazed with muddy as well as bold colors, and layered with drips and fingerprints. Her recent pieces explore form and function with ceramic and wood Eames-inspired chairs and other “sittable” art. Sormin’s captivating Stream (2021) capitalizes on the space’s soaring ceilings with a two-story metal scaffold base filled with clay objects, drawings, watercolors, figurines, and scrap metal. Fourteen seemingly precarious video screens, including some hidden in openings below the floor, further activate the cacophonous installation, which brings to mind Pipilotti Rist’s Selbstlos im Lavabad (1994), mounted in the lobby at MoMA PS1.
“Ceramics in the Expanded Field” could be seen as part two of the seminal “Dirt on Delight: Impulses That Form Clay”(2009, ICA Philadelphia and the Walker Art Center), an exhibition that included Nicole Cherubini and Jessica Jackson Hutchins alongside 20 other, established artists. At MASS MoCA, Cross’s focus on a smaller group of emerging and mid-career artists, rather than a full-fledged survey, pays off. Allowing each artist space to present dedicated installations of related works, the show creates an opportunity to appreciate their talent in manipulating clay and mixed media while gaining insight into their sources of inspiration.