I visit Chelsea galleries as a cynic, questioning the machinations the art market and why the backdrop of the much too white pristine space. I am overwhelmed by the hustle in the art world. How the dealers, artists and collectors are all complicit. However this past month, at Arlene Shechet’s show Slip at Sikkema and Jenkins Gallery, I felt grateful to see this work and the beautiful space it was shown in.
I love ceramics but I have thought of it as a medium limited in craft and function. Shechet’s pieces transcend my limited idea of the possibilities of clay and still remain ceramic. They are simultaneously vessels and sculptures, some are collapsing, while others sprawl. They rest on bases that Shechet builds of metal, wood and bricks. The bases are integral to the work, setting a specific stage for each individual piece to perform a muted anthropomorphic monologue.
Although the tradition of ceramics, like jazz, is global from the beginning of time, there is an intrinsically American texture to ceramics and jazz. As the tradition of Louis Armstrong progresses to Charlie Parker to Paul Moshen, Arlene Shechet descends from Peter Volkos, and in turn, George Ohr. A tradition of American heroic ceramics in continued through these artists. Shechet’s work is in dialogue with the paintings of Elizabeth Murray. Both Murray and Shechet use biomorphic shapes, bright colors, and reject the traditional rectangle to frame the work. Shechet references Brancusi with her bases because there is a direct dialogue with each base to its sculpture.
My experience has been how challenging clay is to work with. A ceramics teacher once told me that the mantra to throwing on the wheel that is “my ego is not my amigo.” Shechet has an equal partnership with clay. Although it through her hand as the artist, the work is simultaneously vessels, urns, and objects. The surfaces are mottled, and colorful, flat and dimensional. I had a strange sensation that it requires all five senses to see the work. One work stands unremarkable white base with a dry, rough surface, yet the color is a lush orange. It looked as though it had been inflated and was collapsing in on itself as it lost air. I wanted to eat it, mush it, and knock it over at the same time. There are several pieces with a lunar or coral like surface. Many are falling in on themselves, and some are held up with seams. Some are a series of modular cubes in layers. Arlene Shechet transcends any preconceived notion I have of how clay can behave. Each example is a combination of tough and fragile. She uses easily identifiable materials and the combination is indefinable. Each is an investigation in balance. Each work is strikingly beautiful and ugly, formal, and informal. Even the show’s title, Slip, is multidimensional whether it is technical use of slip as a bond, as a casting agent, slipping up, or slip that you wear.
I was grateful to experience these sculptures without cynicism. Each piece in the show seemed an elegant balance. And the each piece of the show: the artist, the gallery, the viewer worked in harmony.