“Desire,” Belger Arts Center

Clay.  It’s pliable, damp, dirty, fun to touch, and we can build beautiful things with it. What’s not to love?

Coinciding with the 50th annual conference of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts in Kansas City from March 16-19, “Desire,” at the Belger Arts Center, explores desire’s multiplicity, couched in the language of ceramics.

As artist/organizer Linda Lighton notes in the catalogue, “No two people have the same desire. I am curious to see the color, smell, taste, look and feel of desire. I want to know if it is physical, cultural, political, sexual or psychological.”  Given Lighton’s sexualized ceramic work, her interest in the subject and inclusion in the show are unsurprising.

Many of the show’s 37 artists from 22 countries are, as the catalogue notes, “recipients of Lighton International Artists Exchange Program (LIAEP) grants.” Every work of art is some form of clay or explicitly references clay except for two— one by Peregrine Honig, one by Will Cotton.  When asked about the anomaly, Lighton explained in an email, “Since Peregrine had that marvelous poem I couldn’t resist it. Likewise Will works on desire and I can get a piece from him so I did.”

Accompanying the show is a large, full-color catalogue with essays by Tanya Hartman and Elisabeth Kirsch, both of whose rich text sometimes outpaces the work.

Scots artist Jessica Harrison’s work Adeline (from Broken series) is one of the most nimble in the exhibition, subverting and expanding ideas and expectations of “Englishness,” romance, porcelain ornaments, femininity, and more.  The piece is somewhat reminiscent of Ann Agee’s figurines.

Here Harrison has altered a found ceramic figurine of a young woman in a pristine white frock.  Ripping her bloody heart out of her chest, Adeline blithely and dramatically tenders her heart’s desire.  Harrison writes, “…the Broken figurines describe a turning inside out of middle-class Englishness; a self-destructive ornamentation where object becomes organ, private becomes public, inside becomes outside.”

The body as cypher functions throughout, as artists articulate desire through the human form, whole and in fragments, successful and otherwise. Heidi Preuss Grew’s endearingly lumpy androgynous human figure perches on a wooden berm, its desire perhaps a subtle interior idea, while Ilona Romule’s vessel incorporates human figures tortuously emerging from the vessel itself, seeking some form of physical release.

Suzanne Wolff’s small breast/cup exploits the sexualized delicacy of porcelain, gilding, a perfectly shaped breast, and inherent longing. Vilma Villaverde’s head and shoulders morphing into a sink of breasts look clumsy by comparison.

Ting-Ju Shao’s About the Egos of features two identical boys in elaborate uniforms that face off over internal struggle.  The sculpture’s silky traditional Japanese glaze punctuates the work’s quiet authority. It is one of the show’s highlights.

Clay as the earth itself is central to the work of two Israeli artists, Ester Beck and Sholmit Bauman. Beck’s abstract vessel White Streams has been muscled into form, owing a nod to Peter Voulkos’s abstraction.  She writes, “To shape it, I throw, beat, stretch, coax, and smooth the clay in a dance-like manner.  We are in a dialog, testing the limits of each other, until a form struggling to appear is released.”  Her work is the most physically aggressive of the show.

Bauman’s pottery fragments address, in her words, “the extinction of natural resources and the concept of objects that are running out.”  Bauman uses Israeli clay, which she says has actually run out, and combined it with porcelain, making broken works that lie in ruins, emphasizing “tension between the desire for likeness and connection, and the experience of differences and distortions.”  Ran Out 1–Ran Out 7, an installation of these damaged fragments, emphasizes want, need, and the earth’s diminishment.

Similarly, the stoneware and glass fragments of Graciela Olio’s Landscape-Block suggest the ways in which the Earth is shattered by natural forces and human aggression.

Visually apart from the Israelis but spiritually akin, Mieke Everaet’s delicate One in Another proclaims her devotion to porcelain, “the purest of all earths.”  The bowl, thin and ethereal, shot through with red accents, is keeper of things both physical and mystical.

The fantastical hybrid Snake Bird Vase, by South Africans Sfiso Mwelase and Roux Gwala, who represent the collective Ardmore Ceramic Art, taps into their “desire to investigate the underworld” about which they note the snake is representative.

The vase becoming snake becoming bird is beautifully articulated, and yet the way the work truly capitalizes on the idea of desire is so subtle as to be unnoticed.  Simply stating “a desire to investigate” is perhaps more about an interest in the underworld rather than in desire itself.  Nonetheless, the work is one of the show’s most exciting and accomplished pieces.

Turkish artist Zehra Cobanli’s piece illustrates the most poignant and timely utterance of desire.  In Aylan and Others, a reference to Aylan, the Syrian child who drowned in Turkey, small earthenware shoes stand in for the thousands of refugees, specifically the children, who have died and may die as they flee oppression.  She writes, “All I desire is a world in peace; a world where children are not killed or forced to become refugees.  …I desire healthy and happy children, friendly neighborhoods and a green environment.”

Zehra, from your mouth to God’s ear.

“Desire” continues at the Belger Arts Center, 2100 Walnut St., through May 21. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Open until 9 p.m. on First Fridays. For more information, (816) 474-3250 ext. 308 or www.belgerartscenter.org.

Dana Self

Dana Self is an arts writer who was a contemporary art curator for more than 13 years at museums in Kansas, Wisconsin, Tennessee and Missouri, including Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. She has organized roughly 100 exhibitions of emerging and midcareer artists. She is also marketing director for UMKC Conservatory.

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