Encased in a vast hoop skirt, her puffy sleeves bound with ribbons and her head crowned by a wedge of wig, the ceramic princess clutches her cartoon cat, drops her handkerchief and swoons. Nearly 3 feet tall and wider still, the sculpture is the riveting high point of the Northern Clay Center’s fascinating “Mythology Meets Archetype” show.
An exceptionally diverse sample of contemporary ceramic sculpture, “Mythology” is deeply infused with the medium’s history but is simultaneously modern and even community-spirited. While the princess alludes to the fashion and court customs of 17th-century Spain, cracks in her wedding-cake skirt suggest imperial decline, and butterflies escaping from inside her gown introduce psychosexual symbolism that would set Freud atwitter.
Updated versions of Renaissance-era apothecary jars, sleepwalking tots in ghostly white pajamas, wooden boxes holding mutant creatures and whimsical water monsters fashioned by Twin Cities residents — many of them schoolkids — round out an engaging show in which provocative imagery is well matched by technical proficiency.
The five artists are an international bunch from England, Australia, Virginia, New York and Oregon. Kelly Garrett Rathbone, whose Spanish princess is so fetching, was born in Singapore and lived in Indonesia, Norway and Italy before settling, for the moment, in Oregon. Thai-born Vipoo Srivilasa lives in Melbourne, Australia, and exhibits all over the world when he isn’t artist-in-residence at the Clay Center, where he ran workshops in which kids produced water sprites reflective of Minnesota’s imaginative folk heritage.
None of that globe-trotting would matter if it didn’t undergird their work, but it does, and the show is much enriched by their travels and cultural fusion. Organized by guest curator Heather Nameth Bren, a ceramist herself, “Mythology” is on view through April 27.
Stories in clay
Clay is a lovely medium for storytelling because it’s so malleable and receptive to color and surface texturing.
For her “Sleepover” installation, London-based Christie Brown has created five, ghostly-white ceramic figures, each about 3 feet tall and basically human in form. They stand erect on two limbs that end in paws or mittened pajama feet. Their features are benignly dreamy, one with a goatish head, another sporting a sun-ray crest, a third wearing a little crown. Prepubescent sexuality is suggested by hints of breast or tummy. Innocent and childlike, the petite figures have something of the elusive delicacy of the “wild things” in Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s books with their fusion of ancient mythology, animal ferocity and comforting wisdom.
Decorated with helmeted heads and antique symbols — anchor, bird, snake, scales — Michelle Erickson’s apothecary jars borrow their blue-and-yellow glazes from Renaissance-era European prototypes. Her earthenware cradles and flasks with incised drawings and geometric design tap English or Pennsylvania Dutch traditions. Having demonstrated 17th- and 18th-century pottery techniques for sites ranging from Colonial Williamsburg to the British Museum, Erickson has an antiquarian’s background but brings modern abandon to her images of naked babies and dragons.
For her wall-hung montage of rustic wooden boxes, Bonnie Marie Smith draws on memories of her farm-girl childhood in upstate New York. She’s filled the shallow boxes with her own ceramic curios — a mutant swan-woman, a blindfolded figure, a pair of eyeballs, a Medusa head. With their wings, golden apples, snake hair and other mythological accoutrements, her pocket-size figures are unsettling and sometimes grotesque reminders of dark dreams.
By contrast Srivilasa elicited amusing and often playful water monsters from Twin Cities-area schoolkids, elderly Mille Lacs Ojibwe and students in Clay Center programs. Their creations are cleverly installed in 65 mini-aquariums made from glass vases, bowls and jars. Drawing on local legends and multicultural tales, the kids were especially imaginative in creating and writing about critters like Crinkle “who lives in the St. Croix River and … eats canoes.”
It is Rathbone’s Spanish princess that gives this show its museum-quality éclat. Its title, “Metempsicosis,” refers to the transmigration of a soul into another creature — human or animal — at the moment of death. The butterflies, traditional symbols of the psyche or soul, carry the theme as they flutter out of the girl’s cracked skirt. Her swoon reinforces that narrative as does the startled snarl on the face of her pet. The girl’s elaborate costume, makeup and posture clearly allude to the corseted and deeply restricted lives of 17th-century Spanish royalty as famously painted by Diego Velázquez.
In Rathbone’s deft hands, Velázquez’s cosseted aristocrats gain modern edginess as they are reincarnate in the brittle body of an exploding ceramic doll. Unlike their antique predecessors, she implies, the souls of modern women can’t be restrained by fashion, social custom or even death.