Nobody questions whether ancient Greek amphoras qualify as art, just as nobody questions the artistic merit of Ming vases or Mayan temples or, nearer in time and closer to home, Dedham pottery or Marblehead pottery.
So why is it that living ceramic artists seldom enjoy a major gallery show or a museum acquisition, or for that matter a review? I think the answer comes down to two (overlapping) forces, sexism and elitism. Baked clay is the stuff of kitchenware, which means it’s associated with women’s work. Beyond that, plates and bowls and cups and saucers are functional, and to the extent that æsthetics remains in the domain of the academy, nothing is quite as contemptible as the pedestrian materials of daily life.
Enter Malcolm Wright, a career potter who hails from Vermont and who’s been showing at the Genovese/Sullivan Gallery for longer than most Boston galleries have had incorporation papers. The appeal of his current show is so unexpectedly broad — he makes not just bowls and plates and vases but sculptures that are even more compelling — that I was moved to look at all sorts of ceramics to get a better grip on what he’s up to.
After checking out sandy, unembellished, tourist-trade (but often appealing) Guatemalan bowls at Mayan Weavers (268 Newbury Street) and bright, glossy, Italian majolica ceramics at Bellezza (129 Newbury), I spotted and felt compelled to visit a giant, 19th-century, glazed terra cotta water jug in the window of Autrefois Antiques at 125 Newbury Street. Standing about three feet tall, the vessel hails from the Provence region of France; there’s another one like it in the crowded, upstairs showroom. The pair reminded me of caryatids — bulbous and stately and sensual. The rough-hewn vessels are a reminder of the inherent beauty of everything that’s truly useful; their artfulness seems all the greater since it’s a by-product, and not a goal, of their creation.
One of the intriguing aspects of Malcolm Wright’s vessels — vases and bowls dominate the show, though cups and plates make cameo appearances — is the way they too seem to have stumbled into beauty. That’s especially true of the unglazed work.
One line of Wright’s objects (and there are several lines, all distinct; it’s as if the artist were a ventriloquist in clay) involves weighty, dark, low-slung bowls and vases that appear to be both meticulously executed and unfinished at the same time. One bowl, thin as a lamp shade, looks as if it were about to fly away: instead of its circumference extending evenly and round in all directions, two sides pull inward like a pair of tucked wings. And the surface of this flightless bowl is as rough and granular as one of those antique water jugs. Wright delivers a rewarding set of contradictions: an item that’s heavy and light, static and uplifting, delicate and unrefined.
In the same unglazed finish (which he perfected while studying in Japan), he’s made variously sized vases that are unexpected in a different manner, since their principal geometric form is the square. Wright’s vases come into being in one of two ways: either they’re done traditionally on a wheel, or they’re extruded — pulled through a mold that renders their shape. Any object thrown on a potter’s wheel will by nature be round. Wright corrects his wheel-born vases by gently flattening their sides — but never fully. The result is a harmonious tension between planed edges that continuously give way to voluptuous curves. (An oblong Han dynasty vase also found at Autrefois Antiques suggests antecedents in the tradition within which he works.)
The extruded vases are another thing entirely. They come closer to being genuinely square (though not one of them actually is). Each has been slightly distended, pushed in from a side, so as to form a dynamic polyhedron. Further, their apertures are neither round nor at their summits. Instead, the openings appear in the middle of their forms — in the same way mouths appear in the middle of the face. But they’re not quite shaped like mouths; they’re shaped like two connecting half-moons, wide contiguous wedges, one rounded upward beside another rounded down. It’s as if somebody had taken a sharp-edged spoon and sliced into the center of the clay. The result is a vase the likes of which you’ve never experienced. It’s edgy in both senses of the word. You come away thinking you might find it gnawing on a flower stem or, left to its own devices, chomping a cigar.
By far the best work in this exhibit, which also includes the tender and bucolic black-and-white photographs of the potter’s son, Shaun Wright, serves no functional purpose whatsoever. Malcolm Wright’s ceramic sculpture enjoys a brooding, meditative melancholia, as if small parts of the earth had risen up to remind us of the pleasure of a body’s taking form — and to remind us, through the earthy medium, of where we’re all eventually headed.
Unlike his vases and bowls and cups, among which you’d expect to see sets of similarly fashioned objects, Wright saves his sets for some of his small-scale tabletop sculpture. One work consists of two interlocking forms, a confection of curves and flattened planes; it looks alternately manufactured and natural. Fitted together, the two units resemble a cushion or a foot rest (about 8x12). Taken apart, they make me think of a geode — not for the revelation of a crystal-studded interior so much as for their harboring of surprising inner contours. In another work, three graduated formations — they look like sails made out of stone — convey a simple lyricism; they’re like an abstract family or scales of some unheard-of instrument.
GENERATIONS OF CERAMIC ARTISTS who have succeeded Malcolm Wright occupy a permanent place on the shelves of such locations as the Society of Arts and Crafts, at 175 Newbury Street. Outstanding among them are Kenneth Standhardt and Leslie Thompson. Standhardt, whose studio is in Eugene, Oregon, incises his perfectly balanced vessels in patterns so exact they appear woven. The surface of a Standhardt vessel looks like the marriage of clay and armadillo hide as the scales grow larger toward the center then narrow and multiply toward the bottom and top. They’re dazzling.
As are the works of California-based Leslie Thompson, who like Standhardt delights in obsessively controlled patterns. But where Standhardt surprises us with the tactile complexity and heft of his forms (from a distance, the designs look painted on), Thompson surprises by actually painting patterns on her vessels that make them look as if they were in motion. Networks of alternating black and white marks — they’re so precise you think they must be computer-generated — form a mosaic-like skin on what are in fact utterly smooth surfaces. And the inventiveness of Thompson’s patterns, which suggest fishnets and chainmail and crystals and stars, mesmerize without ever feeling forced or vertiginous.
Also captivating are the Raku bowls of Adriana Thomas. By affixing small pieces of tape randomly to the outer shell of her bowls before firing them — the tape melts away in the kiln — Thomas has found a way to impart a ghostly presence to her surfaces. Something’s been there, a brushstroke or a feather, but you can’t tell what.