VACI bares all in ‘NAKED’ exhibition

This week might be dedicated to “Art & Politics” and the more serious side of art. But there is still a place for whimsy, and at 3 p.m. today in the Strohl Art Center, a new show is opening to celebrate it.

“NAKED” includes work from six different ceramic artists, all exploring the naked human form in different ways.

Among the artists who have been doing it the longest is Esther Shimazu, a Hawaiian artist who has two pieces in the show. Shimazu builds hollow, nude and bald ceramic sculptures of rotund Asian characters, often reclining or sitting.

“I was never good at [clothing and hair],” Shimazu said. “Plus, [the sculptures] are pots, so it is just another thing that gets in the way of the form.”

While she does not include hair or clothes, Shimazu is still very interested in detail — making individual porcelain teeth and detailing fingernails for each sculpture.

“No part of the process is difficult,” Shimazu said. “It’s just tedious as hell.”

Shimazu has been working in clay since she was five, growing up in a large Japanese-American family in Honolulu. She had to work mostly on pots until her junior year of college when a professor finally allowed her to do more figurative work.

These friendly nudes are, according to a provided description from Shimazu, “neither Japanese nor ‘All–American,’ but somewhere in between, with subtropical and grumpy feminist undertones.”

But while Shimazu knew she wanted to work with clay for most of her life, other artists in the shows were not always so clear.

Kevin Snipes has received national attention for his porcelain constructions with cartoon-like drawings scribed into the surface.

“For me, it kind of mimics paper,” Snipes said. “I like to build things, and I like to draw.”

It was not until he needed some electives in college and took ceramics, though, that Snipes realized clay could combine both building and drawing.

While Shimazu’s work is almost always nude, Snipes depicts people in a variety of states of dress or undress. He often tries to address relationships by putting these figures on opposite sides of vessels.

“A lot of my work is two sided, and the empty space can be filled with anything, with love or hate,” Snipes said.

These contrasted figures also allow Snipes to address issues of duality and otherness, which he says is a way to talk about being an African-American person in the largely white art world.

Currently at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Montana for two months, Snipes said creating work for this show was a challenge, especially when materials were not available that he usually works with.

Snipes often works closely with Laura Jean McLaughlin, who is also represented in the show. Together, they created a style that McLaughlin calls “schlumpy funk,” influenced by surrealism, dreamscapes, and the spontaneity of groups like the Dadaist movement.

Like Snipes, McLaughlin appreciates that clay can combine multiple techniques.

“Clay is amazing,” McLaughlin said. “You work in three dimensions, as well as drawing.”

In addition to ceramics, McLaughlin does large-scale mosaics, printmaking and painting.

“It seems like I’m all over the place, but each of them feeds into each other,” McLaughlin said.

Many of McLaughlin’s sculptures depict figures sporting more limbs than normal, frequently wearing colorful dresses and red boots, while others merge two people into one joined sculpture.

“[NAKED] has been a fun departure, because I usually don’t do nude figures,” McLaughlin said.

While doing the drawing and carving of her clay, McLaughlin takes time to consider the work before beginning — but once she starts, she does not go back.

“It’s an interesting way to work, because you never second guess a mark,” she said.

McLaughlin uses coils to build the base of most of the sculptures, so they can take up to a month to finish.

Despite the tedium and challenges with material, though, all the artists seem to love the process of working with clay.

“Having your hands in clay — there’s nothing like it,” McLaughlin said.