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Contemporary Clay

by N.F. Karlins
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Can color make you cool? One way to find out would be to view the icy-blue porcelain dinnerware, the all-white Moon Jars and the refreshingly glossy pale-green vessels in the exhibition “Pure Clay,” currently on view at RH Gallery on Duane Street in Tribeca.

“Pure Clay” consists of ceramics by the Korean-born artists Young-Sook Park and Lee Ufan. You may have already seen Ufan’s paintings and steel and stone sculptures in “Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity” at the Guggenheim Museum -- and although this show is mostly ceramics, the distilled esthetic is the same. “Pure Clay” occupies the front room of the gallery, while another good ceramics show of figurative work, “Contemporary Clay,” significantly turns up the heat in the back. Both are around until Aug. 20, 2011.

For “Pure Clay,” gallery director Rebecca Heidenberg has arranged the work of Young-Sook Park and Lee Ufan into an airy and inviting display. The two artists met in Korea in 1979 and share a minimalist esthetic. Here are clay pieces by each artist, collaborative works, and one watercolor and one painting, similar to those at the Guggenheim by Ufan.

Among the collaborative works are two terracotta wall plaques with irregular ridges formed by fingertips scooping out clay. Shadows do double duty, providing surface texture and changing areas of dark versus light, depending on the viewer’s perspective. No glazes needed.

Park and Ufan have also collaborated to produce simply shaped white porcelain dinnerware with a sparely applied cobalt-blue glaze. An irregular square of blue glaze and a series of tiny dashed-on smaller ones relate to Ufan’s larger paintings at the Guggenheim. A series of pieces featuring jaunty, deep-blue chili peppers shows another side of the usually abstract-only artists.

A plate from a 2009 series of porcelain vessels, thrown by Park and painted by Ufan, bears two red-and-blue peppers with copper-red and cobalt-blue glazes. That dish, along with another one featuring four juicy apples, has the loose, irregular feel of painting on many ceramics made in Japan, where Ufan now resides part-time. A sun over water, dramatically and economically rendered in two deft brushstrokes, is a delightful work, more figurative but comparable to Ufan’s abstracted series, “With Wings,” on view at the Guggenheim as well as here.

Park’s Moon Jars are the result of careful study of Korean Chosun ceramics and long experimentation. Originally made between the mid-17th- and mid-18th-century in Korea, there are only about 20 of these large, white-glazed pots still in existence. They were considered pure in their austerity and were embraced for their small flaws and subtle asymmetry. In Park’s moon jars, there is something maternal about the swollen shapes of these not-quite-traditional pots that makes the viewer want to embrace them -- which is obviously a no-no, but still . . . You can see her at work making them on YouTube.

Park has also contributed some buncheong vessels with a refreshingly watery green-white, fern-ash glaze and oxidized-iron decoration that is applied in wide strokes. Classical Korean buncheong (ca. 1400-1600 CE) is the subject of a current show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There are several types of decoration for this lively, informal earthenware, including inlayed, incised, or insouciantly painted embelishments. Park’s pieces belong to the last category, and boast the same breezy sweep-of-the-hand as the classic buncheong -- although her embellishments are all abstract, part of the renaissance of this technique by modern artists.

The largest ceramic work in this show is another buncheong piece -- created by Park, but painted by Ufan with the same Abstract-Expressionist vigor that can be seen in some of his paintings. This exciting plate, extending more than three feet in diameter, dates from 1988.

In the back of the gallery, “Contemporary Clay” is a collection of figurative work by 13 well-known and up-and-coming artists that heats up the atmosphere. Among the cooler pieces are Jeff Koons’ well-known white Scottie dog vase, and a jar of sunflower seeds from Ai Weiwei’s last installation at the Tate in London. Weiwei’s work is a reminder of his recent brutal incarceration (and continuing harassment) by the Chinese government in retaliation for documenting the corruption that resulted in the deaths of over 9,000 school children and teachers in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, due to faulty buildings.

Kathy Butterly, one of the most imaginative ceramic artists working today, has two of her diminutive, witty vessels in the show. Her Mask 2 (2009), exquisite technically, sports a punk personality that raises the temperature quite a lot. A variety of glazes and added textures -- tiny beads, twisty surfaces, even floral appliqués -- magically combine into irreverent, macho strutting.

In contrast to Young-Sook Park’s refined Moon Jars, Arlene Shechet’s Oh gold, blushing moon (2011) looks like a moon jar that has just crash landed from another universe. Supported by a wooden plinth, akin to one that Brancusi might have used, the work comprises a lop-sided white vessel with rivulets of white slip running down its sides and a few irregular rings of glazed clay stacked around the mouth. Shechet’s work, seen last year at Jack Shainman Gallery, is about bulk and obvious hand manipulation. Leave it to her to subvert this form and transform it into something uniquely her own.

Shinique Smith’s multiple Little Nugget (2008), in porcelain with 14-carat gold luster glaze, is another hot number. It is based on one of her clothing sculptures. That piece, part of her “Glutton” series, used a bundle of clothing painted in gold acrylic to satirize our wastefulness, and the endless supplies of used clothing.

Smith has often put clothing -- and also paint -- to good use. But this seems to me to be one of her most successful works. It may evoke the Buddha to some because of its plumpness, but the golden human form’s chopped-off, possibly deformed limbs, swathed in fabric and then tied, also conjures up bondage games. Fascinating, strange, and disturbing, it’s a show-stopper.

But then Paul Swenbeck’s reclining elf, Kobold (2009), is pretty odd as well. In German folk tales, kobolds are elves that are blamed for mining mishaps and for the blue or “cobalt” that appears in other sorts of minerals. We get the word “cobalt” from these imps. Here you have one solidified in glazed terracotta, a work that combines Swenbeck’s interest in paganism, weird creatures and trippy plants.

From cobalt to moon jars, these striking ceramics shows have a few things in common -- if not just temperature.

“Pure Clay: Young-Sook Park and Lee Ufan,” and “Contemporary Clay,” June 29-Aug. 20, 2011, RH Gallery, 137 Duane Street, New York, N.Y., 10013.

NANCY KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.