Ceramics in the Expanded Field artists explore the intersection of history, culture and identity through clay | theater arts
The division between the worlds of craft, decoration and fine art has been slowly dissipating for a decade. A new exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art aims to break down what remains of these barriers.
“Ceramics in the Expanded Field,” opening Saturday, October 16, brings together eight artists who integrate ceramics with other art practices including photography, video, painting, and performance.
“This group of artists is as different as it is similar,” said Susan Cross, Mass MoCA’s Senior Curator of Visual Arts, in a recent interview during the installation of the exhibit. “They all work with clay and integrate with other mediums; they look at the history of the materials.”
While each artist incorporates clay into their practice in a different way, she said, each also highlights how clay is embedded in our daily lives, cultures and histories, including colonialism. and patriarchal systems, capitalism and globalization.
“Ceramics has long been undervalued because of its association with the domestic sphere, with women’s labor and indigenous cultures, with many marginalized and non-Western cultures,” Cross said. “But ceramics is no longer confined to a singular category. These artists show a medium in conversations with other materials, other modes of practice.”
For many artists, the exhibition allows them to work on a new scale in practice, but not in concept, she said.
In Linda Sormin’s latest work, ‘Stream’, a site-specific installation created for the exhibition, metal poles and scaffolding climb the two-story gallery space, rising upwards as they intertwine with large ceramic pieces carefully and thoughtfully placed by the artist. Woven into the mesh of metal and ceramic are video monitors, filled with the sights and sounds of water, streams, dripping water – all on a loop.
“I’m really into the wet variability of clay. I’m inspired by how it goes through extreme heat and fire,” said Sormin, a New York-based artist whose work has also been exhibited at Ferrin. Contemporary. “Colors [in ‘Stream’] echo the natural landscapes of Indonesia, where my ancestors are. My ancestors were Batak Toba and North Sumatra, whose villages are built in and around thick, deep foliage.
“I spent some time there in 2014, and I was just really immersed in the humidity and the rich colors. The Batak Toba architecture has red, black, and white, and it’s very carved and decorated. architecture embodies people’s understanding of the lower, middle and upper worlds. Serpents, dragons, mythological creatures and animals live in the lower world. I like to think of it as underground. People inhabit the world middle and upper world is inhabited by deities and things that are not so describable.”
But “Stream” is neither in an architecture nor in an environment, she says.
“It’s a stream of consciousness approach to moving through spaces. When I was building this in the Netherlands, I was crawling on the floor. I spent a lot of time building on my knees and moving my body in space. I don’t usually get the chance to inhabit my sculptures that way. It was this slow process of moving my body through space, under and around the clay. I felt really immersed in this stream of consciousness.
The installation, says Sormin, derives its name not only from this feeling, from a stream of consciousness, but also from a stream of water and a stream of associations.
While creating several ceramic pieces for “Stream,” during a residency in the Netherlands this summer, Sormin said she was aware of the underlying issues of colonialism, colonization that affected her ancestors. .
“There was kind of a shifting point of tension, knowing that the Dutch were the people who colonized Indonesia. So spending time in residences, in Indonesia and the Netherlands, was a way for me to travel to the past of my family’s history and collecting information, not necessarily making sense of the experiences, but at least confronting some of the ugly stories, of the impact of colonization on my family,” she said.
“I think the generational trauma was embodied in the fracture, in the breaking of a lot of pieces [in this work.] But also, I wanted to express the drive and resilience, the will to live and the will to thrive that humans have in the face of violence and loss; that my family was still working to survive, to create, to continue to create. This is where a lot of the color comes in – I wanted that energy, that sense of buoyancy and beauty; this tension and this fracture. I wanted to be honest about that in this job.”
Shards, fractures and fragments appear in nearly all of the works in the exhibit, Cross said.
For Nicole Cherubini, an artist who lives and works in Hudson, NY, shards, fragments and fractures are an essential part of the conversations underlying her work.
“I really thought about the idea of the object, the idea of ownership and when something breaks. I thought about the trajectory of an object and the fact that we always have the feel like if something breaks, we have to put it back together,” Cherubini said in a recent Mass MoCA interview. “But, why can’t it become two objects? Or be put together in a different way to change the conversation; the history of the object? Or to create a new space in which to exist? There is the idea that a fragment no longer has a subject.”
His sturdy yet delicate clay vases straddle the space between decorative and functional. They are, of course, non-functional, large-scale, full of unexpected cracks and holes, covered in shards and fragments of other works.
“I went to undergraduate for clay, for ceramics, to [Rhode Island School of Design]. I’ve always loved the material but was always confused as to how to use it and kind of the idea that it could be anything but had such a specific story. So I started to get into the history of the material and the ideas of function, work and purpose. It’s sort of the complete underlying conversation,” she said, noting that the conversation carries over into her other works of photography and performance art.
And there is also the pervasive conversation about whether or not clay, ceramics belong in collections of handicrafts and decorative works, or should be considered part of the fine arts.
“When I started using clay and started showing it 15 years ago – and that’s what’s so amazing about this show – there was no really no clay to show, so I really thought about putting this material in a one-act position, in a way that no one wanted to see it, that it didn’t really have a place.
“This work,” she says, pointing to her own pieces, “wasn’t really made for the craft world. No one in the fine art world wanted to see it because of these deep conversations about exhibits. It was kind of like my punk rock act of trying to spread it, kind of a political act. It was very deeply based on a feminist conversation, which it still is.