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Future Fossil, Other Vessel - The Brooklyn Rail, June 2016

by Anthony Hawley

A Whisper of Where it Came From

MARCH 11 – JULY 24, 2016


MARCH 15 – MAY 22, 2016

In 2016 we’re trying to make sense of our monuments. Broken monuments, unfaithful monuments. Bloated monuments, impaired monuments. Monuments erasing centuries of history, strangely self-satisfying Facebook monuments flashing solidarity with victims of some far-off tragedy. On May 10, 2016, Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance (INR) announced the removal and relocation of nearly 500 Soviet monuments. Debates continue to flare across the southern United States over the elimination of Confederate flags and statues like the life-size one of a staunch confederate soldier in the Mason-Dixon border city of Rockville, Maryland.

In coming to terms with our fraught histories and exposing what lies inside the gaps, is it possible to do justice to all the shards without fetishizing ruin? In an era when the monolithic is hardly genuine and we’ve come to love the broken, how do we avoid turning everything into ruin porn? Certainly, the idea of the “unmonumental” has been with us at least as long as the 2007 New Museum show of the same title, more likely since Arte Povera in the 1960s. How, at this moment, do we depict the brokenness of things without exhausting the idea of breakage? What is the right kind of ephemeral for an age in which internet storage has made endless information both fleeting and infinitely accessible?

The work of the artists in two similarly themed ceramics shows, Convene and A Whisper of Where it Came From, at the nearby Nerman and Kemper Museums of Contemporary Art, occupies a very particular (and wonderful) historical space in relation to these questions. Teetering between the prehistoric and the futuristic, much of the work looks almost like the ruins of a world yet to come, or of a world retrieving various forgotten histories and rewriting its present. In Convene, Joel Otterson’s encyclopedic walls of household vessels play with good and bad taste by reinserting certain “lost” vessels into his mobile walls and encampments. Hilary Harnischfeger’s subtle layers of pigment, paper, various stones, and minerals in freestanding and wall-mounted pieces suggest hunks of something from another planet. In A Whisper of Where it Came From, Sterling Ruby’s large-scale ceramic basins full of various debris suggest a petrified cauldron of half-scorched remnants. Aptly titled, Basin Theology/The Poacher (2013) and Basin Theology/ROXI 30 (2014) both contain tusk-like pipes, tool-like objects, detritus resembling stones and elemental ingredients inside their misshapen forms. What results (though subtly in each case) is something of a future fossil—artifacts from the future perfect.

In large part, one of the threads between these two shows seems to be just that—ghostly apparitions working through cultural and art-historical aftermath to fashion new artifacts. In both shows, Huma Bhabha, Jiha Moon, Jeffrey Gibson, and Lisa Sanditz create figures, ruins, and talismans combining a variety of influences from folk traditions, pop emoticons, the rubble of forgotten histories, and dollar-store materials. Drawing upon the language of early Mississippian culture ceramic head “pots,” Gibson styles ghoulish domes that give voice to the complexities of American history by accessing a less prominent ceramics tradition. With their drippy, colorful glazes and pockmarked, holey forms, his jar-heads look like they’re halfway between decomposing and rising from the dead, unsettled ghosts in search of answers. His totemic creations Speak to Me in Your Way So That I Can Hear You (2015) and What Do you Want? When Do You Want It (2016), three- and four-legged pieces with unadorned driftwood legs splayed outward, could be figures just emerged from some primordial ooze. Perfectly poised between our world and another, these totemic figures have arrived to help us confront ourselves and the junk of our past and present.

Of Lisa Sanditz’s eight pieces in Convene,nearly all fuse clay with some man-made found object and a discrete animal element: a weather radio and a crab claw in one; a small bird’s nest and CD foil in another. Sanditz’s adept integration of her particular found materials into her amalgams makes them seem almost like they’ve evolved naturally into their current state: the weather radio embedded in the misshapen vessel and the small crab claw jutting out from the bottom a completely natural byproduct of our shifting ecologies and increased biodiversity. This and several of the smaller pieces could hail from a future time, a portent of our world after environmental cataclysm.

A clear priority for both shows is situating ceramics in an “expanded field,” which speaks to the pressing concerns of monumentality by taking a fresh look at the idea of the vessel. These two thoughtful exhibitions make a strong case for an increasingly necessary intersection between ceramics and photography, painting, and other functional objects as the general site for production of new vessels of all kinds, especially those that potently speak to our dense historical moment.

Numerous examples of this surface throughout the shows: two standouts are Huma Bhabha’s photo-collages resembling masks and faces, and Jiha Moon’s glazed porcelain masks. These works put forth so many questions about the idea of the “vessel” (in relationship to photography, ceramics, ecology, nature, history, text messaging, collage, the primitive, the talismanic, military drones, Hello Kitty, and where and how we find those things) that they feel incredibly relevant to what a vessel might do for us today.

Over six feet tall, Bhabha’s Untitled (2015), ink and collage on color photograph, presents an aerial view of various sandy rock formations, perhaps part of a cavern or arid mountainside and calls to mind some of the other sculptural surfaces in the show. The simple addition of oval-shaped cutouts, forming two eyes and a mouth, gives the work a strange sense of depth as well as hauntedness. In each cutout a different small prickly plant serves as eyes and mouth. A light wash of purplish, brown, and white paints frames the image, occasionally seeping into the rock. The play with spatial depth articulates larger questions about what holds what—is the face buried in the rocks, or vice versa? Is this a historical ruin or just a case of projecting a human form on something eroded by time? Are there spirits and hungry animals buried in the rock?

If Bhabha’s faces make us question the very form our vessels take, Jiha Moon’s mask-like works take up the vessel as talisman, delivering a wry hodgepodge of works that are at once serious and “already over-it” in their occasional swag. OHHHALRight (2015)—made of glazed porcelain, Korean Hanji beads, synthetic hair, and shells among other things—looks a little like a trickster face come both to guide us and set us off course. Porcelain “warts” and hooks pop out of the face. The circular eyes and toothy grin have a mischievous quality about them. China-blue rabbits, dragons, flowers, trees, and roofs appear in slightly askew isometric perspective across the mask. Along with these, she includes the infamous Twitter blue bird icon. Moon twists the already hybrid nature of the mask even further by wedging it halfway between wisdom and snark: the effect is somewhere between the Hopi katsina figures that inspire much of Moon’s work and a disenchanted emoticon.

Fusing ancient vessels with hashtags, OHHHALRight is the most prophetic character we could want at this time: an internet-savvy clay cyborg whose sincerity in craft and fanciful wit is fully capable of steering us towards a new set of coordinates, monuments, futures and figures. Who else could we trust to help steer us through our errors and old utopias, our endless hours of surveillance videos and Snapchats, while not losing site of the centuries of soon-to-be forgotten receptacles and figurines?