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‘Unearthing the Sky’ unearths big questions at Providence College Galleries

Cammie Staros’s show gallops through time and examines traditional museum display methods through a critical, contemporary lens

Cammie Staros, "Figlinum aquaticum," 2021. Ceramic, acrylic, wood, laminate, de-chlorinated water, aquatic filtration system, programmed grow light, aquarium soil, lace rock, quartz-veined basalt, aquatic plants (Dwarf Lily, Eusteralis Stellata, Ludwigia Repens).Cammie Staros/Shulamit Nazarian, Los Angeles

PROVIDENCE — There’s a popular meme about men who think about the Roman Empire every day. Classical Greece and Rome were progenitors of Western civilization, and western society has woven dense nets of meaning from the traces those ancient cultures left behind.

Los Angeles artist Cammie Staros pulls apart some of those nets in “Unearthing the Sky,” a meaty show at Providence College Galleries organized by former interim director Kate McNamara. The exhibition spirals through time, linking traditional museum display methods, longstanding ceramic techniques, and critical, inquisitive contemporary twists.

“Figlinum aquaticum” (Latin for “water pot”) sets conjoined terra cotta bowls resembling ancient Greek drinking cups inside aquariums filled with fish, water lilies, and stones — glass containers resembling museum vitrines that hold fragile objects. Staros places her handmade cups inside a living habitat as if to ask, “What is truly priceless here? Relics or imperiled biospheres?”


Cammie Staros, "How Neat the Fold of Time," 2017. Ceramic, brass.Cammie Staros/Shulamit Nazarian, Los Angeles

It’s a question laced with issues from climate change to capitalism and even, in the context of museum display, colonialism and notions of ownership. In November, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak canceled a meeting with his Greek counterpart, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, after Mitsotakis brought up repatriating the Parthenon Sculptures, during a BBC interview. Also known as the Elgin Marbles, the prized antiquities have been in the British Museum’s collection for two centuries.

In many of her works, Staros makes formal rhymes with the human figure. The paired vessels in “Figlinum aquaticum” look like eyes or breasts. “How Neat the Fold of Time,” a large, curvaceous terra cotta vase, swirls with a pattern like the fluted columns of ancient architecture or the whalebones of a corset, folding the proud lines of classical architecture into the confining ones of garments that could squeeze the breath out of women.

Cammie Staros, "My Soliloquy to Your Chorus," 2017. Ceramic, brass, maple, paint.Cammie Staros/Shulamit Nazarian, Los Angeles

Similarly, the artist paints the bulblike “My Soliloquy to Your Chorus” with black slip and bedecks it with brass rings like body piercings. It echoes Nancy Grossman’s Vietnam War-era leather-wrapped head sculptures, many with eyes and mouths sewn shut evoking bondage, violence, and the silent witnessing of atrocities.


Staros makes room for all that content with a stunning formal clarity that concurrently celebrates the anonymous makers who first designed the relics that shaped our civilization.


At Reilly Gallery at the Smith Center for the Arts, Providence College Galleries, 212 Huxley Ave. Providence, through March 2. 401-865-2400, www.pcgalleries.providence.edu

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Instagram @cate.mcquaid.