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Bottles: anchored on form, surface.

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ON A GRAY SUNDAY AFTER THE FIRST SNOW OF THE Kansas winter, a gregarious beagle cut through the field, zipping in and out among the members of the quietest of bucket brigades. About 30 people inspected, whispered about and passed clay works slowly emerging from a wood kiln, the culmination of programming structured around the Lawrence Arts Center's humble and beautiful Bottles show.

Viewers tend to become unmoored in themed group shows, the cacophony of ideas battling toward the theme, which is usually evident in title alone. Ceramic artist and Bottles curator Ben Ahlvers avoided this drift by keeping it simple. In addressing the mundane unsung bottle, the artists were allowed to do what they do best: explore the surface and process unique to clay.

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Size, technique, even function diverged throughout the show, creating an unexpectedly unified whole. From wabi sabi openness to slick commercially palatable works, from ceramic rock stars to recent art school graduates, the small gallery explored the theme in anything but a mundane way.

The gamut of possibility within the Bottles show was apparent with the surface variations of the first two works encountered. John Neely's sky-blue, pimpled and squat Bottle juxtaposed with Dan Murphy's ascending, rough-hewn and flat Bottle played with the variations of interpretation the word 'bottle is able to contain. Both works are undeniably bottles; however, Neely's could be functional whereas Murphy's doesn't seem possible. Yet their raised, patterned surfaces united them on the shelf.

Movement and process are laid open in Ingrid Bathe's pinched porcelain Bottle. Retaining the hundreds of fingerprints necessary to reach its height, the tall white vessel ascends to a short narrower neck. It's a delicate-looking work, the seam makes one wonder if it's a bottle resting upon a complementary cup or if the vessel is whole.

Surface is primary in Ron Meyers' Bottle with Hog and Bottle with Bird. Insisting on utilitarian forms, Meyers approaches the clay as an illustrator might, slashing images with the assuredness of line that belies the difficulty of his technique. His bottles are off-kilter but alive; the animals seem frozen for only a split second.

Movement also enlivens Matt Long's works. Whereas Meyers' surfaces are sharp and expressive, Long's Whiskey Jug and Flask flow as if slathered with cream. Whiskey Jug in particular stands out in its thick beauty, its dark grays and whites running over green glaze.

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More static is Jennifer Allen's Bottle for Tulips, which diverges from the expressionist approaches. Petal shapes echo in the lip and, ever so slightly, the foot of the work. It also defines itself as a bottle, rather than a vase, with a slight curl of the lip to ease pouring.

Surface and form are skillfully balanced in Steve Schaeffer's Oil Bottle. The nostalgic, rugged form is a solid base for the texturing created before and during firing. The glaze seems to swim and burst on the surface.

With artists thematically restricted to the bottle, it seems initially that form would serve as a backbone to surface variations. These artists, however, restructured or redefined shape in myriad ways. From Chris Campbell's simple Bottle-shaped in an almost naive, solidly utilitarian way--and Robert Archambeau's elegant Bottle to Boomer Moore's upended florid container and Brad Schweiger's stacked Soda Fired Bottle, form sometimes only flirted with function.

Ted Adler's undulating bottles seem full of breath and, like Campbell's surfaces, able to move in space. Variegations of umber, grays and blues worked in tandem with hot oranges and yellow; the sides were pocked with ash that hung on like shy, delicate barnacles. The bottles reach into the air with long necks. Adler's talent is one to envy, where aesthetic beauty and skillful craft meet in perfect unison.

Some artists used the bottle within a context, as objects to shape space. Hak Kyun Kim's Composition 01 and Composition 02 are reminiscent of a cubist still-life: the bottle is there, identifiable, a member of a juxtaposed whole where removal would throw the whole thing off kilter. Ilena Finocchi's four bottles in Reliquaries III glow from within a box made of salvaged lumber, a poetic ode to memory perhaps. The ghostly images on the bottles--a kid's wagon, a wheel, a large Phillips-head screw--imbue the work with a sense of loss.

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Tension and loss are also implied in Rebecca Harvey's Reflections, five delicate porcelain bottles on a metal tray. One bottle sits outside a subtly designated square; the arrangement immediately lends an anthropomorphic feel outside, isolated, but just barely.

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Surrealism also informs Joe Davis's Feeder. A latex nipple juts from a felt-covered pod that lies on its side. It's a puzzling conglomeration but the references, the flesh nipple especially, are unmistakable. Also in this baby bottle groove is David Hiltner's Corn Bottle Six Pack, six bright green and yellow ears of corn topped by red nipples reminiscent of calf feeders. A statement about high fructose corn syrup in our kids' diets? An ode to cornfed folks of the Midwest?

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Artists can be a rowdy lot. Jeremy JR Kane pokes fun at kitschy Americana with his pitcher covered in decals. Chubby baby arms and legs go akimbo on Dean Adams's Don't Fail Me Now, a small bottle clearly influenced by the careening steps of a baby entering toddlerhood. Adams' Tripod, however, a bottle resting on three penises extended as legs, grabbed much attention from high schoolers during tours of the exhibit.

With all this guffawing, it might have been easy to overlook Ted Neal's subtle Pick Your Poison decanter with matching cups. The delicate porcelain with pale green glaze quiets the faint biohazard shape molded on the front of the bottle. The cups, shaped like miniature 50-gallon barrels, echo the courting disaster sentiment.

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Bottles works were offset perfectly by Ahlvers' creative installation. Old metal signs, neatly bent and screwed to the walls, served as shelves. Some were rusted, others graphic ('Danger! 220 Volts'). The installation gave the show a down-and-dirty feel perfect for such ubiquitous subject matter.

Ahlvers also developed programming and outreach to complement the exhibit. During a well-attended weekend workshop, Ted Adler demonstrated his techniques for his fluid, rolling forms. (Adler also presented a slideshow lecture that was free and open to the public.) In partnership with the University of Kansas ceramics department, Ahlvers taught a four-week wood kiln class in which students also tended the firing and he led an evening gallery talk to discuss the artists and their works.

The Bottles show was a small exhibit big on art, craft, process, form and function--showing that it is the nuance of the mundane that makes life interesting.

Leslie von Holten is a freelance arts writer based in Lawrence, Kansas and a founding member of the Lawrence Percolator art gallery
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Title Annotation:ceramics exhibition in Kansas
Author:von Holten, Leslie
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Geographic Code:1U4KS
Date:Sep 1, 2009
Words:1134
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