PROVIDENCE — Clay lovers rejoice! In concert with the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts Conference, which comes to Providence March 25-28, ceramics exhibitions are popping up around the region. If you’re a fan of the mucky, glorious chemistry experiment in 3-D that is ceramics, you’ll find exhibitions at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, the New Bedford Art Museum/ArtWorks!, Mobilia Gallery in Cambridge, and Gorse Mill Gallery in Needham.
The center of it all is the National Council’s own biennial, an international juried show staged at Brown University’s David Winton Bell Gallery. This meaty exhibition surveys the leading edges in ceramics today. Jurors Linda Christianson (a potter), Anders Ruhwald (head of ceramics at Cranbrook Academy of Art) and Jo-Ann Conklin (director of the Bell Gallery) have tapped an impressive range of artists, some with technical audacity, others with conceptual rigor and wit.
The best offer both. Ned Day’s staggering “Loopapalooza III,” a tangle of wheel-thrown and altered porcelain and stoneware loops, hangs together with fluid ease, like a pile of giant rubber bands. Each ring has an insouciant droop — a perfect circle made on the wheel, then collapsed. Assembling them into a large spaghetti snaggle must have been a feat of engineering, yet the piece looks utterly relaxed.
Jessika Edgar’s “Seated Woman” has a similar languorous vibe, although it addresses mass rather than springy line. Edgar makes big earthenware works that straddle figuration and abstraction. She partially covers them in flat, bold color, which amps up the abstract end.
Edgar conveys her “woman” — really, only a fragment of a torso — in lush, fatty rolls that fold and spill over one another, and hang over the edge of the copper-coated stool upon which she sits. It’s a big piece of clay to handle, elegantly and lovingly sculpted. Blue and red coats, along with an area of the naked, reddish earthenware, further abstract the human form into something like a 3-D flag: fat and proud.
Every part of Bonnie Seeman’s porcelain and glass “Vase” clearly represents animal and vegetable matter. The body has intestinal coils bracketed by ribs and held up by a pelvis; the guts circle a fibrous, muscular round that opens to a spray of tiny flowers. The neck looks spinal, but Seeman encases the vertebra in leafy greens, and more blossoms sprout from their crevices. The whole thing is monstrous, yet alluring and comical.
Clay is every bit as versatile as paint. It can be aggressive or delicate, gaudy or soft-spoken. Kate Roberts’s “Figure One,” a 5-foot-tall, lacy, enclosed lattice, hangs like a birdcage from the ceiling. She has wired together rectangles of porcelain dressed with pale gray patches of clay, and the result is part wedding gown, part cobweb — an accoutrement perhaps, of the forever spurned bride Miss Havisham in Dickens’s “Great Expectations.”
Aaron Nelson’s high-concept “PIXEL,” features wall-mounted vintage porcelain plates covered with coded decals. If your smartphone reads data matrix code, it will translate the message “Hello World.” The piece ties porcelain — a material freighted with historic and cultural import — to today’s intangible means of communication.
Many of these have a jaw-dropping, “how’d they do that?” quality, but other works in this biennial deserve attention simply because they are exquisite objects. John Utgaard’s earthenware, platter-like “Sink,” rocky around the edges and, at the top, smooth and dipping toward the center, sings with a simmering blue glaze that makes a piquant contrast to the red clay beneath.
“Sink,” like most of the other works here, hits a sweet spot that is more about technique than idea: The artist’s hand caressing the clay into clarity, the kiss of glaze, the keen skills and knowhow of a master ceramist.
Kim’s work hints at springtime
David Namhon Kim’s “Proliferation” installation is still a work in progress at Yellow Peril Gallery. Kim works with living organisms. For this project, he is breeding flightless fruit flies, which mostly live inside a large rectangular fabric sleeve suspended from the ceiling. The insects crawl up the white cloth, and over time leave secretions, making a kind of painting. Using bugs as a delivery system is chancy, but Kim fits into a long line of artists who make work entirely based on chance.
Kim took the fabric from a previous, similar project and fashioned it into “Second Flight,” an ethereal, feathery chain of silk organza that ripples down from the ceiling. Butterflies left stains on the silk, little smudges of red-brown like splattered blood, which don’t play well against the lacy form of the piece — it just looks as if Kim got a nasty cut while he was installing it.
Still, I hold out hope for “Proliferation. The fruit flies hadn’t made their marks when I visited, early in the show, but Kim’s stage setting is austere and inviting: The sheer white fabric, a blank canvas, hangs over a bed of spring-green wheat grass on the floor. A trough of gummy brown fly food runs along the base of the fabric sleeve. There’s a sense of growth, of springtime, about the piece, and we need that just about now.
2015 National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts Biennial
At: David Winton Bell Gallery, List Art Center,
Brown University, 64 College St., Providence,
through March 29.
David Namhon Kim: Husk
At: Yellow Peril Gallery,
60 Valley St., Providence,
through March 20.