by Shraddha NairApr 27, 2022
Clay as the oldest medium of expression has been frequently used by contemporary artists to create artworks. The excavation of the archaeological sites has been witness to rarely found artefacts made out of clay to hint at the cultural past of human life. With the surge of new media arts, conventional medium such as clay was pushed to the margins of contemporary arts. Until recently, the artists have shared their renewed interest in ceramic with their creations only to put it once again under the spotlight to retrace its malleability. The exhibition Ceramics in the Expanded Field at MASS MoCA, Massachusetts, provides a glimpse of the works created with clay by artists from different generations as well as from different disciplinary backgrounds. The exhibition features the work by eight artists including Nicole Cherubini, Armando Guadalupe Cortés, Francesca DiMattio, Jessica Jackson Hutchins, Kahlil Robert Irving, Anina Major, Rose B Simpson, and Linda Sormin. The participating artists use clay as one material and integrate it with ceramic work with photography, video, painting, sculpture, and performance.
The scale of the exhibition at the expansive MASS MoCA's galleries highlights how the artists have experimented with the material to create large-scale installations. Along with this the vessel and the figure synonymous with the ceramic art is on display to remind the viewers of the everyday presence of clay in many forms and shapes in our life. The exhibition underlines the many histories that each of the participating artists immerses into in an effort to initiate the multifocal engagement not amongst themselves, but also the viewers. The curator of the exhibition, Susan Cross, in an interview with STIR, talks about the strengths and individuality of each artist as well as a number of shared concerns and characteristics, “I began with a long list of artists in what is a diverse and exciting field, and ultimately chose the eight in the exhibition. They each integrate their work in clay with other mediums or have a practice that includes multiple disciplines that inform and influence each other and the ceramic work. They also all look to the cultural and socio-political histories (from colonialism to capitalism) embedded in the material (and its segregation) while using it as a vehicle to change the culture.”
She adds, "Ultimately, the threads that connect the artists are conceptual rather than formal, thus it allows for a powerful range of approaches and aesthetics. With group exhibitions, I pointedly give each individual artist ample space so that their works can be understood on their own as well as in dialogue with the other artists. I, of course, shape that larger conversation - or conversations - with my curatorial choices but it is always so exciting to see the unexpected ways in which the installations speak to one another once in the space - especially when there is new work.”
The inherent fragility of the material could pose a challenge to the artists only to mould it such that the pieces carry the traces of delicacy – a reminiscence of the past for the viewer. Taking this sense of fragility forward, Cross observes the works carry an element of spontaneity which is bound to have the rawness of abstract accidentalism. She mentions how the artists who work in ceramic tend to embrace accidents – a necessity when working with breakable objects. “Many of the works in the exhibition are engaged with abstraction explicitly – and abstract painting in particular. The three artists who share the large, three-story tall central gallery (Francesca di Mattio, Nicole Cherubini, and Linda Sormin) are all in dialogue with the painting. Nicole Cherubini’s platform works are in fact named after Fragonard, and her approach to composition and colour - the way she uses glazes, coloured clay, even spray paint – is indeed very painterly. Francesca DiMattio is by training a painter as well as a sculptor, and that comes through in her tile mural, the black marks on the surface functioning like expressive brush strokes – which seem to be echoed in Nicole and Linda's work as well, as if those expressive paint marks were moving across the gallery," says Cross.
Serving both functional and decorative purposes, the ceramic works have largely remained outside the domain of the art aficionado or critics. To defy such views, the artists move outside the conventions of fine art to create a network of conversation around the works created in clay and art forms such as metal art, basket-weaving, quilting, furniture, to name a few. “The show is full of stories,” states Cross and hopes, “The viewers get a sense of that as well as the alternative possibilities that the artists are imagining.” If the works carved out of clay over the years have been devalued in western culture, then the artists have successfully pushed back against the values - and systems of oppression - that played a part.
The exhibition Ceramics in the Expanded Fieldruns at MASS MoCA, Massachusetts, until April 2023.