Surrealist chief of staff André Breton, in his novel Nadja, tells of finding an object in a Parisian flea market that suggested a number of stories without exactly telling any. It was an “irregular, white, shellacked half-cylinder covered with reliefs and depressions … streaked with horizontal and vertical reds and greens,” and Breton scarcely knew what to make of it. But explorer into the imaginary that he was, he took it home and let it fascinate him for hours on end.
Breton would have had an easier time with the objects in “Spinning Tales: Narrative Ceramics” — the show that opens at the Sybaris Gallery this Saturday, Dec. 7, 5-7 p.m. — without having to give up his interest in the strange, the marvelous and the perverse. Because these works by five contemporary ceramicists make us process all kinds of unusual cues — dramatic characters, vivid but ambiguous events and various layering, grouping or collage techniques — on the way to dreaming up a range of fictional possibilities.
The obvious antecedents for Edward Eberle’s black-and-white, glazed porcelain vessels are in classical Greek pottery, with its depictions of mythical tales and creatures. At Sybaris, two large containers by this Pittsburgh artist are crowded with naked figures — mostly humans, but also animals, deities and other beasties — frozen in inaction. Like characters from Danté in the waiting rooms of hell, these torsos on the brink of distortion seem stuck in limbo. The fine black lines of Eberle’s drawing emphasize the fragile, transitory character of existence — while the piggybacked, ransacked structure of his Beyond a Title (2001) makes it look like one vase was dropped onto another before the clay was fired, as if to say that even art’s time on earth is brief.
Also working in a neoclassical mode is Arizona artist Kurt Weiser, whose smallish porcelain jars and vessels recall the centuries-old Chinese tradition, particularly in his use of blue-and-white hues. Weiser’s surface scenes have a peaceful, still-life quality to them, with a poetic juxtaposition of faces, hills, clouds, windows, tables, fish, fruit, vegetation, moons in the sky, and an ever-present series of vases, bowls and other fired-clay containers in a kind of meta-commentary on the ceramicist’s art. Within this intimate realm, Weiser heightens our awareness of the beauty of everyday life.
A strong surrealist aura emanates from the works of the other three artists in “Spinning Tales,” from Irina Zaytceva’s china-painted eroticism to Paul McMullan’s polymorphic combines to Katherine Blacklock’s multidimensional clay busts. The surrealist project has always been a balancing act, bringing together disparate elements that place the viewer in a wonderfully uncertain position. But an old Hindu saying — “A work of art has a thousand faces” — suggests that the life experiences and predispositions that each of us brings to any successful poem or painting always determine what we take away in the form of “meaning” or “story.” In other words, each person sees something different, a unique object.
Zaytceva, a Russian living in New York City, plays with this rich uncertainty while she plays with us. Her scenes are openly sexual, but her mysterious humanoids take their pleasure in ways that involve multiple species (the vase titled Lord of the Flies) and a suggestion of multiple partners (the platter called Ravishing Art of the Tattoo, pictured).
McMullan, on the other hand, builds his Technicolor, earthenware sculptures out of ’50s pop-culture cowpokes, fishing outings, the Three Little Pigs, human body parts and animal figures that we recognize easily. It’s just that we haven’t seen them put together this way.
And Blacklock transforms what would be simple acts of portraiture into multicolored memory banks. She oil paints her busts so that one contains the faces of four different persons (Four Faces) and another a primordial wilderness of forms (Pouring). Her work thus becomes a metaphor for the way this show’s objects narrate their stories, uncannily and unexpectedly.
“Spinning Tales: Narrative Ceramics” is at the Sybaris Gallery (202 E. Third St., Royal Oak) through Jan. 18. Call 248-544-3388.George Tysh is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org