“of rope and chains her bones are made”
Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica
through July 31
Ceramics is the oldest form of technology we have. After cooking meat, baking clay was the first thing that humans did to chemically alter our environment on purpose… Clay pots go hand in hand with agriculture – our whole evolution is connected to it…There’s something incredibly grounding about an experience that connects you with the past like that.Tallie Maughan
Written by Betty Ann Brown
Ceramics were of crucial importance to the prehistoric world. And, as it happens, analysis of the fingerprints in hand-built vessels indicates that most prehistoric pottery was created by women. But by the time of the Renaissance and continuing into the Modern era, clay art was considered a lowly craft and dismissed as “women’s work.” Textile arts share the same gender-based [gender-biased] history, with weaving, knitting, and sewing relegated to “women’s work.”
Since the 1960s, however, feminist artists have sought to re-value the formerly demeaned media, resurrecting the expressive and sometimes subversive potential of ceramics and textile arts. In doing so, they re-claim their ancient artistic heritage and elevate women’s lowly “crafts” to a full-fledged “high art” context.
“of rope and chain her bones are made” is an exhibition at Craig Krull Gallery, running until July 31. The title is a Sappho-inspired re-working of the line “of his bones are coral made,” from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Krull’s exhibition presents work by nine LA artists who re-imagine the aesthetic potentials of clay and fabric: Lavialle Campbell, Sydney Croskery, Pamela Smith Hudson, Taylor Kibby, Christy Matson, Blue McRight, Brittany Mojo, Claudia Parducci, and Diane Silver.
The exhibition is so expertly curated that, at first glance, one might guess it is all the work of a single practitioner. But continued study reveals intriguing lines of opposition, as well as similarity and connection. There are nine unique visions, nine spectra of inventive production.
Claudia Parducci’s Petrified Line 1 (Vertical) uses cold cast resin and iron fillings to create a tall, curving line that bends into a hook as it approaches the floor. Both her whimsical, poetic shapes and her use of resin (which, historically, has not been considered an appropriate material for artmaking) recall the work of German-born artist Eva Hesse (1936-1970). Hesse once wrote, “I would like the work to be non-work. This means that it would find its way beyond my preconceptions…It is the unknown quantity from which and where I want to go. As a thing, an object, it accedes to its non-logical self. It is something, it is nothing.” I can imagine Parducci saying the same thing about her resin sculptures.
In discussing the work of artists like Hesse, feminist art critic and curator Lucy Lippard (US, born 1937) coined the term “eccentric abstractions.” She used the term to describe handmade objects that exist outside cultural preconceptions and resist rational containment. Lippard noted that “eccentric” artworks often “foreground materiality over image,” which can certainly be said of the pieces in “of rope and chain…”
Among the several diverse contributions by Lavialle Campbell is NB Series (With Peas), an “eccentric” ceramic piece presenting piles of black-eyes peas atop a small circular plate. For millennia, ceramics were functional, linked to food storage, production, and service. Campbell nods to that history, choosing a legume originally from African that became, in the American South, a ritual food believed to bring prosperity in the New Year. Campbell’s piece has multiple intriguing associations beyond the culinary. The peas emerge from the plate as animated, octopus-like protrusions that seem to writhe and wiggle. Are they remembering their long history as food for farm animals and the very poor of the Southern United States? Are they reaching forth to the descendants of slaves? Or are they twerking to Let’s Get It Started by the popular African American group, the Black Eyed Peas? Campbell’s wry references to history, race, and class set up a compelling framework for the other exhibition artists.
Sydney Croskery’s Light and Land (Abstraction 030) is an oil-on-linen painting. The dark, mysterious surface is both nocturnal and apocalyptic, a smoky landscape marked by molten black mountains and melting gray mesas. Croskery’s work reminds us that easel paintings (as opposed to wall paintings like frescoes) are done on fabric, whether canvas (a thick cotton) or, in this case, linen. The eventually debased textile arts were, ironically, the physical foundations for Western Culture’s “high art” paintings. (The original canvas fabric, invented in India circa 1500 BC, was composed of woven hemp. The word “canvas” comes from the Latin “cannabis.”)
