Visual Arts

Fired Up

We wasteful Americans adore plastic. Cups, plates, and vessels don't require cleanup after use — we can just pitch them and ignore the environmental ramifications. That makes breakables downright retro. It's no wonder that ceramics has experienced a breath of new life as artists have adopted it as a legitimate medium — elevating it from the dregs of mere "craft" to a distinct fine art. Who knows? If the trend continues and a new invention pushes out plastic, we might see sculpture made from melted Tupperware. In the meantime, check out West Valley Art Museum's "You're Fired!" ceramic show.

"You're Fired!" is a juried exhibition featuring Arizona clay artists. The pieces forgo functionality and are strictly sculptural. The collection is a mishmash of ideas executed with considerable skill. I certainly had my favorites but couldn't find a piece that was wholly unsuccessful.

Carol Russell's work, which sits dead center in the gallery, immediately caught my eye. In it, the torso of an androgynous person leans forward and rests on bent elbows, hair wrapped in a snug turban. This person looks to the side in a faraway gaze with an expression that seems tired yet satisfied. One hand extends to hold half of a broken eggshell filled with a dark liquid. The string of a steeping tea bag dangles over the eggshell. The other hand holds a bundle of items that rests on the person's back. The fingers clutch a teakettle and a rope tied to two small wooden cages, just big enough to hold a finch. The delicate vertical bars are no thicker than toothpicks and the door of each cage is flung open. The cages are lined with maps.

If it weren't for the title of this piece, I would have had difficulty finding a coherent idea. But with the name Empty Nest, it was easy to see that this quiet character has lived a life of servitude and support. The maps on the bottom of the cages indicate preliminary training and preparation for the birds that have been released into the world after having outgrown their tiny homes. This person will patiently wait for their return — using the egg (the vessel from which the birds emerged) to quench their thirst. The selfless person, exhausted and at peace, provides a moving portrait of parenthood.

Another favorite was Look Down White Liver by Channin Graham. Here, the frame of an arched window shows bulbous clouds scattered in a pale blue sky. A flock of black crows descends, swooping out of formation in a frenzied and menacing way. Their small, dark silhouettes against the gorgeous sky reminded me of those wicked creatures in Hitchcock's The Birds. Adding to the distress, a pair of severed white wings (perhaps from a dove) hangs from the window frame. The wings are bundled together with thick, tarnished metal wire that is maniacally looped around them. The wire is attached to the underside of the window frame, leaving the wings to dangle like a hanged corpse. The work is powerful, bringing to mind the struggle of war and the resulting impotence of defeat.

Not all the works delivered such heavy messages. I was absolutely thrilled when I came across I Believe in Little Richard by George Palovich and Janet Trisler. A square ceramic pedestal holds a bust of Little Richard. His face is upturned and his lips are puckered, as if he's in the middle of one of his classic "ooooh!" squeals. His super-tall coif looks like Kid's hairdo from '90s hip-hop duo Kid 'n Play. As if this wasn't funny enough, on the front of the pedestal, in typeface fit for a tombstone, it reads, "I Believe in Little Richard." And both sides read, "He's So Pretty." The work is zany and sort of vulgar in a weird way — definitely capturing the spirit of the eccentric Little Richard.

These ceramic sculptures prove that plastic, the planet be damned, has changed our lives for the better. Thank you, plastic. You're the best.

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Lilia Menconi
Contact: Lilia Menconi