The 13 ceramic figures in Cynthia Lahti’s “Little Storms” (on view through January 13, 2024)—many of them missing a head or limb—strike various poses on their white plinths, each animated female form elevated to meet the viewer’s eye. I was lucky to meet Lahti the day before her opening, otherwise I might not have noticed that she chooses her images from pre-1975 print publications. Possibly her early visual experiences (she was born in 1963) contributed to her decision to use images more than 50 years old. Then there is the fact that the ’70s offered women new role models and choices. (Lahti rarely portrays men.) The boxy body of Fleur Vesti (2018) is clothed in baggy attire, with pants drooping in the back; I had identified this as contemporary male attire until the artist’s comment made me rethink that assumption. The title hints that the round blobs on the figure’s vest may be flowers, and her one pink pant leg suggests a literal paint spill or a metaphorical mental or physical outpouring.
The long-haired young woman holding a phone in White Phone (2023) fits the perky-girl image typical of an old Bell Telephone ad. Barely glazed, she retains the pale hue of the clay. In Top (2023), a dark, slim figure with her head bent over to light a cigarette seems to be lifted from a noir film. Lahti has taken liberties with this and most of the other figures, somehow conveying an immediacy and tactility that belies the original source image.
Red Girl (2023) stands out for its predominantly red hues, from the hair swept into a ponytail to a face framed by two hands, to the buttoned cuffs of the figure’s jacket sleeves. Lahti wiped away some of the red glaze so that a pale blue underglaze shows through on the jacket buttons and on parts of figure’s back. One could go on and on about Red Girl’s quizzical expression, the way her ponytail hangs over her right shoulder, the holes where her eyes should be, and what the dent on one nostril might symbolize.
Famous Blue Raincoat (2023) fascinates me. The figure leans forward, crouching on the plinth with her forward leg cut off a few inches below the knee. She wears a dark-hued, double-breasted raincoat, its high collar standing up. As the blues and blacks in her coat, neck, and hair create movement and a shifting glow, her face morphs—half-pretty, half-deformed, almost making her beauty and the beast.
Lahti uses a range of clays, from dark red to porcelain, and she also varies her sculpting, glazing, and firing methods (which include raku and salt firing). Her approach to building heads and figures seem to reference a wide swath of art history. For example, Satin (2023), which portrays a buxom seated woman wearing a long dress, her hands in her lap and one foot dangling, resembles a Meissen porcelain. Yet many oddities of stand out: for example, her left arm is over long, and her breasts look like the fakes that Roman sculptors added to male models. Any ideals of beauty, including the figure’s facial features, are skewed and undermined.
Lahti, who received a BA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1985, where she studied with Arlene Shechet, has been described as an artist’s artist. “Little Storms,” the Portland, Oregon-based artist’s debut New York show, amply proves why she has earned that distinction while also demonstrating that her idiosyncratic, technically bold and experimental work—“perfect in its imperfections,” as the press release puts it—deserves wider recognition. It is no surprise that her drawings and sculptures were chosen to star (along with Michelle Williams) in Kelly Reichardt’s 2023 film Showing Up.