The many sides of ceramicist William Daley
William Daley’s big ceramic vessels, with their divots and stair-steps, their holes and rolls and slots, catalyze looking. They’re full of detail and surprise; the eye roves. Touch them, and the tactile experience is even better. Textures shift. Rims curl up and under. Your fingers poke into tubes and dally down gutters. You don’t even need to look: Just let your hand wander.
The master ceramicist, born in 1925 and still at work, is the subject of two exhibitions up now: “William Daley: 14 for 7,” organized by the Philadelphia Art Alliance and on view at the Society of Arts and Crafts, and “William Daley: Studio Components” in the President’s Gallery at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Daley attended MassArt on the GI Bill. On Sept. 17, he will be presented with the Society of Arts and Crafts’ Medal for Excellence in Craft and give an artist’s talk at the art school’s Tower Auditorium.
“Studio Components” supplements the meaty “14 for 7,” which presents two pieces from each decade since Daley’s 1950 graduation. The earliest works are the smallest. In “Split Form,” made in 1956, Daley is already investigating a pivot between inside and outside. He sliced this vessel down the middle so it gracefully caves in on itself. We can peek through the cut to see the gleam and texture of the innards.
In the 1960s, Daley’s works grew large enough to feel more sculptural than functional. He stopped using glazes, finding color enough in the clays with which he worked. He delighted in curves. “Pod Form” swells beyond its crisscrossing seams like an over-inflated soccer ball, and opens in a small, florid mouth. In “Reptilian Chiclet,” a low-slung, nearly square vessel, we begin to see his distinctive style. Its corners round, its rim folds voluptuously over; at one corner, Daley opens the piece out with a boxed area and a handle.
Typical Daley vessels deploy architectural references, sacred geometry, and a wily delight in sliding inside out and back again. Pentagons soften into circles; diamonds twist into squares. These pieces resemble amphitheaters, Hopi kivas, and baptismal fonts. Many are more than two feet across. To craft such big pieces, Daley rolls clay flat and sets slabs of it over Styrofoam forms to dry, and he builds armatures to support all the different shapes that appear in a single piece. Each is a feat of engineering.
The boat shape characterized by the intersection of two circles, called a vesica, is one of his favorite shapes. In a video interview accompanying the show, Daley calls it “both/and, a mutuality symbol.” The recent “Libation Cistern Vesica” is a gorgeous, speckled, brick-red piece. Its broad rim slopes inward to a little gully; water might empty out holes at either end. Triangular recesses jut and open within, while on the outside, handles and broad feet suggest a pack animal.
“Studio Components” features shelves of his Styrofoam molds, and a wall full of tools — including a meat tenderizer and a bent spoon taped to a long handle — to give shape and texture to his work. There are also three large vessels.
But images of Daley’s drawings are the great draw here (there are a few at the Society of Arts and Crafts, too). He draws endlessly, before, during, and after the clay work. In each sketch, he approaches the vessel from many perspectives. On the page, the objects unfold and spin, urged on by the artist’s restless curiosity. In the drawings and the ceramics alike, Daley’s art comes across as a rigorous, spiritual engagement with the puzzles and messages of his medium and forms.
“Sonance,” an interactive exhibition of sound-making art at the Distillery Gallery, while nowhere near as encompassing as another sound-art exhibit, “List Projects: Serge Tcherepnin” at the MIT List Visual Art Center, still has certain delights.
I especially enjoyed scribbling in my notepad on Vic Rawlings’s “Amplified Table.” The table sits alone in a room with many speakers, and viewers are invited to “play” it with objects such as little metal rods, a scouring pad, and a metal chain. The metal sounds reverberate ominously, but brushier sounds and repeated rhythms could be soothing.
Just outside that space, Derek Hoffend’s “Portal” invites visitors to sit on a large cushion situated on the floor amid a ring of illuminated towers. Weight on the cushion triggers a low pulse, like a steady cello beat with top notes from an alto recorder. There’s a cheesy, 1960s-era “Star Trek” vibe to “Portal,” but once inside, I found it hard to get up and leave.
Jason Sanford has set nine platforms on the floor to step and stomp on, like a game of audio hopscotch; each square wooden panel groans and hums, or chimes and growls, when you strike it. Sanford encourages visitors to pick one up and see how it works: Wires trapped underneath vibrate with the merest touch, and Sanford amplifies them.
All of these, like Tcherepnin’s show, play with the way sounds affect us by inviting us to effect sounds. It’s an aural playpen.
WILLIAM DALEY: 14 for 7
At: Society of Arts
and Crafts, 175 Newbury St., through Oct. 25.
William Daley: Studio Components
At: President’s Gallery, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, 621 Huntington Ave., through Oct. 25. 617-879-7333, www.massart.edu
At: Distillery Gallery, 516 East 2nd St., South Boston, through Sept. 14. www.distillerygallery.com