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Conversations in Clay at the Katonah Museum of Art

KATONAH, NY.- The Katonah Museum of Art presents Conversations in Clay on October 19, featuring installations by ten internationally acclaimed artists. The exhibition is part of All Fired Up, a Westchester County-wide clay celebration that encompasses 68 venues. The artists featured in Conversations in Clay use this ancient material to create contemporary installations that address such disparate subjects as transience and permanence, nature and civilization, history and human folly. Many of the artworks are architectural in scale and physically surround the viewer; more than half were created specifically for the exhibition. The distinguished artists are: Ann Agee, Marek Cecula, Michael Lucero, Jeffrey Mongrain, Judy Moonelis, Sana Musasama, Denise Pelletier, Charles Simonds, Betty Woodman, and Arnie Zimmerman. Conversations in Clay is co-curated by Ursula Ilse-Neuman, curator at the Museum of Arts & Design in New York City, and Janet Kardon, Director Emerita of that institution. The exhibition will run through January 11, 2009.

Clay carries history, literally and figuratively. Over tens of thousands of years, rocks in the earth’s crust weather, disintegrate, and are transported long distances to become clay. When combined with water, sedimentary clay has a plasticity that allows it to be worked with bare hands into a multitude of stable forms. When fired at a high temperature, clay is transformed into rock-hard ceramics—earthenware clay produces opaque, porous pottery with colors ranging from white to the familiar terra-cotta of bricks, while clays for stoneware and porcelain produce smoother textured objects with gray to white colors. Whether raw or refined, unfired or fired, clay is a material with a history. In the hands of an artist, clay’s associations with time, the earth, and human culture inform and enrich the concepts that are conveyed.

“This exhibition serves as the stage proclaiming clay’s remarkably versatile properties and hailing its earthly origin and its importance to humankind,” says Ursula Ilse-Neuman. “These artists engage the visitor in dialogues: each ‘conversation in clay’ offers a distinctive experience of scale, time and space, with the viewer becoming a part of the conversation through a sensory encounter that merges the artistic realm with the real world, palpably bringing the ideal down to earth.”

The simple circular forms of Jeffrey Mongrain’s eloquent wall-mounted ceramic sculpture Our Eyes are Opened (1805) /We Are Truly One (2008), for example, invites the viewer to participate in a silent dialogue between the object and its setting. To honor Katonah’s rich Native American history, Mongrain took a phrase from an 1805 address by Seneca Chief Red Jacket and memorialized the sound patterns as concentric ridges on one of two segmented disks. For his second, or “echo” disk, he chose a phrase from Barack Obama’s speech on race, delivered over two hundred years later. To create the smooth, lustrous, yet mysterious surfaces of these poetic sound objects, Mongrain carved and wax-polished the ceramic disks after firing them.

Charles Simonds has relied on clay’s historical and structural properties since the 1970s, when he began building his miniature brick habitations for “little people” with red New Jersey clay. These poetic evocations of landscape and culture were placed in niches on streets throughout Manhattan, and most famously on a window ledge in the stairwell of the Whitney Museum of American Art. In his Katonah work, Mental Earth, Simonds creates an alternative realm in which the viewer, rather than looking down on Simonds’s small worlds, is dwarfed by an imposing monumental form that hangs disconcertingly in mid-air like a menacing asteroid.

“Massive in scale, its heavily textured forms thrust themselves from one end of the gallery to the other. Space is invaded and then overcome, made to be an active partner with the clay,” says Janet Kardon. “Viewers, always in the forefront of Simonds’s mind, are actually physically threatened—imprisoned, subsumed, and miniaturized—by the almost suffocating massiveness of Mental Earth. The space allotted to them is sharply diminished, and a sensation of caution controls their movement around the work.”

The materiality of earthenware clay and its long association with mankind are central to the humanity projected by Arnie Zimmerman’s scenes of unending and seemingly meaningless toil. In Walled City, his figures labor anonymously, cast into a nameless inner city whose walls merge with those of the gallery. Zimmerman uses age-old forming techniques that he learned as a potter, and the marks of his labor are clearly visible in each of his hand-built figures.

Using dry, unfired clay from Westchester for his site-specific installation Klepisko, Marek Cecula compresses time to create an “archeology of the future” in which geological processes are accelerated through visitor participation. Within his clay floor lie artifacts recalling ancient and modern cultures, more of which are revealed as visitors walk on the friable surface and break down its structure.

In Light Project, Michael Lucero treats a wall in one of the galleries as if it were a theatrical stage. Using spotlights to remodel his clay objects with dramatic light and shadow effects, he engages them in an ongoing performance in which their surfaces and spatial relationships change as the viewer moves around them.

In her ceramic pictures Vividareum, Internal Courtyard, and Villa Capri, Betty Woodman reinterprets the vessel form, breaking it apart into flattened shards covered with exuberant colors.

Ann Agee introduces mainstream culture and contemporary socio-political concerns into figurines in her installation Boxing. Covering the Museum walls with painted wallpaper, she creates a backdrop for small, glazed terra-cotta figures that recall eighteenth-century porcelain table ornaments.

Judy Moonelis and Denise Pelletier take human biology as cues for their works. Fascinated with anatomical development and the senses, Moonelis leads us on an exploration of the marvels of the body and its evolution. Mirror Neuron Strand and Evolutionary Wall II suggest connections between our existence as biological entities and as members of wider social and physical communities.

In the complex network of forms that comprise Guardian Angel, Pelletier focuses on the flow of fluids that nourish the body. She alters and reworks slip-cast porcelain molds that are based on actual historical medical instruments to create ceramic objects that bridge the biological and the inorganic.

Sana Musasama’s anthropomorphic tree forms operate on a metaphorical level, exploring themes inspired by the abolitionist Maple Tree Movement that began in the eighteenth century. The human and tree-like features of these colorful and richly textured forms constitute a metaphor for remembrance and liberation.

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