Visual Arts

Clay Gone Wild

Little, pink weasel-cats making sweet love atop bulbous greenery.

Such is the kinky world I entered at "Renegade Clay: 5 Views from the West," at ASU Art Museum's Ceramics Research Center. The title's a little overdramatic and silly (Renegade? Can clay really be that badass?), but I was pleased to discover less traditional uses of the medium. The five artists included are from Western states and have a common thread: They use ceramics in unexpected ways — accomplishing works that are far from functional. Shamefully, this was my first visit to the ceramics center because it wasn't until this show that my interest in it was piqued. I've passed by many times, peering through the windows only to see predictable pots. The show, organized by ASU Art Museum curator of ceramics Peter Held, is free of boring bowls or plates, thankfully.

An exhibition that relies on interpretations of medium alone can be tough to pull off. Often, works end up lumped together purely because they take the medium in a different direction that isn't always good. For the most part, the pieces in "Renegade Clay" are engaging and successful.

Rebekah Bogard, who is responsible for the canoodling creatures, gets the medal for best in show. Her imaginative landscape ceramic installation dominates almost half of the gallery space. The painted walls create a backdrop of periwinkle sky and bright green hills. Lime and teal pillars litter the floor. On top of some pillars are small creatures making cutesy gestures. They are beautiful and adorable — big almond-shaped eyes, long tails, round bellies and curly ears. These little cuties are pink, peach, or lavender and they are lying among butterflies and snuggling with each other. The sculptures are arranged to be experienced as a whole, but the artist includes titles like For Your General Bliss and Distract Me . . . to describe the interactions.

Turns out, these characters aren't as innocent as they seem. The adorable tummies sport a glossy protrusion of what looks like folded flesh. Belly buttons? Uh, no, those are their hoo-has. One pillar holds two creatures that are bumping bellies (and their weirdo privates) as they look to the sky in a state of ecstasy. But witnessing the little guys shamelessly getting it on in plain view isn't offensive. The combination of their pastel-colored coats and appealing features keeps it innocent and fun. They're having a blast and being affectionate without a care in the world. Bogard openly celebrates sex using this fantastic scenario. And it's her playful use of the medium that makes her work the most impressive of the bunch.

Christina West's work is compelling in its own right, but because it's shown next to genital-rubbing, twitterpated animals, the potential draw is lost. West's subject matter is in sharp contrast to Bogard's, as she uses the human figure to explore her themes. Each ceramic sculpture in her series shows a person contorted into dramatic gestures in various stages of undressing. It takes expert understanding of human anatomy to portray these physical poses accurately — and West obviously has it. Unexpectedly, each sculpture is completely covered with polka dots, stripes and other bright-colored patterns.

Often, the facial expressions are obscured by a wrapped towel or other covering. That, combined with the unrealistic paint job, creates a disconnect from a purely figurative interpretation. The artist has concentrated on the gesture alone — making each piece a portrait of a particular expression or energy. They are angst, struggle and frustration incarnate.

Thomas Müller features ceramics as a small part of a multimedia conceptual piece in Majestic. A large photograph of an unfired clay elephant balancing on top of a real tomato adorns the wall. Placed in front of that backdrop is a Plexiglas box resting on a pillar. Inside is the live version — the elephant on the tomato. When I visited, the inner walls of the box were smattered with droplets of moisture, and the tomato within was collapsing into its own mushiness.

Somewhat nauseating, yes, but Müller cleverly captures evidence of the passage of time. It's an interesting piece, but, with the only ceramic being a fist-sized elephant, it didn't impress me as being a new way to use the medium and it may fit better if it was shown under a different theme — without so much focus on ceramics. In comparison with the other artists, his is a bit of a stretch.

Still, Müller's work is intriguing, and with the help of the other ceramic artists, "Renegade Clay" does shape up to be pretty badass.

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Lilia Menconi
Contact: Lilia Menconi