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Excess and Access: Contemporary Ceramics at Towson University 

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Ex-tend, Ex-cess: Metamorphosis in Clay at Towson University Center for the Arts Gallery

Ex-tend, Ex-cess: Metamorphosis in Clay is a compelling celebration of the versatility of ceramics. The sculptures, installations, and video works vary in scale, content, and textures, but an overall unifying theme of action, transformation, and impression is palpable throughout. The genre of ceramics is pushed beyond its expected functional uses into conceptually driven, often abstracted pieces, each well-crafted, showcasing the technique and talent of the diverse artists.

The artist’s full body is often necessary to work clay, and this impression and process are viscerally felt in Brie Ruais’ “Mapping the Memory of Last Summer’s Garden with Five Potted Plants in the Studio” (February 2019). The large wall relief, about 6 by 8 feet, is deeply textured and acts as an archive of the artist dragging, pushing, and spreading out clay. This act of recording showcases a direct connection to the landscape, which often acts as a witness to human development and suffering.

A photograph of a larger performance within the landscape, called “Photograph of Uncontrollable Drifting Inward and Outward Together,” captures an imprint of the artist’s body. The soft, clay-like soil is also pushed and shaped around the outline of a figure reminiscent of Ana Mendieta’s earthworks.

 

Installation view: Brie Ruais, Zemer Peled, and Matt Wedel (L to R). Image Courtesy of the gallery.
As I look at it, I yearn for the smell of wet grass and freshly dug up earth, and I’m transported to a Minnesota meadow where I briefly did landscape work in 2019.
Fanni Somogyi

Tactility and mark-making are also notable in Ebitenyefa Baralaye’s “Impressions,” five tall rectangular slabs with imprints of the artist’s fingerprints and hand gestures, some fashioned into patterns, some with an abstract array of marks. The neutral light-beige color of the clay is visible as it was left unglazed, which makes the slabs resemble artifacts—and in a sense they are, as indices of the artist’s actions within the medium. Seeing ceramic work always makes me miss the wet texture and malleability of clay. Many of the works, including Ruais’ and Baralaye’s, function like action paintings pushing ceramics to abstract representations.

Across the room from Baralaye’s work, Rotem Reshef’s “Terra Incognita” is a massive installation of thin ceramic slabs and canvas presenting segments of an unexplored landscape. A tall canvas slopes from the ceiling to the floor, where irregular bisected clay slabs with dimensional imprints of plants take over. From afar it appears like an aerial photograph of marshland with indigo blues and warm greens, but on closer inspection the work is filled with impressions: of a pair of jeans, a sweater, and many plants. As I look at it, I yearn for the smell of wet grass and freshly dug up earth, and I’m transported to a Minnesota meadow where I briefly did landscape work in 2019. I’m drawn to the way this sculpture holds memory for both the artist and the viewer.

While clay itself is a material that embodies metamorphosis, formally, the caterpillar’s cocoon is a ubiquitous symbol of change. Martha Rieger’s “Cocoons” is an installation of large hollow ellipse clay vessels basketed in tied rope. The sculpture has neutral tones and an unglazed rough surface. I imagine dragging my fingertips across it and even crawling into them. The distinctly manmade cocoons are a palpable reference to metamorphosis as a place of growth.

Roxanne Jackson’s busts, on the other hand, are hybrid creatures changed and changing. “Skull Polishing” represents a beast mid-transformation. Its form and textures are both alluring and gory as the viewer witnesses the splitting open of this creature, which may be a goat, a boar, or a wolf. Fangs emerge from the center and hooves jut toward the sky. Is it becoming two, like a cell multiplying, or is it a demon mid-metamorphosis? The viewer witnesses a mythological eruption, and the work feels tumultuous with its imagery, textures, and glaze patterns.

 

Rotem Reshef (L) and Anthony Sonnenberg (R). Image courtesy of the gallery.
Martha Rieger, "Cocoons," 2021, Ceramic and jute rope. Image courtesy of the gallery.
Shiyuan Xu (L) and Gabriela Vainsencher’(R). Image courtesy of the gallery.

Animal symbolism is also present in Gabriela Vainsencher’s “Mom,” a centipede-like form with many multi-tasking hands and a single female face emerging from the conglomeration. The work is a 2D relief, spanning 5 by 8 feet, in black and white. The figure appears to juggle many tasks: cooking, holding grocery bags, brushing a child’s hair, holding a toy and baby bottle, and listening. Its appendages twist over and into another in a maze-like manner as it passes through its daily routines. Actions and bodily movements here are captured in a more literal sense, and it appears to meditate on a mother’s many endless duties.

