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Elemental Northern Clay Center minneapolis.

ROB SILBERMAN, A UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA professor of film studies who is best known to the crafts field as a writer, curated a four-person show that simultaneously seemed obvious and unlikely. Each artist has previously made work that engages more than one of the four basic elements: air, water, earth and fire. The obviousness of the concept is that this is an age-old quartet often associated with ceramics. Yet if there has ever been a show on this theme, I would bet that it involved illustration of the elements rather than embodiment, which here is metaphoric or literal.

On the walls Paula Winokur showed some of her noted 'ice' works, including a series of Ice Cores (2006) in which porcelain and stains represent layers in a drilled sample of ice. She labels each core with diminutive ceramic pencil notations on environmental history, such as the fact that evidence of pollution from industry was found as early as 1900, and that the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1990. Above and Below (2010) represents in porcelain an iceberg above and below a frigid Lucite water line. The porcelain varies from tactility reminiscent of some of Rudolf Staffel's Light Gatherers to a smoother monumentality. That piece seems to anticipate Winokur's major work in the show, Calving Glacier IV (2013), a large multi-sectioned evocation of a glacier's face set on a perfectly flat and glossy black-plastic plinth, a hard, reflective surface that suggests endless depth and cold. Winokur's works are the least literal--no real ice involved--but exquisitely suggestive of water in its hardened form--here represented by earth in its hardened form.

Del Harrow's Air/Breath (2013) is a multi-part installation that centres on a vase realised in 11 variations that we are to understand as moving from deflation to inflation. The forms, white and with a faint reticulated texture, all make completely reasonable vases, the first a long-necked shape with an inner-tube volume just above the foot; the other end of the sequence is a voluminous high-shouldered piece. They are all closed at the top (presumably with an opening concealed at the bottom). Accompanying this concrete stop-motion account of a breath is a video schematic of all the vases, in which the blue outlines regularly swell. I cannot imagine anyone watching it without beginning to breathe synchronously. Harrow also offers a large drawing on mylar of all the shapes overlapped, with some additional decorative chevrons around the contours of the base. The ordinary descriptive terminology of ceramic volumes includes such words as inflated, swelling and pneumatic, and this installation makes the allusion acutely kinesthetic. It is only contrary and disappointing that the vessels are cast rather than thrown and that the video and drawing rely on computer graphics. That mechanism allows Harrow to establish the perfect steps of his sequence, but it also means that the forms are plotted and lack exactly that living movement that is their subject.

Linda Swanson's Temperamental Earth (2013) consists of bentonite clay, water, metal and metallic oxides, wood and nylon. The piece features a platform but it is not a sculpture in the object sense. The materials dusting the platform are clotted and displaced by absorption of slow drips of water from seven white nylon bags suspended in a row running the length of the platform (refilled twice a week). The dissolving and eroding capacity of water happens before our eyes, but the implication of the configuration is unclear. Is there any importance to the number of bags, the dimensions of the platform (1 would guess six by 12 feet) or the colours that arise? The answer to all may be 'yes', for Silberman's catalogue essay says that her red, yellow, black and white are associated with the four humours of the body in Hippocratic medicine. The typical viewer is not likely to know that, nor that bentonite is a special clay that absorbs water and expands in volume up to 15 times. The work is interesting enough to hold the viewer's attention with its pure physicality and its ongoing process.

As physically real as Swanson's exemplification of her subject is Susannah Biondo-Gemmell's major work in the exhibition, 1.20.12 (2013). It is an arrangement of papery, irregular porcelain platters on the wall, each backed by an aluminium disk about three inches deep and each including a jutting, tangled filament that periodically goes live to introduce colour and heat into the installation. The electric fire alludes to the process that brought the platters to their final form. Also like Swanson's work, the forms and configurations seem coincidental rather than meaningful. But certainly in the parts of this installation and in the electrical wire, Biondo-Gemmell has given the exhibition its punning name. She also showed Drawings for Prometheus (Small Scale), another wall piece of the same date that consists of a series of wedge shelves holding at eye level an object that might be the base of a cast piece or the opening of a mould. Looking into the soft interior contours also evokes looking into some body aperture, especially the ear. Craning your neck for a glimpse of what is behind each base reveals some indistinguishable lumps but also a rough 'plaster' (actually porcelain) of a Renaissance-type male figure in one case and an angel in another. The smooth interior of the displayed base is surrounded by a gray tufa that is squared off. This piece is not obviously related to the electrical work but ties to the theme in its nominal reference to Prometheus (the mythological bringer of fire) and its use of tufa--from a fiery volcanic source. The interior forms themselves suggest the quality of melting in their mysterious contours.

This exhibition is consistent with the ambitious concepts and scale of the shows that have made NCC's reputation as an exhibition space. But it was a surprise to walk into the expansive 32 by 40 foot gallery and have it feel almost small as it accommodated four large installations. Silberman's show made a powerful and memorable impression.

Janet Koplos, a former senior editor at Art in America magazine and guest editor at American Craft magazine, is the co-author of Makers: A History of American Studio Craft (2010), University of North Carolina Press.
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Author:Koplos, Janet
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Geographic Code:1U4MN
Date:Jun 1, 2014
Words:1040
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