Something is seriously wrong with ceramics. At least, the fine-arts world thinks so. Consistently dogged by the "better" galleries, the medium is stuck in perpetual stepchild status. Ceramics is women's work. Pottery is too practical. It's craft, not art, and therefore gets no respect. Maybe it's because we eat out of ceramic bowls. Or because we shit in ceramic basins. Who knows?
At a time when artists seem obsessed with humble materials, craftwork, and imitating outsider art, however, it makes sense that clay would now seem more appealing. Two current shows, Amanda M. Smith's "Candy Garden and Sparkling Sabers" at Jack Fischer Gallery and Matt Gil's small-scale ceramic sculptures in "Reel to Real" at Marx & Zavattero, approach the medium in fanciful ways, referencing its traditions with wit.
At Jack Fischer, a gallery space so small that it has twice induced panic attacks in one unnamed reviewer, Smith's three-dimensional tableaus on clay slates open up infinite worlds of interpretation. As its name implies, "Candy Garden and Sparkling Sabers" is full of deceptively sweet images. Smith favors a cast of little girls in flowered dresses, who balloon in size like Alice in Wonderland, frolicking through landscapes of verdant trees, Victorian houses, and Hummers, brandishing drums and guns. Meticulously hand-built and brightly glazed, the reliefs pulsate with just the right amount of symbolic ambiguity, material mastery, and fun.
Comparisons to Henry Darger — the Chicago outsider artist who spent decades drawing armies of small girls (although his had penises) — are inevitable, but Smith says she had never heard of Darger when she began concocting her own girlish tales. The 28-year-old recent San Jose State University MFA grad instead cites her family and Indian and Persian miniatures as influences. She grew up with her mother and three sisters, so they serve as natural characters in her artwork. When she encountered miniature painting during a pre-grad-school trip to Jaipur, India, she found the narrative in which to place them.
"I loved that I didn't know what was going on" in the scenes in the Indian miniatures, she says, "but the action was really compelling." In the Indian myths, the more important the character, the larger they are in size. The stories Smith tells are similar fairytales about the haves and the have-nots. The haves become literally larger than life, depicting their outsized influence, while the minuscule have-nots outnumber them. In "Flight of the Little Girls," a blasé Western tween with a brown bob reaches obliviously into what appears to be a Persian dollhouse. Inside, chaos breaks out; pint-sized figures rush to escape, and one prepares to pierce the girl's hand with a spear. The more you stare at the image, the farther down the rabbit's hole you fall. Does this giant of a girl think everything is her play toy? Does she even know the house is occupied? What strange potion made her so big? And how will she react when she feels pain?
There seems to be a real moment going on with little girls as subjects in art, but Smith is especially adept at capturing the feel of preadolescent Western Ophelia angst. In "Outnumbered," the tables are turned: The Lilliputian army scales a house in which seven blond girls stand awkwardly, avoiding eye contact with spot-on expressions of indifference. In "Hummer," the blond-bobbed girls emerge from a jacked-up limousine bearing guns, drums, and toy flowers. They've got everything, and they don't know it, or they won't admit to it. The Hannah Montana multitudes could rule the world, if they ever became self-aware.
If Smith's pieces speak obliquely to mass Western consumption, Matt Gil's "Conveyor with 24 Sculptures" at Marx & Zavattero refers sharply to mass production. A 20-foot-long hand-built oval conveyor belt ferries Gil's small ceramic sculptures around and around on steel plates, presenting them as a kind of sushi-boat parade of delicacies.
The sculptures are just the right size for picking up and taking home to the mantelpiece, and their modernist Googie shapes begged to be touched, but the fact that they're in a gallery means hands off. By placing his pieces on a conveyor belt, Gil seems to be winking at the lowbrow reputation of his medium — its Pottery Barn vase, thrift-store ashtray side. Here, however, each piece is unique, as lovingly crafted and alert to negative space as his larger sculptures.
"Conveyor" turns on our definition of ceramics as consumables versus fine art, and this is a useful discussion to have. Standing in front of Smith's and Gil's seductively glazed work, however, the argument seems moot. These are art objects. Made of clay. You got a problem with that?
I didn't think so.