As I pass through the space and walk around Shiyuan Xu’s “Vena #10,” I’m struck by some similarity in the structure of this work and the previous one by Vainsencher. Even though Xu’s work is abstract, a curvilinear structure is present in both, as the latter’s folds, builds, and curls around itself. The texture in Xu’s porcelain paper clay work is breathtaking, almost crystal-like with its light blue and white glaze.

The artist’s gestures, movements, and bodies are deeply tangible in their work. I’m drawn to the transformative aspect of clay and its ability to capture an artist’s unique mark. There seems to be a level of spirituality in the work as an artist becomes embedded in and connected with the material in a very profound manner. The objects in this show push the boundaries of clay into abstraction, while holding onto its direct connection to the land.

The show was co-curated by Sagi Refael and J. Susan Isaacs, and is on view in Towson University’s Center for Arts until December 10.

Artists included in the exhibition: Ebitenyefa Baralaye (Detroit); Cassils (LA and NYC); Roxanne Jackson (Brooklyn, NYC); Sara Parent-Ramos (Maryland); Zemer Peled (Maryland); Rotem Reshef (New York); Martha Rieger (New York); Brie Ruais (New York); Anthony Sonnenberg (Arkansas); Gabriela Vainsencher (New Jersey); Michael Ware (Wisconsin); Matt Wedel (Ohio); and Shiyuan Xu (Chicago). 

 

*****

Installation view, kelli rae adams' "fortune:folly". Image courtesy of the gallery.

fortune:folly / kelli rae adams at the Holtzman MFA Gallery

fortune:folly is a powerful and captivating show in which kelli rae adams explores and criticizes current financial systems through symbols of luck and fortune: dice, wishbones, and fortune cookies. The use of ceramics to explore financial systems is at first unexpected, but their brisk and delicate nature lend themselves to the show’s interactive elements. adams has a keen eye and sharp sense of design that makes this exhibition effective. The ceramics are left unglazed in their light gray tone, enhancing a focus on the messages and the objects themselves.

The show has multiple interactive elements, which initially feel jarring because I’m asked to break an object: a ceramic fortune cookie. Following the artist’s instructions, I grab one cookie from a pile on a black mat by the wall and enter a maze that is constructed from domino-like objects.

These rectangular blocks, each about 3 by 8 inches long, have 18 circular imprints divided by a deep line in the middle, while others have the impression of the three wise monkeys, a Japanese pictorial maxim—see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil—which is a symbol for individuals lacking morality by looking the other way when witnessing corrupt and horrible deeds. This imagery could reference the lack of morality of corporations, hedge funds, and various governments’ willful ignorance of unfair workers’ compensation.

At the center of the maze, I break the cookie above a large bowl already holding other ceramic remnants. Expecting something lighthearted, I am shocked to receive a fortune with a dire economic fact: “The top 25 hedge fund managers in the U.S. make an average of $850 million a year.” I hang this fortune on the twine line, which already has some other leaflets. I read them one by one and encounter another, equally disturbing one: “As of 2022, 13 years have passed since we raised the minimum wage to $7.25/hour—the longest period without an increase in the history of the minimum wage.”

Making just federal minimum wage and working full-time for 40 hours a week would leave one with $15,080, which is nearly impossible to live on, and compared to a hedge fund manager’s salary is unacceptable. The pandemic has shown that about half of essential workers, who kept this country running, receive the lowest paid wages.

 

Another room contains an installation of dollar bills, with gouache, watercolor, and graphite layered overtop, equivalent to adams’ monthly student loan payments that she paid every month after graduating college in 1990 while living and working in Japan. The work is titled “Beg, Borrow, Steal,” and the inscription “We will not borrow against our future,” a mantra for a more sustainable future, is written over and over and over again on the surface.

The exhibition is succinct, well curated, and well-crafted with a potent message about dystopian systems that exploit the everyday worker and benefit the top 1%. The installation feels timely with growing inflation, stagnant wages, and rampant exploitation of workers. However, since President Biden partially canceled student loans for millions of Americans, there is hope that this system can be amended and a brighter sustainable future is possible.

fortune:folly is on view until October 8 in the MFA Holtzman Gallery at the Center for the Arts at Towson University. The artist talk with kelli rae adams will be held on October 6th. 

 

 

Photograph by the author.
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