Seven McKnight grant winners show new ceramic sculpture.
Remember figurines? Those mawkish, dust-catching, ceramic confections that cluttered the whatnot shelves of yore?
Well, they’ve thrown off their granny garb and gotten edgy. Recast as “sculpture,” the concoctions of seven winners of McKnight Fellowships are a far cry from the porcelain coquettes and poodles of the past, but they share their predecessors’ finicky concern with surface ornamentation and storytelling.
There’s nothing wrong with those qualities in theory, but in excess they can be dreary and trivializing. Given the idiosyncratic nature of these artists and their work, the show is a very uneven mix of stellar designs, underdeveloped concepts and preciousness.
The elegant sculptures of Mika Negishi Laidlaw are the stars here. An associate professor of art at Minnesota State University, Mankato, Laidlaw is a superb technician who demonstrates her mastery of myriad glazes and textures in pieces both visually arresting and conceptually subtle.
Several resemble tall stacks of small white pillows supporting eccentrically balanced eggs with shells of burnished brass, velvety peach or bronze-green. Their remarkable surfaces imitate corduroy, brocade, linen and other soft, yielding fabrics. While the trompe l’oeil effects are stunning, the sculptures succeed because there’s more to them than technical whizbang. Some sort of armature must hold the “pillows” in place, but even on the closest inspection they look like what they aren’t. Most important, they’re metaphorically suggestive — of Brancusi sculptures, fairy-tale princesses, life’s precarious balance, even motherhood — without belaboring the issues.
Her second series of lotus-inspired sculptures enclosing abstracted fetal forms is more clearly rooted in Asian imagery, and some interlocking bone-shaped pieces seem underdeveloped by comparison. But all reward a detour.
Nearby hang 11 insect-like fetishes produced by Gerard Justin Ferrari, a former associate professor at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis. A master of artifice, he can make clay look like cast iron or carved bone. Dangling from iron hooks, his grimacing critters suggest gargoyles, medieval weapons, African fetishes, spiky crustaceans or science-fiction insects. At once comical and vaguely menacing, they are so literal they seem like 3-D illustrations to an untold tale.
The vessel sculptures of Kevin Snipes are caught in a strange netherworld between function and pure form. Although shaped like teapots or vases, their openings are too small for use and their forms dysfunctional. Eccentric bumps protrude from surfaces covered with stripes, spots and blocky drawings of sexually ambiguous humans. There’s something compelling about these raw, deeply unresolved figures with their gawky arms, lumpen bodies, inward-looking eyes and moody expressions. Trapped on vessels ill-suited to their bulk or temperament, the figures simmer with explosive tensions.
In a more conceptual realm, Rina Hongo produced a strange “flower” consisting of an angled tube protruding from a half-sphere of unglazed porcelain with a cracked and charred top. Her “Cliff” is a stack, about 2 feet tall, of paper-thin layers of porcelain laced with ash, the latter being the remains of newspapers that burned away in the heat of the kiln. While undeveloped, the ideas behind these post-apocalyptic objects are intriguing.
Rebelling against the rustic tea-bowl aesthetic associated with his native Japan, Naoto Nakada used his three-month residency at the Clay Center last summer to produce a conceptual piece about Americans’ automotive obsessions, or lack thereof. It consists of photos of 10 people with their cars, questionnaires about their vehicles and driving habits, and ceramic casts of their license plates. Droll.
Rhode Island ceramicist David Allyn has fallen under the influence of 1950s kitsch — flowers, liquor signs, big cars, polka dots — which he decals onto wall plaques and cylindrical vases along with photo transfers of industrial sites mostly in Minneapolis — Grain Belt brewery, Gold Medal flour mill, etc. Transfers are something of a fad among ceramicists at the moment, a fact which contributes to the sense that this cheesy nostalgia is not only cloying but facile.
And then there are William Cravis’ strange sculptures: an inside-out teapot (handle and spout turned inward), plates with smiley faces, a huge double-walled bowl resembling a bumpy semi-spherical watermelon, and a line of large bagel-like cushions affixed to a wall. Apparently videos of some sort are visible through the holes at the center of the cushions, but to what point?
Mary.Abbe@startribune.com • 612-673-4431