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by N.F. Karlins
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The Oriental sensibility offers a fascinating take on the sensual control of space in objects. It considers the interplay between the void (Yin / female / lunar) and the form (Yang / male / solar) as a charged arena -- mystical, sexual, sometimes both, but always magical. This expanded notion of the vessel is explored in "Contained Excitement: Pleasures of the Void," a broad-ranging survey of ceramics, baskets and more currently on view at Cavin-Morris Gallery in Chelsea, Dec. 11, 2010-Jan. 22, 2011.

There’s a lot to see; more than 100 pieces in two rooms, a range of mostly small works, lots of contemporary ceramics and baskets or items employing techniques from these disciplines, plus older pieces from Africa and Asia. Most works will make you want to reach out and hold them -- except for the bed. More on that in a minute.

The earliest work in the show is a Korean white porcelain tea bowl with an elegant blue-green celadon glaze from the Koryo Period (11th century). It’s surrounded by others from throughout the Chosan Period (1392 to around 1900) that I encourage visitors to ask to touch. Part of the appeal of tea is the handling of the implements, and these are delightful.

Even more ethereal is Gerri Johnson-McMillin’s delicate vessel-shaped sculpture San Miguel (2002), an otherworldly jellyfish made of woven monofilament (fishing line), fishbones and shells only six inches high. Stare at it long enough, and you’ll swear it has begun to sway in preparation for swimming off into thin air.

The show’s centerpiece is quite different, a sleigh bed done in high roll steel by the Brooklyn-based artist Sullivan Walsh. It drips o-rings and is accessorized with handcuffs scattered across its flat surface. S & M sex in a steel playpen, anyone? Sexual fetish is evoked not only here, but also in works like Tyrome Tripoli’s Sargasso Green Selenium (2004).

For Sargasso, Tripoli blew green glass into an armature of flat bar steel. The visual tension between expansion and compression, the freedom of organic swelling and the binding of man-made metal strips conjures both arousal and cool detachment.

The organic opening of non-human nature is another kind of void to be found in "Contained Excitement." Lizzie Farey uses traditional basketry for her appealing Almost Spring, fashioned out of willow branches with pussy willow buds blossoming around the rim.

A number of cloud sculptures by Mei-Ling Hom, an American with Chinese roots, connect East and West. Her abstract ceramics have a tempting physicality to them and a chthonic side, courtesy of the brown and black tones they display from being salt-fired. Are these really clouds or newly unearthed Neolithic fetishes?

Just when your eye settles into one of the more traditional craft pieces, another arrives to take you somewhere you’ve never been before. Catch a glimpse of a recent tri-lobed openwork bamboo piece by Charissa Brock, and your eyes immediately hop on a roller coaster. Her dizzying two-toned bamboo piece is way over the top and bottom and top. . . .

I thought the contemporary Korean artist Hyungsub Shin’s Popped (2010), an almost four-foot-long ear of Indian corn, was made of plastic kernels when I first looked at it. But I discovered it’s actually real Indian corn, lots of it, each kernel precisely knotted into place with clear thread. Each kernel (and the space between) is neatly calibrated. It took almost a year to complete.

Jerry Bleem’s work also takes some looking. Compress (2001) is a wild stomach-like pouch that’s protective, but of what? It is made out of bent screening and thousands and thousands of staples, creating a scintillating silver and gold work that shimmers between the organic and constructed. Even better is his Crest (2004), some oddly distorted brain in form perhaps, also made with staples but this time using not wire but fish scales. Fish scales? I could barely keep my hands off it.

Another type of surprise was seeing the glazed ceramics of Otagaki Rengetsu, a noted Japanese potter, poet and Buddhist nun from the 19th century. A pair of sencha (tea) cups is inscribed on the interior with her tiny script while other sets of dishes by this major artist are nearby. Again, ask to hold them.

In the ceramics room, the smaller of the gallery’s two spaces for this exhibition, are seven Song bowls, but these are not the usual refined ceramics from the Song Dynasty of China (960-1127 AD). Song porcelains, like these, were fired in two-piece containers, called saggars, to protect them. Here a fired bowl is stuck to the bottom of its saggar and distorted with it. These ceramics, once mistakes, have taken on a new life as poignant artworks. Instead of the perfection of the Song, you get the pathos of the passing of time, a more Japanese wabi-sabi feeling.

Saggars also figure in the work of Deirdre Hawthorne, a ceramic artist from Northern Ireland. Her paper-thin porcelain vessels, about the weight of a couple of wasp wings, come in mottled pinks, greens and blues, as a result of being saggar-fired, which allows for accidental colorings. She also manipulates the surface before firing to create her distinctive cup-like vessels.

One of the most intriguing pieces in the show is by Shuji Ikeda, who was born in Japan, went to school here, and is a Professor of Ikenobo, a venerable school of Ikebana, or Japanese flower arranging, as well as a talented ceramicist. His Tall Red and Black Tsuchikago (2010) looks like a basket, but is made of black-and-red clay wedged together and woven into a basket form.  

Ikeda has created a colorful water-tight pot, glazed on the inside, and perfect for flower arrangements. That this "basket" is made of bi-color woven clay, is as unlikely as Jeff KoonsBalloon Dog sculptures being made out of metal.

Other items in this clever show are a ca. 1900 Chinese priest’s leather manuscript, rolled of course; hanks of knotted fisherman indigo-dyed ropes from Japan; a split bamboo and raffia Kuba cloth panel from Zaire, with its asymmetrical flat and cut-pile embroidery areas; and many more contemporary sculptures.

"Contained Excitement: Pleasures of the Void," Dec. 11, 2010-Jan. 22, 2011, at Cavin-Morris Gallery, 210 Eleventh Avenue, Suite 201, New York, N.Y. 10001

N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.