Economists joke wryly about “animal spirits” when stock speculators get too frisky.
With Wall Street bothered by computer glitches, Europeans fretting about a “Grexit” and Chinese officials stewing over stock and housing bubbles, economists — and everyone else — should just chill among the clever animal spirits at the Northern Clay Center.
Intellectually provocative and visually compelling, the “Six McKnight Artists” show is a perfect antidote to the overwrought news of the day. Handsomely installed in the center’s spacious galleries through Aug. 30, it features ceramic sculptures and drawings of domestic animals (cattle, pigs, turkeys), restless children, a life-size zebra and several thousand porcelain butterflies. Plus vases, platters, tumblers, urns and tiles that are glazed, incised and otherwise garnished with vines, flowers, moons, waves and other natural motifs.
With financial support from the Minneapolis-based McKnight Foundation, the artists spent parts of 2013 and 2014 experimenting with new materials or developing fresh ideas. Two fellowships went to midcareer Minnesotans, Kelly Connole and Kip O’Krongly. Four “residency” grants enabled artists from elsewhere — Claudia Alvarez, Sanam Emami, Sarah Heimann and Jae Won Lee — to work for three months each at the Clay Center.
The show is enhanced by exceptionally lucid and informative essays by craft historian Janet Koplos.
This Northfield resident’s installation is the most complex and nuanced, an assemblage of sculptures, platters and commercial objects arranged to inform viewers about agriculture-related environmental and economic issues.
A keen observer of animal expressions and anatomy, O’Krongly has drawn pigs, cattle and fowl onto big red-clay platters where they peer out engagingly, seeming as curious about the viewers as we might be of them. Stopping just short of caricature, her drawings and sculptures testify to her respect and understanding of creatures more typically exploited for food and profit.
The dangers of that callous disregard are evident in the statistics she deftly incorporates. One installation features six beautifully sculpted cow heads above troughs of pill capsules representing the 79 percent of U.S. antibiotics that are sold to the livestock industry. Just imagine where those antibiotics end up after passing through the livestock.
Another, titled “Meat Produced in the USA, 2014,” consists of 32 plates decorated with cows, chickens, pigs and turkeys. Each plate represents 3 billion pounds of meat. While there are only two “turkey” plates, each equals 106 million birds which, if lined up beak-to-tail, would stretch 80,000 miles and would encircle the Earth 3.2 times. Yikes!
Nearby a flock of some 3,000 handmade white porcelain butterflies seems to flutter above a recumbent zebra whose staring eyes and awkward pose suggest death rather than rest. Handmade by Connole, an associate professor of art at Northfield’s Carleton College, the tableau is a haunting moment of visual poetry, evocative of both loss and resurrection.
New York-based Alvarez embodies, in a dozen ceramic figures, the puzzlement and untutored naturalness of children. Each about 3 feet tall and minimally glazed (black, bronze, silver) or naturalistically painted, the sculptures “behave” with childish self-absorption — twisting, stretching, crouching, staring, crying or peering in bewilderment. They are a disturbing bunch, their soft, undeveloped bodies expressing vulnerability through naked innocence.
An Iranian-born artist, Emami grew up in the United States and now teaches art and history in Colorado. She used her Clay Center residency as an occasion to explore color, design and the history of ornamental ceramics as found in the Netherlands and the Middle East. During her residency she updated traditional Dutch flower bowls, garnishing their closed domes and fluted spouts with abstract designs and floral patterns reminiscent of Middle Eastern motifs. She applied similar patterns to tiles and covered jars that harmoniously synthesize colors and designs from various cultures.
Woodsy designs inspired by leaves, vines and bark cover Heimann’s platters, tumblers and 3-feet-tall vases. The New Hampshire artist gouges and carves their surfaces, creating quilted textures reminiscent of rustic Art Nouveau containers and Japanese textiles. Dreamy circles hover like autumnal moons on her vessels glazed in dusky blue or brown, a romantic effect that hints at untold stories.
Jae Won Lee
Elusive and hermetic, Lee’s porcelain installations seem both simple and secretive. They consist mostly of thousands of thin, deckle-edged discs, about the diameter of a quarter, that she has tied, stacked or strung together like beaded necklaces. White or pale blue, they resemble stylized flowers, a notion reinforced by her porcelain tiles decorated with colorful scribbles or encrusted with fragments of porcelain twigs and petals. The Korean-born, Michigan-based artist’s biography speaks of psychological dislocation and loss, while her delicate blooms murmur of long gone springtimes.