Pamela Smith Hudson’s 1619 1916 deploys mixed media–including collage and encaustic–on canvas. She builds corroded surfaces that resemble distressed plaster walls or the scraped skin of a manuscript palimpsest…or possibly the decaying shroud of an ancient mummy. Her surfaces remind us we are bound in fabric from newborn swaddling to death shrouds. Her textures recall the materials-based practices of artists like the Spaniard Antoni Tapies (1923-2012) or the German Wols (1913-1951), both of whom were considered members of the Tachisme movement in Europe.
Rather than painting on canvas (or any other textile), Christy Matson uses the fabric surface as the platform for her sewn and woven works. Her Fourwing Primrose Variation is a large composition on paper and linen. The repeated image of a four-petal flower is stitched (not printed) onto the surface, like the relief elements of a Jacquard textile. Marching in geometric precision across the rectilinear grid, Matson’s flowers have heraldic presence. They remind us that, for centuries, the poor of Europe could wear only plain, unadorned fabric. Patterned and dyed fabrics were for the wealthy classes to wear. Woven tapestries adorned their walls.
Taylor Kibby’s Time Is What Happens When Nothing Else Does is a ceramic sculpture that resembles a bent pile of black chain. It could be a uniform of chain mail abandoned after its knightly owner died. In Europe, from 300 BC to at least 1600 AD, small metal rings were linked together to form mesh-like armor that defended against piercing arrows and slicing swords. In essence, chain mail was a protective “fabric” for warfare. Of course, metal chains were also used to punish and imprison both slaves and criminals. And they were employed in all manner of construction projects. Kibby’s stoneware chains point to a wide range of associations. Their dense elegance attracts the viewer and challenges her to create meaning from the dark mute shapes.
Britany Mojo’s Marina Marinara arranges ceramic and rusted steel chains on a low brick platform. (Technically, bricks are a form of ceramics, too.) The ceramic chains are a chalky white, so they have a radically different presence than Kibby’s dark ones. In contrast to Kibby’s martial allusions, Mojo’s chains seem sepulchral, like bones scattered atop a coffin or the eerie remains of a long-abandoned body. Or are they the lost jewels of a sea queen, perhaps the Greek Salacia or the Benin Ezili? Or Varuna, the Hindu god of the sea, who is often shown with a necklace of white coral beads? Because Mojo’s sculpture is both abstract and powerfully poetic, the viewer is challenged to call forth all kinds of associations and sift through them, in order to find meaning for herself.
The third artist who uses chains is Diane Silver. Her Rapture is composed of an unglazed ceramic sphere suspended in a cradle of four chains that hang from a thick metal hook. The surface of the white sphere is covered with thin, tentacle-like protrusions that resemble sea anemones or early plant sprouts. Or perhaps they are boney fingers clawing their way into existence. Silver’s sculpture has a raw, almost “primitive” quality that makes it both tactile and mysterious.
In 1935, German critic Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) wrote his most famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In it, Benjamin argued that the work of visual art has a presence–he called it an “aura”–that reaches back through time to art’s early participation in ritual. Many of the artworks in Krull’s exhibition–and most especially works like Silver’s Rapture–have a profound physical presence that connects them with their ancient ceremonial history and provides what Tallie Maughen calls the “incredibly grounding” experience.
Blue McRight’s Sea Stack (Red Spine) is constructed of salvaged metal bait baskets and crocheted nylon thread. It has a superficial resemblance to pieces by Ruth Asawa (1926-2013), but this resemblance is countered by the spiky red “spine” that vibrates and ripples down the middle of the sculpture. Because so much of the exhibition is limited to earth tones–black, brown, gray, cream–McRight’s use of the bright crimson underscores the power of pigment. Thinking about the ritual allusions to other works in this remarkable exhibition, the red might suggest blood-based ceremonies to an intrigued viewer. Benjamin would feel the aura.
I began by mentioning the long history of ceramics and textiles, with reference to what Tallie Maughan calls the “incredibly grounding” experience of artworks with such deep roots in our cultural memories. Walking through “of rope and chain her bones are made” provokes such a grounding experience. Resisting easy rational descriptions, the auras of these “eccentric” artworks call forth a primal, almost ritual response. Yes, they are often beautiful and technically fascinating. And beyond that, they speak to our deepest interior selves.
Craig Krull Gallery
2525 Michigan Ave # B3, Santa Monica, 90404