I Owe You Nothing, Darling
Ceramics talk, and women endlessly hold up teacups in the work of Lisa Selby.
British artist Lisa Selby is elegantly defiant. On view at the Inova gallery in her first US solo show, her ceramics are restrained in physical form but loaded with psychological tension and activated by terse, evocative titles. While much of her work has been described as addressing domesticity and gender roles, Selby hints at narrative, at times even turning her creations into characters of a sort.
I owe you nothing, darling hangs from the ceiling, a chain of porcelain spindles grasping each other, connected to a vessel where unfired clay slowly dries and cracks and will continue doing so through the length of the exhibition. The clay vessel is spare and strong, just daring gravity to take it down. It looks precarious, like it might fall. It won’t, of course, but you sense the hand of time invisibly taking its toll through the drying, cracking clay.
The roles of her porcelain pieces as protagonists is amplified, literally, though sound in Goodby daffodils, hello affair. A series of four vessels are placed on two rectangular pedestals, each with a distinct audio voice heard only when you come close. Wailing sounds of varying pitch, from high cries to low rumbles, make the vessels speak like confessions to the viewer. Their distance from each other leaves each with a distinctly isolated monologue.
Don’t Go is, by contrast, quite mute. The piece wraps ceramic spindles and foam rubber around the edge of a wall, like some kind of strange bed. The artist calls the foam rubber — the kind of cushiony stuff that might stuff a mattress or pillow — “memory foam.” Here it seems to embrace the wall, while in everyday life it’s often reshaped to show the imprint or memory of the physical
Selby’s exhibit also includes a 27-minute video piece, Uphold Withhold. Ceramics are present here in the form of teacups held by quivering hands. A group of women, shielded by a screen, raise their cups endlessly overhead, even as they reach the limits of physical endurance. As the performers’ hands tremble and cups start to tip, their position is corrected by attendant women standing by, dressed in understated white blouses and black skirts. These attendants do not speak yet are sympathetic, gentle in their corrections and accommodating when cups simply cannot be held aloft anymore and the arm must rest, just for a bit, before taking up the task again. Adding power and poignance to the piece is the fact that all of the players are women: those who daintily hold up the tea cups and those who enforce adherence to the code of conduct.
By contrast, the other solo show at Inova is more playful and improvisational. Benjamin DeMott’s Teeter Jam is an installation of multiple works with spirited interactions between material and form. DeMott describes his process as “knowing through making,” and the installation itself gives viewers the jumbled, curious sense of an artist’s studio. Thin, wiry forms are bunched together, forming a physical mass that climbs a wall in a snarled, clouded crowd, set off by a spidery mobile along the lines of Alexander Calder but without his large, geometric shapes. Another object is a large, ceramic oblong form, sort of like a totemic head sitting on the floor; Oozing paint on the top creates a kind of wicked hairdo while a straw-like piece, extending out a foot or more, suggests a mouth, yet the entire work is an unexpected pairing of materials.
Working between abstraction and the body, DeMott tilts a ladder against one wall, like the last bit of installation work someone forgot to put away. Oh wait, there’s something like a sculptural head caught on the top rung. Such a predicament! You might say its caught between a ladder and a hard place, it feels accidentally funny. DeMott intended the installation to have an improvisational feel, open to experimentation. The flip side of this is the lingering sensation that this is also a work in progress, waiting for a full resolution.
One of the best riffs between space and form is the huge, empty glass vitrine which thinly outlines a vacuum of space in the middle of the gallery. But on top of the vitrine, a hanging, skeletal figure is caught mid-motion in a tiny, surrealist landscape. He’s hung up by wires, too.
Selby and DeMott’s solo exhibitions are shown simultaneously because both are artists work in ceramic mediums, apropos to the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts conference in town last week. While they share this medium in common, the juxtaposition of these two shows at Inova introduces artists who are delightfully different from each other.
Lisa Selby: Must Come Down and Benjamin DeMott: Teeter Jam continue at Inova (2155 N. Prospect Avenue) through May 18.
FRIDAY, MARCH 28
Art in Bloom
700 N. Art Museum Drive
Spring is emerging with such incredible force that it has taken over the Milwaukee Art Museum. Maybe that’s the only place Spring has taken over so far, but in a fabulous way. Art in Bloom is the annual pairing of floral arrangements and art, and this weekend’s exhibition brings together more than 40 gardening, floral arranging, and landscape designers inspired by the current exhibition, Uncommon Folk: Traditions in American Art.
SATURDAY, MARCH 29
Rirkrit Tiravanija and Tomas Vu: Green Go Home
Zwischen Raum Zeit
706 S. 5th Street
Opening reception 5-9pm
The Pitch Project is a space, a collaboration, and a visionary idea from Mike Brenner, Sonja Thomsen, Jason Yi, and Will Pergl. A warehouse has been transformed into artists’ studios and gallery space. The opening will be celebrated with a reception and inaugural exhibition, an interactive experience by contemporary artists Rirkit Tiravanija and Tomas Vu. Their piece consists of images of protest mounted on the gallery walls, and visitors will be able to participate through the act of drawing. Zwischen Raum Zeit combines German pop music and two dozen international artists. The Pitch Project will no doubt be an injection of progressive energy for the Milwaukee art scene.
SUNDAY, MARCH 30
The Mingei Tradition in the Midwest: Warren MacKenzie and Beyond
2145 W. Brown Deer Road
This overview of work by influential ceramics artist Warren MacKenzie, his students, and associates closes this weekend. For more on this exhibition, see the TCD review Pleasures from the Potter’s Wheel.