Sometimes, you can glimpse an artist’s entire aesthetic in the flash of a single line. That’s true of Zandra Rhodes, the maverick, pink-haired British fashion designer who launched her first solo collection in 1969. It’s there in the lightning-bolt swerve of the first letter in her signature. And it’s there every step of the way through “Zandra Rhodes — A Lifelong Love Affair With Textiles,” now up at the Sandra and David Bakalar Gallery at Massachusetts College of Art and Design: brash, exuberant, commanding.
The show was organized by London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, an institution Rhodes founded. That may raise a few eyebrows about the potential for self-promotion. But this designer long ago proved herself worthy of an exhibition. Trained as a textile designer, she crafts her garments to display the patterned fabrics. The print is no longer a pretty backdrop for the cut; the two support one another.
This makes for bold results — clothing that stands up as a work of art. These are dresses and coats that must be worn with confidence. Otherwise, the wearer will disappear amid the strong lines, nervy patterns, and sometimes brazen colors.
Perhaps to remedy that, Rhodes created “The Dress,” a style that would flatter any shape, with a V neckline, gathered waist, and a full skirt, several versions of which are on view. None could be called demure. One standout has layers of pink-edged crinoline flowing out below a wild, floral-inspired print on ivory silk chiffon with a rosebud-pink sash tied at the waist. It’s gaudy, deliciously feminine, and exotic.
Rhodes finds inspirations for her prints everywhere — in the landscape, in her memories of childhood. Her sketchbooks are a marvel of energetic line and imagination. She has traveled the world, and many of her designs are inspired by what she has seen on her journeys — vernacular fashions and textiles, and also
cityscapes, banana leaves, and whatever else catches her fancy might show up in her prints.
She was among the first designers to appropriate hallmarks of British punk, tearing fabric and adorning garments with safety pins and chains. A wedding dress on view, torn at the knee, its scalloped hem edged with black stitches, might be perfect for the punk bride, although the collision of sensibilities is comical. Another punk dress — a black cocktail number — covers only one breast. Not to be worn on a cold night.
Rhodes’s passionate attention to every detail, and her sheer brio, drive her design sense. They also make this show a sensory delight.
Upstairs in the Stephen D. Paine Gallery, Lisa Tung, Mass Art’s director of Curatorial Programs and Professional Galleries, has curated “Earth & Alchemy,” a survey of contemporary ceramic sculpture, with works by more than 20 artists. There are a hint too many goofy biomorphic and coy narrative works on view, crowd-pleasing but banal forms that are the curse of many ceramics exhibitions. Tung has otherwise pulled together a keen and handsome array.
Right in the center of the gallery sits Bean Finneran’s fun, ridiculously obsessive “Floral Ring,” a giant, fizzy wreath made out of thousands of bright clay rods, which curve when fired. This work of accumulation has a Tara Donovan spin. Finneran uses only the acrylic-capped clay rods, which nest together but have nothing else to adhere them.
Nearby hang Syd Carpenter’s dark earthenware sculptures, inspired by images of African-American farms and gardens in the rural South. “Perry and Henrietta Royal” is abstracted, with a boxy little house in one corner and bulbous trees at the bottom, swelling like giant helium animals. Despite the cartoon shapes, Carpenter’s works feel spare, grounded, and affectionate.
Yo Akiyama manipulates his clay with such intensity — throwing on the wheel, cutting, tearing, applying vinegar or iron filings — that the untitled works come out feeling like scorched earth, mute and primal. Then there’s Takayuki Sakiyama’s sublimely elegant “Listening to Waves,” a stoneware piece, raked and folded in on itself so that it looks like eddying water made of stone.
There’s terrific technique here, but also a 21st-century heightened conceptual approach. Kate MacDowell made her hollow “Clay Pigeons” from terra cotta, then took them outside and shot them like a skeet shooter. A pile of them, some in shards, lies beneath the photographs of that event. They’re clay, yet they recall the remains of something living.
J.J. McCracken’s “Hunger, Philadelphia — Banquet” is also what’s left of a performance. McCracken filled a table with clay casts of fruit and vegetables, and she and other artists covered in clay did a performance around it. Then she used the recycled clay to build a bread oven for a Philadelphia shelter. Here, we have the rough-hewn table covered with crumbling clay food — a call back to Dutch still-life painting, but monochrome and barely edible.
The quietest piece here, Elizabeth Orleans’s “Inner Spaces,” is inset into recessed columns in the wall. One is just a simple gully. Others feature spikes jutting into one another, or overflowing pebbles. It, too, is monochrome, a subtle suggestion of what lies within.
“Earth & Alchemy” features a lot of smart work, and there will be a panel discussion with several artists on Nov. 14.
ZANDRA RHODES — A Lifelong Love Affair With Textiles
At: Sandra and David Bakalar Gallery, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, 621 Huntington Ave., through Dec. 1. 617-879-7333, www.massart.edu
EARTH & ALCHEMY
At: Stephen D. Paine Gallery, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, 621 Huntington Ave., through Dec. 24. 617-879-7333, www.massart.edu