Ceramics hold many opposites in balance. They are breakable and delicate, yet made with mud by being fired in extreme temperatures. Glazed ceramics can survive a trip through the dishwasher (although I wouldn’t recommend testing this, unless they were intended as dining implements), but not a trip from a shelf or wall to the floor (crash). Each time an artist sends glazed ceramics into the kiln, there is an element of suspense about how it will turn out. The physicality and closeness to the elements make ceramic sculpture inherently dramatic.
On view at Kingston Gallery through August 2, Christina Pitsch‘s solo exhibition Fancied layers the inherent drama of ceramics with that of chandeliers that she altered to create floor-to-ceiling mixed media sculptures. In place of light bulbs or candles stand her own porcelain sculptures of deer hooves. She shifted the transition from white porcelain to gold chandelier upward on some hooves by dipping part of the hoof in shiny gold glaze that matches the finish of the chandelier.
The only colors in Fancied are white or gold, a limited palette that allows a focus on the smooth and shiny textures of the metal and the porcelain. The cluster of Forget-Me-Nots, gloriously floral stems, linear or colorful details, betrays a delicacy quite different from a bouquet of real flowers.
With a similar erasure of specifics balanced by a recreation of essential mood and forms, Boston-based Robert Chamberlin creates vases inspired by the French Sèvres style popular in the 19th century. Absent figures, color, and designs, his series, Fill Me Up, removes narrative and adds a dash of absurdity and a graceful bow to the temporal nature of food arts by applying the ornate, scrolling flourishes with a cake decorator.
In Pitsch’s work, fantasy and absurdity play significant roles. She questions the boundaries of why we find certain things beautiful, in the continuum of natural to human-designed. She sculpts an exaggerated idea of luxury. Her floor-to ceiling sculptures are eye-catching for the same reasons that luxury items are, but their excess and repetition, and illogical insertions of porcelain sculptures interrupt our usual intake of admiration.
The chandeliers she selected are not expensive or antique, and that is part of her point. Walk into any Home Depot and see styles of the past represented in the light fixtures. For $99, you can buy an elaborate, faux-cut crystal (plastic) chandelier. What is it about maintaining Baroque or Victorian tastes in our light fixtures, but not in other parts of our home? For one, the many curving lines of a Victorian table are less practical for a family to dine upon each day. Ornate chandeliers may float above our heads, dusted possibly a few times a year, and work as aspirational forms toward imagined polite and cultured past eras. By contrast, the clean lines of modern furniture translate well into busy households.
In addition to questioning why we decorate the way we do, Pitsch’s work also references the tenuous line between inspiration and robbery in the realm of fashion and interior design. Some of her ceramic sculptures of birds perched amid blossoms may appear similar to ones you could buy for much less at either a lucky thrift store find or at Anthropologie. By definition, innovation takes form before there is the chance for it be mass-produced, and thus less expensive. There is an undeniably stronger tension between new and the mass-produced ceramic art than, for example, paintings, which may be recreated with giclée printing, but less convincingly. Do we pay for the idea, expressed with matter, or its semblance that is also an object? Do we support the artist or the corporation?
The chandeliers and smaller sculptures in Fancied operate on a continuum between artifice and nature. Much of art consists of making something, or a reality, that you do not in reality have access to by making a version of it with art. Kurt Pio, of South Africa, paints giant diamonds, among other natural forms including the moon and plants. Pio’s diamond paintings are photo-realistic, but done at such a large scale that the refracted gems seem geometrically exaggerated, like lovely, radiant, abstracted mosaics. Viewers feel more than one level of desire or admiration as they appreciate the two-dimensional art. It resonates on the level of luxury AND achievement at how well he rendered a facet of the physical world.
Also on view right now a short way from Kingston Gallery is All at Once, a twenty-year survey of Arlene Schechet‘s art at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. From 2012 to 2013, Schechet did a residency at the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory in Germany. At the entry to that section of the exhibition, an introductory text explained the significance of porcelain as a medium in the eighteenth century. “Porcelain was thought to have a living, breathing quality that other sculptural materials lacked,” and we may not be able to relate to the “sense of magic, mystery, and modernity” an eighteenth-century person felt. But I think that ceramics, and porcelain in particular, is having a moment in Boston. I encourage you to see Schechet’s exhibition at the ICA, and Pitsch’s exhibition at Kingston. Please comment to suggest where else we may see ceramics continue to make their mark in fine art.
-Shana Dumont Garr