They’re Fired!

Mind this title; we mean they are all fired, indeed. And yet, the artists are just fine. Unlike most White house staffers, no one is being Fired. What we are talking about here are the artworks that patiently sat inside a kiln for hours. In that overheated waiting room, fire does its tricks to crystallize some rough clay into jaw-dropping creations. “Haute cuisine,” we might say, for this fire cooks deliciously.

These nine artists chose ceramics as their medium. These nine artists are pushing the boundaries of this millenary ceramic practice through experimentation, and scientific research; therefore, this clarification becomes worthwhile.

in the show Zemer Peled’s pieces are inspired by patterns and repetitions found in nature. Untitled 1 (2017), for instance, is composed of a myriad of similar porcelain shards, like the spikes of a sea urchin. Prior to the final stage where she assembles them into a ceramic base, they are fired and sometimes fragmented into smaller pieces. Some others are left longer and start to tangle, like vines. This work is part of the artist’s recent move from recognizable shapes, like Peled’s flowers that are dotted with pigments, into more abstract, monochromatic forms that appear to have their own identity. Nuala O’Donovan is interested in the merge of art and science. As fractals, her sculptures are formed by units of similar patterns that expand from a nucleus. Pinecone, Heart (2017) is a highly-detailed, unglazed porcelain that resembles a coral or a cactus. It is hollow on the inside with thin, textured walls that result from a coiling technique. For both artists, irregularity and imperfection are key to the hand-made shapes which are developed with time and emulate the slow growth of nature.

Hues that go from pinks to oranges to greens are Boonie Seeman’s signature. Her pieces follow traditional techniques and forms that are attributed to utilitarian ceramics; yet her representations of an exuberant nature, that can become grotesque at times, makes her vessels and trays stand out. “My work blends the macabre with the beautiful, which acts as a metaphor for the fragility and resiliency of life,” says the artist[1]. In her Ewer and Tray (2013,) long and narrow handle, neck and spout emerge from the perfect sphere of the ewer’s body. In it, an inner layer in different shades of pink resembles vegetal fibers or human body muscles. Four vertical green leaves embrace the work and merge with the pinks above, while their stems turn into legs below. The ewer sits on an undulating plate of similar motifs. Thin vines, small flowers and bugs serve as adornments.

Gretchen Ewert and Peter Olson’s vessels are reminiscent of ancient pottery. Ewert explores the aesthetics of religious objects. She is inspired by her travels and studies of non-Western art. Stiff figures –often native fauna from places like Africa and Australia, or fantastical hybrids of human and animal parts– are embedded into basic containers of smooth and shiny surfaces. Aged bronze and golden hues catch the light and contrast with the earthy colors and the textures of the creatures. Olson, who is also a professional photographer, applies photographic transfers. His wheel-thrown porcelain urns with their slick finish, resemble iconic architecture. For the Egyptian Series (2017) he shoots ancient works from the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Images are repeated –and sometimes flipped horizontally creating patterns and stories as they interact with each other. Regarding the process, the artist declares: “The images are applied after the glaze fire with decals from a laser printer. […] When the piece with the decals is fired at 1800 degrees the decal is burned away leaving only the Iron Oxide in the glaze.”[2] This explains why the color of the images is so consistent across his work.

Patti Warashina’s low fire clay jar, Cat Box 17 B (2017), on the other hand, connects with a popular tradition. It resembles the Maneki Neko (beckoning cat) –a figurine of Japanese origin –like her ancestors– that is spread around the world and believed to bring good luck to homes and businesses. Warashina’s cat holds a red Feng Shui ball in one of its paws –another common element. The artist adds a dose of humor and sarcasm to the figure when the facial features –especially its eyes and teeth– are morphed into human ones and its smile, with big red lips, is closer to that of a joker, instead. Black, red and white shapes are applied on the surface of the work using different techniques. These do not define the volumes but, as the artist describes them, are “floating” on top of the rounded body of prolonged, narrow legs and tail, adding a second layer of content.

Underdog (2017), by Bethany Krull, proposes another kind of metamorphosis between species. A porcelain pig, standing on two legs, is about to jump a wooden racetrack barrier wearing a race number on a piece of fabric. It resembles a dog in a dog race. This artist explores the complex relationships between humans and the natural world, which involve love, but also dominance and domestication. Her animal figures often appear in unlikely poses that imply submission. The white porcelain animals literally allude to a “whitening” of nature.

My Sunday (2017), by Wanxin Zhang, is a cross-legged, seated figure as in the Yoga Lotus posture, so commonly used for meditation. It has no recognizable features and its irregular texture seems to have recorded the history of all the additions and junctions of the clay. Blues, yellows, whites and reds float on top of the surface –or skin– and concentrate in the fissures creating an abstract landscape, or as if, in its contemplation, this person, the artist, embodies the materials and the landscape itself.

A different experience of introspection is provided by Arthur Gonzalez in The Space Between the Shadow and the Floor (2013.) A naked girl of vibrant color tattoos holds two human heads, like Salome holding the head of john the Baptist. The stern look on her face, and the twist of her torso, remind us of a flamingo dancer – in fact, a Spanish flamenco performance served as inspiration to the artist. This work is part of the series The Fence in the Hole, a group of mixed-media works where ceramics is protagonist, and a flat, glossy shape, like a shadow, contrasts with the raw quality and the volumes of the ceramic figures, adding to the mystery of the scenes, which are intentionally left unclear. Regarding the title, the artist reflects: “…if shadows are physical forms that are merely resting on the floor, then there is also a possibly imagined space between the shadow and the floor.” By conceiving a narrative, three-dimensional piece to be hung on the wall, and by bringing in other concepts, materials and techniques, Gonzalez challenges our notion of ceramics, as we know it.

For far too long critics have dismissed ceramics as low level craft. They missed the point through which crystallization turns clay into marvel. We now know that haute cuisine can refer not only to the meal, but also to the dishes. Here, we serve some delicacies for you to enjoy. Mind your eyes, and discover that getting fired may not be so bad after all.

[1] The artist in the Artist Statement for her website,
[2] From an email conversation with the artist on October 27, 2017.

Yuneikys Villalonga
November 2, 2017

Published in the flyer of the exhibition: They’re Fired!  December 17, 2017-March 12, 2018. Bernice Steinbaum Gallery. Curated Bernice Steinbaum.