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Queens Chronicle

Mind before matter in ceramics exhibition

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Posted: Thursday, February 8, 2018 10:30 am | Updated: 12:37 pm, Thu Feb 8, 2018.

Their smooth, sometimes rippling contours are evocative, and their keen edges made all the more daunting by their surprising mass. With the roughness of cleft stone, or the delicate smoothness of porcelain, sculptures are unlike other media in the art world. Whereas other art forms must work to create the mere illusion of heft and physicality, these traits are inherent to sculpture. In ceramic work particularly, there is often no separation between the artist and the work; gestures become form with immediacy. Shaped by hand, these works bear the impression of the mind.

“Molding / Mark-Making: Ceramic Artists and Their Drawings” is an exhibition at Dorsky Gallery Curatorial Programs in Long Island City that examines the process of ceramic work and particularly how it intersects with illustration. A number of artists in the exhibit have included sketches and other concept work that connect with their sculptures on display. Embedded within these abstracts are whispers of the piece to come.

Not all of the pieces are exact analogues to the sculptures, and in some cases they bear only a passing resemblance to the eventual product. Nevertheless, they seem to capture the works’ spirit. The variance in expression can reveal new insights about how artists hold projects in their minds.

The independent curators Margaret Mathews-Berenson and Allison Peller organized the exhibition with a view toward ceramics shows that have been held in major institutions worldwide over the past dozen years — a trend they believe reflects a renewed interest in the art form. But for their own show, they are primarily focused on the strengths of the genre’s process, the ways that process is enmeshed with drawing and illustration before the clay is ever brought out of its container, and the historical context of the pottery and more abstract earthenware on display.

In working with clay, the artists of “Molding / Mark-Making” are literally shaping their artwork to their will, but this doesn’t mean that they had total control over every aspect of their work. As Julia Kunin explains in the curators’ program notes, “With clay, you have to let go, you have to expect failure.” Identically formed pieces might come out differently due to variations in their positions in the kiln, temperature or their glazing. For Annabeth Rosen, this unpredictability is a tool. In “Werr,” Rosen has fired and refired layer after layer of glazed clay, resulting in a dense mass of lobes and striations so naturally composed that it occupies an uncanny space between geode and brain.

For Rosen’s part, the illustration accompanying “Werr,” titled “Bulge,” shares some of the ceramic’s glaze colors and a vague likeness in shape, but the piece was very obviously adapted in real time. Kunin’s two “Untitled Figure” sketches, on the other hand, do bear a strong resemblance to the sculpture work she has provided for the show. “Vasarely’s Sphere” is an amalgamation of geometric patterns (and the female form), shades of which are present in her sketches. While neither is a perfect match, it’s clear to viewers that the artist’s concept was taking shape on the page. For some, like Rosen, sketch work is a byproduct of pragmatism, as she explained in the program notes that she’s able to render concepts much faster and in greater numbers on paper than in clay. Similarly, Peter Gourfain sketches individuals on the subway who inspire the models of faces in his “Black Lives Matter” series of sculptures.

Nicole Cherubini’s “Baby Blue” offers a playful take on the impact of drawing on ceramic work that would seem tongue-in-cheek if it had been made especially for the exhibition. A frame containing a drawing is actually embedded into a massive earthen pot, and the image itself appears to show fragments of various pottery shards. Staged at the very entrance of the exhibit, beside Betty Woodman’s “French Window,” the work sets the show’s tone deftly from the start. In Woodman’s piece, abstract shapes of earthenware are painted with glaze in the form of a vase, further blurring the role of illustration in ceramic technique.

The vast majority of the artists in the show are women, and in such a personalized medium, it’s unsurprising how strongly many of the pieces bear traits of their creators. Nowhere is this more delightfully demonstrated in the exhibition than in Kathy Butterly’s work. Supple and fleshy, bulging and blush-pink, it’s easy to understand that “Like Butter” was created while the artist was trying to become pregnant. Says Butterly in the program notes, “I just followed the forms and followed my intuition, and this is what came out. It is a pure little piece, a little in-your-face, rude and naughty, sweet and funny.”

And while some artists approach the medium introspectively, it offers those who seek it a means for exploration. In the case of the work on display in this exhibit, artists used ceramics to explore historic methods of creating earthenware art, but also in pursuit of new ideas. Peter Shire’s retrofuturistic teapots and cups bear the hallmarks of a 1980s space-age film, but he borrows his color palette from the Milan-based Memphis Group — itself a hallmark of 1980s design. Kunin’s work also references several time periods. On one hand, the geometries of her sculptures and drawings resemble Aztec calendar carvings, and on the other, her iridescent glaze suggests a futuristic alloy. The surprising truth is that her signature glazes are the result of Kunin’s extensive research, which led her to a ceramics factory in Hungary, working with glazes over a century old.

Satisfying her own curiosities for decay and environmental exploitation, Valerie Hegarty pushes the medium to explore current issues in creative ways that make use of what the curators call “clay’s transmutable nature.” Inspired by photographs of watermelons exploding out of their own skin, having been injected with too much growth hormone, Hegarty has sculpted “Bowl of Peaches with Holes.” A rendering of a still life in ceramic form, the piece is a vibrant composition of fruit in a bowl — except riddled with black and brown pockmarks, which spill out of the fruit themselves and have begun eating away at the table, the negative space and even the “picture frame” itself.

“Molding / Mark-Making” — some of whose artists will join the curators for public discussions on Feb. 11 and 25 and March 18 — is a thrilling exhibit for its relatively modest size. Though it balances a number of themes, it never struggles to maintain its focus, and continually engages the visitor with new ideas.

‘Molding / Mark-Making:

Ceramic Artists and Their Drawings’

When: Through Sun., March 25 (artist-curator discussions Feb. 11 and 25 and March 18)

Where: Dorsky Gallery Curatorial Programs,

11-03 45th Ave., LIC

Entry: Free. (718) 937-6317, dorsky.org

Welcome to the discussion.