Maxwell Mustardo’s amphorae do not approve of you. Their jug handles curve with impatience and rest on the sides of the ceramic jars like the arms of a teacher with hands on hips, reproving a wayward student. Their collared heads are a bit cocked, or pitched forward, as if they’d just delivered a reproach and are awaiting your flimsy reply. When Mustardo allows the jugs to congregate on a single platform, they take on the quality of a jury, or perhaps a gaggle of concerned aunts.
The amphorae are out in force — and brooking no excuses for your behavior — at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton, where “Maxwell Mustardo: Dish-Oriented,” a show of uncanny ceramics, will be on view until Sept. 4. It’s the second time in less than a year that the art space in the historic mill has hosted an exhibition that breathes strange life into clay and glaze. Like Doug Herren, whose imaginative contraptions seemed imported from a world of berserk machinery, Mustardo knows how to invest humble materials with extraordinary personality. The Jersey ceramicist calls his vessels “anthropophorae,” but even if he didn’t, you’d still be tempted to make friends with them. These are jars that have the characteristics of animate beings: statues with Muppet-like exteriors and distinctive attitudes expressed through posture, composition and hue.
They are also — and this is important — genuine containers. An ancient Roman might have looked askance at a Mustardo amphora, but if he needed a place to stash his wine or his olive oil, it still might have come in handy. Mustardo’s vases may look like stalagmites from an ice cavern in a sci-fi flick, but they could accommodate a rose or two. If you were feeling intrepid and weren’t too squeamish about spilling, it would even be possible to drink out of Mustardo’s oblong mugs. The ceramicist subordinates function to form, but most of his pieces are usable, and maybe even salable — perhaps in a secret room, in a Crate & Barrel sub-basement, open only to the weirdest and most broadminded customers.
A shopper like that might have a theoretical streak. She might, like Mustardo himself, have something to say about volume. “Dish-Oriented” presents pottery that both wants and does not want to be filled. Like the bossy anthropophorae, some of them seem to take offense at the implication that ceramics are receptive. That shot glass could take your liquid, sure, but getting it out and into your face might prove a bit of a puzzle. Mustardo’s “toroid” sculptures feel like cheeky interrogations of our assumptions about pottery and tableware in general: they’ve got donut holes and depressions, and they’re technically concave, but their carrying capacity is minimal, and their slick sides invite liquids to drip.
Even the name of the show suggests recalcitrance. These pieces are dish-oriented. They’re not dishes, and not even facsimiles thereof. They’re clay objects that point, or feint, in the direction of table settings, before marching off in directions unexplored. Call them ceramics with attitude.
The textures of Mustardo’s work extend the misdirection. The plastic coating on the surface of his pieces amplifies the peculiar effects that his clay-work generates, and helps the ceramicist weave some remarkable illusions. The skin of the anthropophorae resembles the bunched fur of fairground stuffed animals. These jugs aren’t plush to the touch, but they sure look squeezable. One toroid near the entrance evokes the ready-to-pop quality of a rubber tire inflated past its maximum. A cup has the character of a small stump overtaken by mycelium; a man-sized cylinder, impassive as a saguaro, gets a hot rod paint job. Automotive references are all over this one-room show, which might be expected from a Jersey boy but are uncommon from a ceramicist.
Mustardo seems to be responding to the perceived inertia of pottery, souping up his pieces with metallic dragster colors and aerodynamic contours. Nothing in “Dish-Oriented” is mobile, but everything looks like it could move if it wanted to.
The result is a robust exhibition that is far more active, and maybe even confrontational, than ceramics shows usually are. It is also eye-catching. “Dish-Oriented” certainly isn’t shy: This is a show that demands attention. Mustardo’s confidence is appealing, and his will to entertain is manifest.
Yet the show is also distinguished by ambivalence that’s very nearly an expression of anxiety. From the amphorae to the vases to the pretzel knot-like “mugs” that aren’t exactly mugs, these are vessels that aren’t sure whether they want to be containers or not. It’s clear that Mustardo imagines something more complicated for the things he fires than simple utility. He doesn’t want his pieces to be passive receptacles — they’ll come out and meet you. They’re not just going to sit there and hold your water, pal. They want a word with you. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself talking back.
“Maxwell Mustardo: Dish-Oriented” will be on display at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton through Sept. 4; visit hunterdonartmuseum.org.
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