Ceramics with Attitude by Maxwell Mustardo are on display at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton
Maxwell Mustardo’s amphoras don’t approve of you. Their jug handles bend impatiently and rest on the sides of the ceramic pots like the arms of a teacher with hands on hips, reprimanding a misguided student. Their collared heads are tilted a little, or tilted forward, as if they’ve just given a rebuke and are waiting for your fragile response. When Mustardo allows the jugs to come together on a single platform, they take on the quality of a jury, or perhaps a group of concerned aunts.
The amphorae are out in force — and tolerate no excuses for your behavior — at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton, where “Maxwell Mustardo: Dish-Oriented,” an exhibition of bizarre ceramics, will be on view through September 4. This is the second time in less than a year that the historic mill’s art space has hosted an exhibition that breathes strange life into clay and enamel. Like Doug Herren, whose imaginative contraptions seemed imported from a world of mad machines, Mustardo knows how to invest humble materials with extraordinary personality. The Jersey ceramicist calls his vessels ‘anthropophorae’, but even if he didn’t, you’d still be tempted to befriend them. These are pots that have the characteristics of animate beings: statues with Muppet-like exteriors and distinctive attitudes expressed through posture, composition, and hue.
They are also — and this is important — real containers. An ancient Roman might have looked askance at a Mustardo amphora, but if he needed a place to store his wine or olive oil, it might have come in handy. Mustardo’s vases may look like stalagmites from an ice cave in a sci-fi movie, but they could hold a rose or two. If you were feeling fearless and not too afraid of spilling, you could even drink from Mustardo’s oblong mugs. The ceramist’s subordinates work to train, but most of his pieces are usable, and possibly even salable – perhaps in a secret room, in a Crate & Barrel basement, open only to the weirdest and most bizarre customers. the most broad-minded.
A buyer like that might have a moot streak. She might, like Mustardo himself, have something to say about volume. “Dish-Oriented” features pottery that wants and doesn’t want to be filled. Like authoritarian anthropophors, some of them seem to take offense to the implication that ceramics are receptive. This shot glass could take your liquid, sure, but getting it out and in your face could prove a bit of a headache. Mustardo’s “toroid” sculptures look like cheeky interrogations of our assumptions about pottery and tableware in general: they have donut holes and depressions, and they’re technically concave, but their load-bearing capacity is minimal, and their smooth sides invite liquids to drip off. .
Even the name of the show suggests recalcitrance. These parts are flat-oriented. These are not dishes, and not even facsimiles of them. They are clay objects that point, or feign, in the direction of table settings, before heading off in unexplored directions. Call them ceramics with attitude.
The textures of Mustardo’s work extend the wrong direction. The plastic coating on the surface of his pieces amplifies the singular effects generated by his clay work and helps the ceramist to weave remarkable illusions. The skin of anthropophores resembles the curled fur of fairground stuffed animals. These pitchers aren’t fluffy to the touch, but they feel squeezable. A toroid near the entrance evokes the burst-ready quality of a rubber tire inflated beyond its maximum. A cup has the character of a small stump overgrown with mycelium; a human-sized cylinder, impassive as a saguaro, gets a hot rod paint job. Automotive references are ubiquitous in this one-room exhibit, which might be expected of a Jersey lad but is rare from a ceramicist.
Mustardo seems to respond to the perceived inertia of pottery, bulking up his pieces with metallic dragster colors and streamlined contours. Nothing in “Dish-Oriented” is movable, but everything seems to be able to move if it wanted to.
The result is a robust exhibit that is far more active, and perhaps even confrontational, than ceramic exhibits usually are. It’s also catchy. “Dish-Oriented” is certainly not shy: it’s a show that demands attention. Mustardo’s confidence is seductive and his willingness to entertain is evident.
Yet the show is also distinguished by an ambivalence that is almost an expression of anxiety. From amphorae to vases to pretzel knot-shaped “mugs” that aren’t exactly cups, these are vessels that don’t know whether they want to be containers or not. It’s clear that Mustardo imagines something more complicated for the things he pulls than simple utility. He doesn’t want his coins to be passive receptacles – they will come out and meet you. They won’t just sit there and hold you water, mate. They want to talk to you. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself responding.
“Maxwell Mustardo: Dish-Oriented” will be on display at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton until September 4; visit hunterdonartmuseum.org.
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