From Clay to Table: experimentation on display

Guest review by Melissa Kuntz

The allusive title of this exhibition, conceived by Galleries Director Judy Barie, suggests a play on the contemporary phrase “farm to table.” This food movement aims to encourage consumption of local products and to educate on the relationships between farmers, communities, sustainable and safe production practices and the food we eat. On view in the exhibition “From Clay to Table” is handmade, functional tableware by six ceramic artists. The suggestive title challenges the viewer to take pause and consider the source — not of our food, but of the items from which we consume that food. One important aspect of the farm-to-table movement is encouraging us to savor and appreciate what we eat in a much more thoughtful manner than most of us practice on a daily basis. This exhibition inspires us to give the same respect to the dishes we use, and to appreciate the aesthetics, craftsmanship and skill of the artists who devote their time to making one-of-a-kind items. Consciously deciding to support local artists rather than consume cheap, mass-produced dinnerware is certainly something to consider after viewing the stunning (and reasonably priced) work on display.

To add another layer of interest to this exhibition, curator Barie asked each artist to conceive of one word that could be used to describe their work. Kate Westfall’s word, “Adornment,” relates to her appreciation for the ornamentation of Baroque and Rococo architecture. Broad bands of solids act as the “support” for decorative areas in both the architecture and her ceramics. Textured and stamped patterns in Westfall’s work also suggest these influences. A selection of fine, masterfully crafted vases, bowls, mugs, jars and candleholders all share contrasting bands of solids and patterns, and are all glazed in earth tones. On her website, she writes of having synesthesia, which manifests as colors having relationships to numbers, emotions and people. She thus selected the palette for her glazes using the five colors that give her a sense of peace and remind her of home; she hopes the owners of her work will have a similar reaction to it.

In contrast to Westfall’s more ethereal works are Joseph Pintz’s substantial forms. Each of his objects, although not actually weighing much, has a commanding presence. He chose the word “Simplicity,” which certainly describes the platters, jugs, canisters and bowls on display. They do not have adornments, and the only texture is visible in brushstrokes and varying thicknesses of the glazes. The colors he chose — greens, blues, yellows and salmons — suggest metal patina or a polished stone. Thick rims on the bowls and trays, combined with simple forms, make these beautiful pieces transcend the earthenware they were made from, appearing much more massive than they actually are, and seeming to be crafted from materials other than clay. He states that that “stubborn physicality” of his pots forces one to slow down and focus on the meal, the moment and the company around the table.

“Stripes” most decidedly describes  Jeremy Ayers’ two-tone, banded wares. Ayers has one of the widest selections of functional forms on display, including plates, teapots, cake platters, cream-and-sugar sets and vases. One of two clay bodies is dipped into a whitish glaze. Then, the glaze is sprayed off in strips with resultant stripes in either light or darker clay. His forms are stunning, especially in some of the larger vases, where the cylinder undulates in and out like an accordion of folded paper.

Ani Kasten’s work, although technically functional, certainly pushes the boundaries of serviceability; Brian Giniewski’s bowls and vases are equally sculptural. Kasten chose the word “Texture” to define her body of work. Wheel-thrown, hand-built and utilizing varying clay applications to create surface texture, crackle and layers, the objects have an aged appearance. Although forms are predominately based in functionality, canisters, bowls and cups are accompanied by an “ark” vase, covered with lines of texture that look to be created from decades under the sea. Two stunning “egret” vases cast bird-like shadows on the wall. Giniewski’s beautifully “austere,” pieces are solid red, white or black. Only two forms are used — the vase and the bowl. The use of repetition and simplicity speak to minimalism, and certainly allow these objects to be viewed as sculpturally as they are practical.

And, finally, Jennifer Allen’s “Pattern” pieces are influenced by her youth in Alaska, and the beauty of the natural landscapes. Folds and seams, darts and ruffles are crafted from clay, speaking to her love of textile arts. The series of pieces on display, glazed in turquoises and blues, with decorative fauna in coppers, reds and golds reference nature, as well as patterns found in Japanese or art and crafts fabrics. Her functional forms include plates and bowls, but also soy dispensers and an exquisite butter dish. Allen’s works beg to be collected and lovingly displayed and used. In her artist statement she eloquently sums up the sentiments in “From Clay to Table.” She says her determination to keep the “handmade” an essential part of the contemporary home is motivated by moments when pottery is in use; she aims to emphasize beauty, joy, nourishment and celebration through her ceramics.

Melissa Kuntz has written reviews for Art in America and the Pittsburgh City Paper while also maintaining a studio practice. She is currently professor of painting at Clarion University of Pennsylvania.