Unruly Grace: Arlene Shechet in Boston
Arlene Schechet: All At Once at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston
As a stunning show of new work by Arlene Schechet opens at Sikkema Jenkins & Co in Chelsea, we offer this review of last year’s retrospective at Boston’s ICA as a TOPICAL PICK FROM THE ARCHIVES
June 10 to September 7, 2015
100 Northern Avenue
Boston, MA 02210
Working within a notoriously hierarchical art world where ceramics have often been marginalized, Arlene Shechet prefers to describe herself as an installation artist who makes objects, rather than, say, a ceramicist or a sculptor. It is an intelligent way of holding ground. Her beautifully paced survey show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Boston, “All At Once”, gathers together two decades of deft, imaginative and fearless work.
Her art is by turn, humorous, poignant and playfully strange. From the outset we find her in conversation with those West Coast artists who, from the late 1950s and ‘60s onwards, were determined to push the boundaries of clay. Breaking with craft tradition, they redefined ceramics enabling it to be both painting and sculpture at once. The deconstructive element of some of Shechet’s clay works dialogue with Peter Voulka’s 1990’s series ‘Stacks’, for instance, energetic, rough re-assemblages in clay that were confident and masterful in their abstraction. Likewise, Shechet’s bold command of color nods to Voulkas’s student Ken Price’s bright acrylics and dense sensuous forms as well as the delicious pop palette of painter and former ceramicist Mary Heilmann. Bucking trends towards theory-driven work, on the one hand, and monumentality, on the other, whether in the sculptures of Jeff Koons who with Italian artisans reproduced rococo porcelain pieces, but of pop icon Michael Jackson, or the new German photographers with their dizzying digital possibilities, Shechet has maintained her artistic integrity by steadily working through the most elemental of materials, undeterred by its limitations of scale.
All At Once displays chronologically and with choreographic flair how Shechet explores formal complexities across diverse materials, whether paper, glass, porcelain or, particularly in the last decade, clay. Evolving through her highly skilled works is the repeated use of splicing, stacking, and vessel as symbolic form.
Opening the show is a series of heads and figures, roughly approximated Buddhas slathered in colors, daubs and drips of plaster. Though in sharp contrast to the classical Buddha image of burnished gold perfection, these off-beat Buddha forms are nevertheless presented in the round, encouraging one to walk around them in a circular fashion as if visiting a Buddhist temple. Madras Buddha, 1997, is patterned in a cheerful plaid of red, pink, orange and lime, whereas Raga, 1999, has blooming splotches of blue, dashes of black and snaky grays. Buddha heads with wry titles such as“Collective Head”, “Head on Head”, or “Head that Happened”, sit atop concrete pedestals dribbled with plaster like candlewax, resembling her seated Buddhas in their semi-formless, paper maché appearance.
Shechet furthers her interest in Asia in her series, Once Removed, 1998, casting Abacá paper onto molds using blue-prints referencing real locations. Twinned vessels are stacked and re-imagined as stupas, the top with lush ink patterns recalling blue and white porcelain, its companion a white plaster blank.
Target (Gyantse and Diamond Mandalas), 1997, a two dimensional paper work reminiscent of mandalas, and stupa floor plans, has lines delicately bleeding cobalt blue that are both radiant and dense at once. Other works are of indigo or inky blue flooded paper in reverse, allowing the white areas and lines to emerge and glow.
In Building, 2003, titled as a verb and noun, Shechet splices and re-stacks varying vessels, again inspired by stupas. Presented high like a skyline, dark, smoky glazed vessels at either end fade to pure white biscuit porcelain at center. This austere installation, a personal response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, evokes a quiet despair. More buoyant is a 2004 series of large crystal vessels of pearly luminescence including Bubble Up, Drip Drop, and Cushion, in which cleverly inverted curvilinear shapes are stacked or doubled inside one another to a point of delicate balance. They exhibit a dynamic tension between crystalline perfection and fluidity of form.
At times Shechet’s ceramics can seem like creatures dredged up from the darkness of deep ocean floors. What I Heard, 2007 has two symbiotic bulbous forms glazed matt gray, the amorphous surface and velvety finish interrupted by orange aorta-like vents and pockets of shimmering bronze. Using as support a steel stool, Shechet continues her stacking theme, the base integral aesthetically and conceptually to the whole. Her use in these works of raw or painted wood plinths, steel frames, concrete slabs and kiln bricks demonstrates complexities by juxtapositions of color, texture, and form. In Sleepless Color, 2009-10, Shechet shifts her attention to coiled clay, manipulating it into a state of unruly leaning. With its multi-colored kiln brick base and cracked wood pedestal, the piece reaches a point of ungainly, yet unforeseen grace. Now Playing, 2015, shows a skinny white metal frame beneath a hunk of white painted hardwood with missing angled chunks, topped by a precarious pile up of softly bent ceramic bricks in a bubbling white glaze. The whole effect is complex, contradictory yet formally satisfying, Shechet displaying her relish for materials and her penchant for brinkmanship.
Shechet was able to explore a delicate side of her sensibility in her 2012-13 residency at the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Germany which saw works of surreal tender moments underpinned by a fascination with the industrial processes of porcelain production. Deliberately inverting expectations, she favored molds as finished forms, or experimented with splicing and re-assembling traditional house designs. Redefining notions of the historically revered material referred to as ‘white gold’ Shechet included dribbled and stained glazes, vases with buttery fingerlike indentations, and the use of extruder blocks made from porcelain waste as worthy forms. We see this in the wonderfully titled Gangsta Girl on the Block, 2012, a headless, armless figurine in a beautifully patterned dress, leaning alert on white gridded stacks that stand aloft like stereo speakers at a reggae block party. After the Flood, 2012, is a pile up of carefully calibrated porcelain presented as if it were detritus: bases of vases, handles, fluting and, unexpectedly, a tiny cut off classical foot, atop a plain upended factory mold bowl. Elsewhere, manic laughing 18th and 19th century Buddhas sit near gently crumpled vases and a glitter disco ball.
Shechet inventively weaves alongside her own works historical Meissen figurines and tableware, creating a lively conversation between periods. Characters such as Dr.Bolardo ca.1738, with rakish hat and moustache, unnerving red lips and pink lined cape, seems to dance on thirteen plates, while a female figurine lies in a dessert stand with an upside down teacup and a blissful smile on her face. A Head of Vitellius ca.1715 in red stoneware, looks sideways and impassively at the room as if unfazed to find himself there. By the entrance is a silent film on a loop, Meissen Porcelain! The Diodattis’ Living Sculptures at the Berlin Conservatory ca. 1912-14 with costumed actors and fluffy greyhound playing traditional figurine tableaux. As a link between the far past and Shechet’s work, it acts as a charming welcome, and on the way out, farewell to the show.