Seen through the windows of Robert Kidd Gallery, Lisa Clague's Creatures in Clay seem innocent enough. Her animals might easily be seen spinning to music in the nursery of a pampered child, and her nude female figures are starkly elegant mannequins with just a bit of froufrou in the tutus. But upon closer inspection, whether they depict upper torsos or full bodies, the ceramic sculptures are perverse. They look like some twisted cross between a cast member from A Midsummer's Night Dream and Crafts Gone Wild!
Saying her aesthetic is theatrical is an understatement. Clague, a 44-year-old artist who has an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts and now lives in Bakersville, North Carolina, is the child of both a ceramist and a sculptor, and she has combined her parents' disciplines in her own highly imaginative way.
There is, to begin with, the matter of the masks. Virtually no creature's face is without one except those that don't have heads. Some masks are lifeless human visages and others are of imaginary hybrid animals goats, monkeys, donkeys, rabbits and such, with horns, a giant beak or tall, pointy ears whose suggestive smiles or nasty sneers reveal menacing little teeth. The purpose of the masks, it seems, is to highlight the disparity between inner and outer realities; between the real world and the world of dreams or, more accurately, nightmares.
Outsized headdresses further dramatize some of Clague's figures. The quirky styles range from a liturgical bishop's hat to one with comical antennas to an elaborate curvy thing resembling a Mexican wrought-iron candelabra to the one worn by "Whirlygig Rabbit," with croquet balls hanging from a circular armature. The headgear provides formal balance for the sculptures, but also offers lots of whimsy.
Ray Frost Fleming, director of Robert Kidd Gallery, says it's Clague's superb craftsmanship that makes her work important. "If these figures were handled poorly, they'd be stupid; they wouldn't work," Fleming says. He has a point.
Her mastery of ceramics is laudable. The detail she puts into her sculptures, including the intricate drawing on her intriguing surfaces, makes prolonged looking pleasurable. For example, the eyes of her creatures look so real, so human, even under the animal masks, that they compel a viewer to return their stare. It feels uncomfortably like getting involved in some odd psychological game they're playing.
In a catalog available at the gallery, Nancy Resler says that Clague "can envision enlarged possibilities of being." In "Convoluted Dream II," one possibility Clague imagines is having two heads and three pairs of sagging breasts. "Lily White Girl," a torso with a Kate Moss-like mask, has a detailed diagram of milk-ducts, as if tattooed, on one of her breasts. Bare breasts play a big role in Clague's world. According to the catalog, she's reacting to the arduous task of breast-feeding, and the stress of being a mother and an artist at the same time. She seems to have turned to something like Les Folies Bergère for comic relief.
Clague's creatures are categorized as "surreal" in the catalog, but her work is kind of candy-coated for that category. Her brand of surrealism doesn't pack the real visceral punch of, for instance, a Matthew Barney. It's that missing punch, a lack of overall compelling tension, perhaps, that makes Clague's work more like craft and less like fine art. And also she's simply trying too hard to be charming.
Her craft mentality provides an almost Cirque du Soleil experience. Like the design of those inspired productions, Clague's work combines the exotically beautiful with intense, implied physicality, as in "Flower of the Ages," when she heaps opened black flowers around an all-black figure with pubescent wings. Gazing at her collection of eccentrically decorated figures with masks, it's as if you can smell the sweat that soaks the performers' fabulous costumes and hear the dancers' grunts as they perform elegant lifts. The strength of Creatures in Clay is the revelation of life behind glamorous facades. Unfortunately she sometimes puts too much emphasis on prettiness and quirky eccentricity. And then her message gets muffled by yards of perky pastel nylon tulle or smothered in pink-and-white striped party hats.
Lisa Clague: Creatures in Clay runs through Nov. 1 at Robert Kidd Gallery, 107 Townsend St., Birmingham; 248-642-3909.
Christina Hill writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org