Anthony Stellaccio handle for the Axe it's all about the toys.
Handle for the Axe is a body of reflective black Formica and high-fired, glazed and unglazed porcelain sculpture recently on view at District of Columbia Arts Center, an alternative gallery in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood of Washington, DC. On entering the gallery the bold presence of the work is striking: a confident large-scale study in black and white and total mastery of the two materials. The work in the exhibition presents variations on this theme that are at once highly designed, almost engineered forms, coupled with lyrical organic elements. There are sculptural references, both serious and playful, to keyboards and pianos. As Stellaccio and curator Rebecca Cross describe, "Handle for the Axe is a musical phrase and the instrument is a black and white piano-like aesthetic of Formica and porcelain that is, appropriately and affectionately, reminiscent of sheet music. Having a musician for a mother and learning to play and appreciate music from a young age, the references run deep. The titles of his works such as 3/3 and 3/4, which reference musical time signatures, underscore the relationship."
Other sculptural pieces comprise faux-functional dinnerware on Formica 'countertops', a beautifully crafted and wholly irreverent reference to the traditional domestic use of Stellaccio's materials. An aesthetic delight throughout the exhibition are the contrasts that Stellaccio has employed in the making and presenting of the material elements. The interplay with mass and volume (Formica) with clean forms and gestural lines (porcelain) is elegant, crisp and without ambiguity. The artist's intention seems so clear. But is it really? Where does this all come from? Is it the axe, the handle, or the forest that this woodcutter is showing us?
To answer that question and to gain a deeper appreciation of his work, I needed to explore its genesis. Stellacio is a young artist (age 33) with several lifetimes of experiences to inform his repertoire. Originally I knew him as an undergraduate art student in a class I was teaching at Maryland Institute College of Art. Then at Baltimore Clayworks, he distinguished himself as a positively gifted ceramics teacher of young children. Some years later, he encouraged me to support a lecture he was giving (one of a series of a dozen nationwide) on Lithuanian folk culture: ceramics, clothing and music. I knew that he had a passion for the people and culture of Lithuania and travelled there often.
In 2003, I heard that he was also in the residency program in Japan at Shigaraki and, later that year, in Kecskemet, Hungary. Publications, exhibitions and a spate of workshops, symposia and residencies followed. One long-term studio experience took him to the Petersen Tegi Brick Factory in Denmark, where he mastered the traditional methods for hand-making bricks that he uses to create his current work in clay. Experiencing and making has always been balanced by publishing and lecturing and Anthony Stellaccio is prolific at all of it. Relentlessly energetic and passionate, there has been a Fulbright, several research grants, an individual Maryland State Arts Council grant for his sculpture and employment as a Curatorial Research Specialist for the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art. He continues to travel in and out of Lithuania, Maryland and elsewhere.
Then, a few months ago, he produced this sizable, impressive, unique and rather audacious body of work, exhibiting it in Washington, DC. How does this all connect? Where are the relationships?
"Toys", said Stellaccio. "It's all about toys. Hand sized, pocket sized, brick sized toys. If I am in another country, I can usually find toys whose shapes and forms find their way into my work. In Scotland, it is dogs and sheep. In Hungary it may be carts. Sometimes the toys are ceramic, sometimes not, but there is a commonality that informs the work in clay that I do."
Stellaccio produces small sculptural forms in a quick investigation of ideas when he is in another country. The residencies are frequently short term with not enough time to produce large scale pieces that would prove to be a challenge to ship back. He makes the porcelain pieces in the traditional press moulded brick-making techniques learned in Denmark, slicing, bending, playing with the wet clay pieces (toy like) to form the quirky little forms that top many of the Formica bases. Those pieces come back with him to his small studio in Arnold, Maryland where they provide information and inspiration for full brick-sized elements that are paired with their sculptural bases.
By contrast, the black Formica pedestals are big and important, they serve as strong sculptural elements and can stand up to a critical eye on their own, but they present and elevate the toys. They have relationships with them: they are the bass line to the porcelain's treble melody and grace notes. They are complexity and nuance coupled with clear content and context.
Stellaccio's new work continues to 'riff' on the toy notion, adding colour and a crackling (Virginia Scotchie) glaze that is NOT what one might expect on a toy. There is both intricacy and simplicity in these new toys; more geometry, more construction, more ways for them to interact. The scale is brick sized and the bases are starting to take shape or have disappeared altogether. These pieces retain the dramatic contrasts of the work in the Washington, DC exhibition but jump with abandon into pattern, both in the use of kitchy, 1950s Formica on the pedestals and in the patterns that result from application of an intentionally crawly-crackly glaze.
The clay is still gestural and the bases still quietly present the porcelain. But colour, surface and scale in these pieces begin to want all the attention the maker can summon. They whet the viewer's appetite for more and make us ask: Where will this work take Stellaccio and what will this artist create as he continues to play, travel, reflect and see this body of work evolve. What is in store for us as Anthony Stellaccio continues to make and to play with his clay toys?
A Review by Deborah Bedwell
Deborah Bedwell is a potter and founding executive director of Baltimore Clayworks in Baltimore, Maryland US. (www.baltimoreclayworks.org) She served on the board of NCECA from 2003 to 2005 and on the advisory board until 2008. In 2001 and again in 2004, Bedwell was named one of Maryland's Top 100 Women.