at the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition
Jonathan Goodman, May 31, 2023
Clay sculpture has had to endure a lessening reputation over many years. Ostensibly our earliest material for art, the medium has become an introductory material for classroom art use more than an elegant means of building intuitive, structurally expansive forms. In more recent times, since the beginnings of modernist sculpture in metal, starting with, the lyric sculptures of the Spanish artist Julio Gonzalez, the preference for materials has shifted toward iron, steel, and aluminum.
Harold Wortsman, "Cube, Pyramid and Sphere"
Yet clay, or “mud” as this large show calls it, communicates something old, more lyrical in its earthen substance than the hard rectilinear lines often found in modern steel sculpture. Unfortunately, the use of clay does not have a prominent tradition in American art, especially in recent years. It is often associated with introductory art classes for children–surely not the goal of “Beyond Mud,” whose variety and evident sophistication belie all assumptions that clay is only a teaching material. There is a long tradition of clay art in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East in which sculptors’ efforts convey originality and sensitivity. Outstanding contemporary art can originate with clay, even though we tend to dismiss its homely origins, as the title, “Beyond Mud indicates.
Linked to the humble quality of clay is a larger question: How can sculpture of this sort be salvaged from a continuing loss of interest on the part of the public? It looks like sculpture is in difficult straits, being something not easily installed in a home and, today, often conveying conceptual insights that remain opaque to audiences. Sculpture’s social achievement has stemmed from its association with the memorial of the dead, a function it has fulfilled for millennia. Now, as is evident in “Beyond Mud,” this practical aspect has been pushed to the side, in favor of smaller purposes: the making of vases, plates, and cups: abstract works that do not reject recognizable form (it should be remembered that this practical aspect of clay precedes 20th-century fine art by a long time), and do not support easily accessible meaning; and work that connects with conventional art–the creation of low reliefs portraying a scene akin to a painting, and a realistic bust that references the history of the medium.
“Beyond Mud,” this large national, 72-person exhibition was chosen by Talia Shiroma of the Brooklyn Museum and curated by Sandra Forrest of BWAC. The exhibition takes place in the galleries of the Brooklyn Waterfront Artist Coalition, BWAC, an artist- run coalition. Housed in a rough Civil War-era warehouse, only yards away from New York harbor in Red Hook, Brooklyn, it displays an amalgam of styles and people. There is a broad diversity, ranging from the abstract to the figurative; from the ornamental to the post-modern.
It is difficult to push sculpture into the direction of a flat plane, but there are even a few low reliefs in the show, often demonstrating pictorial expanses that turn the work nearly into painterly exercises. Yet the clay remains clay; it is inherently a volumetric material that occupies space rather than asserting flatness or the illusion of flatness. The problem is to invest the medium with the dignity it is capable of, rather than succumbing to a limited assessment of a material as old as the earth itself.
Because there were so many participants in the show, shown in two fairly narrow aisles set next to each other, the works tend to be small. But that does not mean all feeling of the monumental has been lost. Brooklyn sculptor Harold Wortsman, whose sculpture is primarily made of clay, contributed Cube, Pyramid and Sphere (2017-23), one of the larger pieces in the show. His work takes these primary forms and turns them into objects of startling presence. Each of the three forms has been given a patina of tan, dark brown, and black; and each has an opening into the space inside the sculpture. All three shapes rest on pedestals; the pyramid is raised highest from the ground. The sphere, set in the middle of a tan gravel floor embellished by small, irregularly edged black pieces of slate, confers the ancient formal weight of a shape prominently used from culture’s beginnings. And the cube, set at an angle devised by its plinth-like support, matches the other two objects in the colors of its surface and in its elemental essence. In the middle, toward the back, is a dark four-foot cracked column. It stands like a sentinel watching over the other forms. This installation does not refer to a particular culture, yet viewers sense a deep-seated connection to the basics in art and visual vocabularies–a turning away from the ornate. This is done so well, and with such intensity of emotion, as to amount to an ethical portrayal of form which shows the artist to be both craftsman and visionary.
