Painters do not tend to worry about the utility of their work. Pictures are there to be observed and appreciated, and don’t need to have a function beyond that. The same can be said about sculptors in marble and gallery-quality photographers.
Ceramicists, on the other hand, run into a different set of expectations. Perhaps because of the ancient history of their main material — clay — they have never quite shook their reputation for practicality. For millennia, potters have given us cups and plates and vases. No matter how passionately we embrace abstraction in other mediums, we expect the ceramicist’s work to hold water.
That means that nonconformist ceramicists are particularly rebellious. They are not just defying art history. They are also thumbing their nose at the potter’s dutiful role in the slow advance of civilization. Rule-breakers’ glee and showmanship run like twin currents through “Claybash,” a group show that will occupy the second floor of the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton until Sept. 3. It would be possible, I suppose, to drink out of many of the pieces in this mischievous, imaginative exhibition, and a flower or two could fit in some of their apertures. But mostly, these 42 clay-shapers are engaged in ceramics as a form of pure expression — ceramics for art’s sake alone.
They have picked the right place to do it. The Hunterdon Art Museum has long been friendly territory for ceramicists who lean toward abstraction. “Maxwell Mustardo: Dish-Oriented,” a highlight of last summer’s schedule, presented glowing amphorae that looked as if they had the fluffy skin of a Muppet. The pieces in Doug Herren’s 2021 show “Color-Forms/Ceramic Structures” alluded to the form of post-industrial metal contraptions.
Herren is a part of “Claybash,” and he’s up to his usual tricks: “Gray Vase Cluster” is an amalgam of containers, pipes and axles in institutional gray and hazard-sign red, joined together by extrusions of clay that bunch and bead up like solder.
Herron is hardly the only illusionist in the show. Many of the pieces in the Bash are explorations of the incredible imitative power of clay. In “Natural Codes: Constraints and Iterations,” Chad Curtis rests four nests of thin, ramen-dense terra cotta strands on a white platform. They seem to undulate in the light like the feelers of a jellyfish.
Judy Tavill’s bashful curl of clay called “Console” has the rough-but-sleek look of pachyderm skin.
For “Fundamental Unit of Being: Air Freshener,” Debbie Reichard assembles a Jenga tower of pastel-colored blocks. They could be hunks of meringue, or the chalk that children use to scribble on sidewalks
Then there is Donté Hayes, who spins his clay so thin that it achieves the look of thread. Stained black, looped and bunched in rows, it becomes a “Shield,” a three-eared knit cap for a chilly day.
My favorite piece in the show is a double deception. Brian Peters slices rings of earthenware as thin as pieces of cardboard, stacks them into a tall stovepipe, and allows beads of wax-like ceramic to peep out between the discs. The result is beautiful and mesmerizing, calm, controlled and confident. “Dyadic 2.2” (see photo above) wears its computer-assistance proudly: It looks like something designed by software and subsequently 3D-printed, and it couldn’t have been made without the helping hand of high tech. It is, however, clearly ceramic art. It possesses the grace and unity of design and connection to centuries-old tradition characteristic of works in clay. Call it a nice, friendly handshake between the analog and the digital, and further proof that the distance between the potter’s wheel and the spinning hard drive is far less than we sometimes believe it is.
Other negotiations between the synthetic and the natural in “Claybash” are not quite so harmonious.
“Hanging Out,” a striking piece by Elaine Lorenz, stacks brown-black pieces at once suggestive of seed pods and animal musculature in a solid, defiant stack.
In Lisa Naples’ less abstract “Nest,” the body of an anthropomorphic bunny is probed and pierced by small birds. The teacherly, scroll-toting rabbit doesn’t seem overly perturbed by this, but she isn’t thrilled, either.
Lori Katz seems to defy gravity with her “Cascade” of cube-like stoneware shapes embedded in the gallery wall as if they were flung there by an angry giant.
On an adjacent wall, Joan Lurie hangs her two untitled, cream-colored half pipes of porcelain, full of apertures and sudden twists, simultaneously suggestive of things biological and things alien.
Some of the most dynamic pieces in a show that crackles with energy are the works of pure abstraction, including Wendy Liss’ “Surge,” a twist of half-molded and half-rough stoneware that radiates a curious elemental power.
Yet the more conventional contributions to the show don’t suffer by comparison. They all carry the timeless impertinence of clay: the audacity of Stone Age creators who saw the expressive potential in a mound of dirt. Josephine Mette Larsen’s “Red Round Coil Bowl,” big enough for a heron to bathe in, confronts the viewer with so much dignity and integrity that it’s almost shocking to behold.
The “Claybash” is, technically, a competition. It is a juried show with a single arbiter: Jennifer Martin, a ceramic artist from Philadelphia. Ironically, Martin’s own work in clay is less abstract than most of the work on display at the Bash. I don’t agree with her assessments, and I reckon you won’t, either. But the curation doesn’t emphasize the contest. It is entirely possible to view this exhibition without even realizing that there was a prize at stake.
That is the best way, in fact, to access this ambitious survey of hypermodern ceramics. Not as a race to be king of the hill, but as the latest lap in an eternal relay.
The Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton presents Claybash through Sept. 3. Visit hunterdonartmuseum.org.
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