VISUAL ARTS | “Dirt on Delight”: The Walker digs up some crazy clay

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If claywork makes you think of clean, functional vases and teapots, you’re not alone. The artists represented in Dirt on Delight: Impulses That Form Clay—a traveling exhibit of avant-garde pottery opening at the Walker Art Center this Saturday, July 11—seem to share that impression of their craft, and it apparently drives them crazy. They’re mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it any more.

Like the White House China room, Dirt on Delight packs a lot to look at into a compact space. You can see the entire exhibit in a glance when you step into the Target Gallery (why don’t we just rename Minnesota the Target State and be done with it?), but you’ll want to spend a while taking it all in. Not only are the pieces beautiful to look at, many of them take a while to figure out. Is that a teacup? Seriously?

The work on display spans a century of progressive dirtwork, and the pieces range from the moderately conventional to the truly far-out—even many of the pieces thrown on a wheel look like they were sculpted in a tornado while the artist dodged flying cows and Pontiacs.

Guiding a group through the exhibit in a Thursday morning preview, curator Andria Hickey explained that the artists in the show sought to explore the impulses that traditionally animate claywork: the impulse to make something practical, the impulse to make a thing of beauty, the impulse to get down and dirty (with or without Patrick Swayze).

All artists struggle with the history and conventions of their chosen media, but the artists in Dirt on Delight often seem downright passive-aggressive in their silent assault on our preconceptions about clay. Nicole Cherubini, explained Hickey, “has made a rule for herself: ‘none of my pots will have bottoms.'” Some of this gets a little eye-roll-inducing—on Thursday morning there was much talk of “playing with the pedestal” and questioning of, say, how many handles a pot needs—but you don’t have to have a conflicted relationship with your fruit bowl to appreciate the sophisticated craft and beguiling textures on display, or to be amused by Robert Arneson’s grotesquely torso-pomorphic toilet.

The pieces that engage with the figurative tradition in claywork are among the show’s standouts. Viola Frey’s cornucopia of glazed tchotchke elevates low art to high art in perfect Pop Era form, while Ann Agee’s caricatured porcelain figures do for the form—as Hickey noted—what Kara Walker has done for paper cut-outs, but with more whimsy and less anger. Agee is, after all, a clayworker, and they’re all nice people, right? Maybe…but you’d better not turn your back on those terra cotta mandrakes.

Jay Gabler (jay@tcdailyplanet.net) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.

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