New shows highlight ceramic sculptures, enamels


Ceramic Sculpture

When: Tuesdays through Fridays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., through Dec. 30.

Where: The National Museum of Ceramic Art, 250 West Pratt St.

ll: 837-2529.

American Enamels

When: Tuesdays through Saturdays 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., through Oct. 8.

Where: Holtzman Gallery, Towson State University.

ll: 830-2808.

It has become a cliche to assert that the line between crafand fine art is a mirage, but the assertion keeps getting made, as in two local shows. Of the two, one makes the point more successfully than the other.

By now we are used to ceramics that are purely "sculptural" rather than functional; "American Ceramic Sculpture" at the National Museum of Ceramic Art is limited to sculptural works that deal with the human figure. Even within those bounds it hardly treats the subject exhaustively, but it does give us about two dozen sculptures well selected by curator Joe Bova, director of the School of Art at Ohio University.

Among these are works that appropriate traditional functional forms but use them in newly creative ways. Peter Gourfain's forms are easily recognizable jugs or pots, but on them the human tragicomedy is played out; "Ohio Pot #3" gives us hints of everything from Plato's cave to cops and robbers. Andrea Gill's "Madonna Figure" is essentially a decorated vase form; punctuated with a masklike face, it looks more Eastern than Western.

Others break with functional tradition but not completely with art history. Akio Takamori's "Goddess" is a porcelain figure in the form of a classical torso, painted with Matisse-like nudes. Robert Arneson's massive head, called "Golden Stone," is from his Jackson Pollock series; surface treatment pays homage to the artist's drip paintings, while the expression on the face reflects the tragedy of his life. Works by Michael Lucero and Frank Fleming are indebted to surrealism.

Then there's Anthony Natsoulas' "Deflation," a wonderfully original use of the medium to portray a distorted figure that looks exactly like a balloon deflating.

The trouble with this show is that it gives the viewer little help. We want to know something about the artists and how they work, whether these pieces represent the spectrum of figural ceramics today or only a fraction of it, and so on. The accompanying brochure, which was not available until almost two weeks after the show opened, contains an essay by Tony Hepburn, professor of ceramic art at Alfred University, that deals with the development of ceramic sculpture in general but not with this show.

"Color and Image: Recent American Enamels" at Towson State University contains nice pieces but more or less proves the opposite of what it sets out to prove. In his catalog essay accompanying the show, Lloyd E. Herman gives a good deal of information about enameling, from a definition ("the technique of melting and fusing colored glass powder on a metal surface under high heat"), to description of techniques such as cloisonne, champleve and plique-a-jour, to discussions of individual artists.

Herman states that the exhibit demonstrates "the modern artist's use of the ancient medium purely for self-expression," but the show itself leaves the impression that enameling is a practice best suited to jewelry and other decorative items.

It is the functional pieces that come off best here, including Susan Willis' "Dembones" brooches, James Carter's "Fibula Pin #3," Jaclyn Davidson's "Bracelet #1," Kathryn Regier Gough's "Discs" necklace. When others try for pure art, they all too often produce pretentious failures, but there are exceptions, especially John Killmaster's impressive "Horse Heaven II."

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