“Beyond Mud: Ceramics in 2023, ”installation image, Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition (BWAC)
Bonnie Ralston’s FYTY-Richard Serra (2019), occupies an entire wall, consisting of 12 shards of clay that curve slightly and end in sharp points. They are aligned at eye level and have a height of roughly 18 inches. Colored a muffled brown and gray, the pieces assert primitivity and extreme contemporaneity at once. The homage to Serra in the title is of course noticeable and deliberately contemporizes her installation; the group of shapes, which come close to ax heads in appearance, are visually striking either despite or because of their simple elegance and design. This work moves the show squarely into the realm of recent sculpture–even if minimalism has been mostly effaced by politics, installation art and the increase in personal reference. We do not often read clay as a medium belonging to our newest art, but this piece beautifully echoes the simplicities of three-dimensional work at its height a few decades ago. It effectively demonstrates how clay, as old as the world, can be brought up to date.
The artist’s rigorous simplicity in this work not only gives a nod to minimalism. We have commented that, despite its continuing critical support, it is now part of the periphery. It also clarifies the movement’s alignment with architectural form as a group of objects in space, relating not only to the audience but also to the buildings housing the sculptures. More than most any work on exhibit in “Beyond Mud,” the shards take us into a time when a dominant simplicity of form encouraged an experience based on time’s duration: we need to move across Ralston’s sculpture to fully experience it Other works in the show do not function in this way, being more conventionally stable and more easily perceived in a glance. But why shouldn’t abstraction fit as easily into the possibilities of clay as figuration, the substance’s earliest purpose? We are often too prejudiced against clay as a material, seeing it somehow as of lesser value, perhaps in light of the metal and synthetic materials now in use as the vehicle for new sculptural art.
Clare Burson’s semi-brown, semi-gold sphere is a bit larger than the size of a head. Called Nesting (2021), the rounded form, somewhere between an oval and a circle, consists of pieces of clay overlapping each other, as if they were molten forms that had cooled. Silver-white excrescences are attached to the surface; jutting out slightly beyond the abstract skull, they add structural intricacy rather than decorative effect. We may not be fully sure of the title’s relation to the form, but one has the sense of pieces of clay placed together so that they fit, closely but not tightly. Thus, a whole is constructed from fragmented parts. Amy Schnitzer’s Horizon 1 (2021) is a charming cylinder several inches tall, with a cover one can remove by grasping on to the holder rising from the top of the container. Colored a dark gray/green, Horizon 1 reminds of of the time when clay was used to make plates and cups and jars for storing food. Schnitzer does a very nice job of reproducing a historical style. The humility of the object, linked to its simple form and primary material, makes it emotionally expressive beyond its function.
Emily Loughlin’s Entanglement (2022) is an inspired tangle of thick and thin tubes looping around each other, in distinct masses ranging in color from a pale green to a dark blue to yellow. The differing widths of the tubes, along with their various coloring, not only turn the sculpture intricate, given its multiple parts, they also emphasize the anti-formal nature driving the work’s orientation. One might think of Alan Saret, the Seventies process artist, whose work is composed of unformed heaps of wire. This rejection of rational construction acts as a counterweight to more rational arrangements. But the lack of formal cohesion in Entanglement makes it clear that forms not supportive of easy cohesion are every bit as compelling as their more organized counterparts.
Clare Burson, "Nesting"
Amy Schnitzer, "Horizon"
Karin Luzon’s Earth Marks (2022) is a large vase or bowl shape with a curved lip surrounding the opening at the top of the work, and a small, circular rim used to support the form from the bottom. Mottled in its combination of lighter and darker brows, the vase seems to have been unearthed a moment ago. The mix of colors on the surface comes close to camouflage, but the closest connection is the long history of objects made for ceremonial or functional use. Luzon is not exactly celebrating antiquity so much as she is praising the ubiquity of earth, its ability to be transformed into objects of unusual beauty. The form of the vase, classically suggestive, is unusually elegant.
