Colorado Springs, Colorado
Martha Russo has always stretched the boundaries of what ceramics can do. Seven years ago, for instance, in her retrospective at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, she installed a piece called nomos consisting of 20,000 individual ceramic tendrils—in subtle shades of green, blue, brown, and yellow—which from a distance resembled the fluid, wavy grasses at the bottom of a murky lake or pond. Another standout, klynge, was an agglomeration of small, shell-like forms in glazed porcelain. But Russo’s interests also extend to other, often unusual materials such as pig intestines.
“caesura,” her current exhibition (on view through December 2, 2023), continues that material exploration with the sprawling phase shift (wattling). Inspired by rebuilding efforts in the wake of a devastating 2013 flood in Boulder County, the installation corrals dozens of wattles (tubes of plastic netting stuffed with biodegradable materials like hay and shredded trees) to fill an outdoor terrace with forms suggestive of outsize earthworms freed from their subterranean confines. No longer tied to a practical function of erosion control and landscape stabilization, Russo’s wattles become dynamic, occasionally leaving the ground as they flow through a hallway, spill over from a tall ledge, and nudge their way into the gallery itself—intrusive, inquisitive creatures from another realm that redefine human space.
Allusions to the natural world abound in Russo’s work, which is perhaps not surprising in the case of an artist who once seemed headed for a career in medicine. In the center of the main gallery, lacuna continues the vocabulary introduced in nomos while also celebrating a gigantic fallen redwood that Russo encountered while hiking in northern California; the individual mossy forms, similar to the tendrils in nomos, evoke shapes and colors related to the fungi, lichen, ferns, and bark covering the sections of tree trunk. pensum, a series of clear acrylic “bellies,” 62 inches tall, evokes pregnancy as well as massive protozoa or jellyfish; while chute, with its collection of delicately fragmented ceramic forms sliding into a tangled mass at the lower end of a tilted plank, references what Russo has called the “grumpy tendons and fragments, fraying muscles, worn bones, and crinkling joints” that make up the spine of an aging athlete (she was a champion field-hockey player as an undergraduate).
In incubo, Russo acknowledges the toll of the pandemic. Glass tables support petri-like dishes holding oddly mutated forms, some of which resemble lungs under attack by Covid-19. According to the press handout, “The pandemic gave Russo countless hours in the studio of focused time to play with dipped plant matter and other unconventional materials.” And to ask questions about what the virus looks like, and how it erodes the mind and body. incubo is a frankly messy and gory reconstruction of the ravages of a worldwide plague, but it seems to be Russo’s gift to find beauty in the devastations of nature, whether a flood, a rotting tree, or a deadly virus. “caesura,” a fitting title for this show, is taken from the Greek and Latin term meaning “pause.” That’s what Russo’s work tends to inspire, often stopping you in your tracks to figure out what in the world is happening. The different materials that she employs—from ceramics and acrylic to kitchen sponges and mesh fruit bags, to wattles—at first seem confusing; but on further reflection, they are evidence of a restless talent, always looking for ways to manifest the workings of an extremely fertile unconscious.