Two figurative works can be described. In Naomi Cohen-Thompson’s flat relief titled Showing Up (2022), five heads; two women and three men are visible, usually in profile. One of the women is on the left end of the piece, while the other is found in the center. The men occur on either side of the woman placed centrally. All the figures have closed eyes; the color of their faces is a soft gray, while their demeanor appears melancholic, distant from the exterior world. Various designs, yellow and gray, complicate the open spaces surrounding the heads. Is this a personal image? Is it historically based? It is hard to say. The second piece, Nina Hellman’s A Young Woman (2022), seems classical in appearance. The portrait bust is supported by a fluted pedestal; her broad, open face is framed by her hair, combed back behind her head and shaping our vision of her features. Ringlets curl at the height of her forehead and down the sides of her face. The dignity of her presence is antiquarian, but the head hardly looks old-fashioned. It is a free portrait of a spirited person, captured particularly well in clay.
Totem Family made by Susan Siegel (2021), consists of three vertical cylinders of differing heights and with patinas of varying browns. These tabletop pieces could easily be regarded as abstractions, yet the artist’s title for them gives the works an implied ritual function. The cylinders are beautifully made, and demonstrate our modern penchant for smooth surfaces and simplified forms with the older, but still evident, praise we reserve for works of art whose dignity ihe s large. The totems may well stem with archaic functions we can sense without fully understanding. Perhaps clay, given the extraordinary duration of its use as art, carries suggestive histories due to its longevity. Sometimes the narrative of a material can carry such force, by virtue of historical association, that it communicates moral purpose. Age in art can confer an ethical undertaking. Clay’s great age as a modeling material breaks down categories, such as figuration and abstraction which are cultural conventions, not natural inheritances. And culture is never morally neutral.
The pieces I have chosen to represent “Beyond Mud” are inevitably a reflection of personal taste and do not support an objective reading of the strengths of this large exhibition. Set as it is in an expansive warehouse space on the edge of the water deep in Brooklyn, the exhibition's physical distance from New York City’s mainstream environs might serve as a metaphor regarding the medium’s ongoing difficulties: fitting into an art world in which ideas are not only tools of creativity, an art but also an art material. Even so, we can assert that materials are materials, and concepts are concepts. The physical qualities of art are the qualities we respond to; if we did not, then image-making would become dry as dust, reducing the experience of art to book knowledge rather than the pleasures of material shaping form.
If it's true that we have become too attracted to abstract consideration in art, then clay’s infinite ability to change and at the same time remain itself would serve as an excellent counterweight to non-objective art, given its recent development. Clay communicates both the sensuousness of something malleable in the hands and, in the vision of someone driven by theory, a possible expression shaped by ideas. This needn’t be entirely abstract if we take the form and its attendant material as the prime qualities of our esthetic experience. The idea, then, will hover, perhaps aimlessly, over our heads as we consider the tactile evidence of the work. In almost everything I saw in “Beyond Mud,” ideas were supports but not dominant in the experience of the art. This suggests that the ideas in the show, even when traditional, were not necessarily conventional. Because the participants came from all over the United States, we cannot make assertions about regional influences or a bent toward a particular style
Instead, as so often happens now, the ways of making and their physical consequences have led to an art that neither forgoes historical awareness nor embraces it for conservative reasons. Even if Ralson’s 12 curved shards pay homage to minimalism, we need to acknowledge that the moment in which that movement thrived is over. So the piece maintains a historical orientation, however new it may feel (it is hard to think of minimalism as historically out of date). Clay belongs to the earth’s long, long existence and so to time as we know it. This show accurately represents the very broad spectrum the medium lives within. As a substance used in art, it is ancient, yet its possibilities can be seen as new. Perhaps we can recognize that pieces of fired clay, originating millennia ago and found in the middens of archeological cultures, are forerunners of an esthetic that will use clay to advance our artistic outlook –to the point where the very old becomes the very new.
“Beyond Mud: Ceramics in 2023,” is presented by the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition (BWAC). Address: 481 Van Brunt St., door #7, Red Hook, Brooklyn (bwac.org), Show runs from Saturday, May 13 through Sunday June 18 (open Saturday and Sunday 1-6)
Image 1: Nina Hellman, "A Young Woman". Image 2: Susan Siegel, "Totem Family". Image 3: Karin Luzon "Earth Marks"