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RISD Museum to Present an Installation by Ceramic Sculptor Arnie Zimmerman and Architect Tiago Montepegado
Arnie Zimmerman, Inner City, detail, 2006-2009, stoneware clay, glaze, epoxy. Courtesy of the artist.

PROVIDENCE, RI.- The RISD Museum of Art presents Inner City, an epic narrative of urban growth, decay, change, and life itself, realized in clay by one of the most significant contemporary artists working in ceramics today—Arnie Zimmerman (American, b. 1954). Comprised of more than 150 figurative and architectural glazed stoneware elements, the installation is adapted to the Museum’s Chace Center galleries by architect Tiago Montepegado and Zimmerman.

Sprawled across a 4,000-square-foot space, the exhibition will feature a ramp with a viewing platform, where visitors can survey the panorama and appreciate the city’s narratives from a variety of perspectives. The city itself is organized in a grid pattern across the floor, and punctuated by pedestals of different heights and elements attached to the walls. Smaller versions of Inner City were presented in 2007 at the Museu da Electricidade for the Lisbon Architecture Triennial, and in 2008 at the Keramiekmuseum Princessehof (Leeuwarden, the Netherlands). The RISD installation significantly expands on these shows, featuring a new body of work which includes a large bridge. This presentation marks the first in North America.

Installed within a structural framework designed by Montepegado (in response to José Rafael Moneo’s architecture for RISD), Inner City’s diminutive tenements, skyscrapers, scaffolding, and construction workers evoke a whimsical, mythical world. A closer look reveals signs of something amiss, as workers brawl or tumble down I-beam shafts and dumpsters overflow. Indeed, Zimmerman’s vision is an ominous one, a cautionary tale about urban corporatization, gentrification, and the waning connection to history in general and in the everyday. Zimmerman has lived and worked in New York for more than twenty-five years, observing its streetscape with a mix of awe and regret. “The parts of the city I was most familiar with when I first arrived had a visceral, palpable connection to the past,” Zimmerman observes. “Over the past few decades, New York City has irrevocably changed into a different urban environment—something more civil and benign, more bland and corporate,” he added.

This profound transformation of neighborhoods and their architecture is not limited to New York of course, nor to the turn of the millennium. Buildings have been continually razed and buried in the process of creating more modern cities and new cultural landscapes; however, the global building boom of the recent past seems to have transformed the urban way of life everywhere and at once. That this boom has now gone bust—or at least has been put on hold—amid the current worldwide economic downturn puts another twist in Zimmerman’s civic allegory.

Like the densely populated paintings of Brueghel, Inner City illustrates myriad details of daily life. It also suggests the glory and the suffering of manual labor, and perhaps provides a metaphor for the heroism or folly of craftsmanship and creation itself. Zimmerman’s figures represent working-class characters toiling without modern technology. There is something timeless about them, something that poses the eternal question: Are we destined to be doomed to endless Sisyphean tasks, or is there such a thing as progress? In this, Zimmerman’s work shares a lineage with paintings as diverse as those of Hieronymus Bosch, with their bleak portrayal of human foibles, to Thomas Hart Benton, with whom he shares a distinctively sinewy sculptural style, and other WPA artists of the New Deal, which aimed to lift the United States out of the Great Depression and rebuild it. That all of this is rendered in clay—a medium as durably eternal as it is fragile—makes Inner City all the more poignant as a symbol of the ever-present and ever-changing city, whose very existence shifts with its physical infrastructure, its social evolution, and with economic forces.

Arnie Zimmerman (American, b. 1954; lives and works in New York) received a BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute in 1977 and an MFA in 1979 from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. In his early career, Zimmerman became known for architecture-scale carved vessels that by the late 1980s began to resemble totemic columns. Zimmerman’s work changed dramatically in the early and mid 1990s, when he began to consider the human figure on a smaller, more intimate scale. By the late 1990s, he focused on groupings or tableaus of figures. His techniques and materials also shifted from slab construction and carving to modeled forms in salt-fired porcelain and stoneware and colored glazes.

Zimmerman’s work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions including: Katonah Museum of Art, Katonah, NY (2008, 2001); Arizona State University Art Museum, Tempe, AZ (2007); Clay Studio, Philadelphia, PA (2006); Daum Museum, Sedalia, MO (2006); John Michael Kohler Art Center, Sheboygan, WI (2005); Islip Art Museum, Islip, NY (2001); Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, NY (1999); Kemper Museum, Kansas City Art Institute, Kansas City, MO (1995); Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, NY (1993); Museu do Azulejo, Lisbon, Portugal (1992); Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, WA (1987); Museum of Arts & Design, New York, NY (1986); and Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI (1984, 1995). Earning him a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award in 2005, Zimmerman’s works are in the collections of the Museum of Arts and Design, New York, NY; Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park, Shigaraki, Japan; Nacional Museu do Azulejo, Lisbon; Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA; Contemporary Art Center, Honolulu, HI; Frost Art Museum, Florida International University, Miami; Detroit Institute of Art, Detroit, MI; Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA; and Smithsonian American Art Museum, Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Tiago Montepegado (Portuguese, b. 1970; lives and works in Lisbon) graduated in 1995 with a degree in architecture from the Faculdade de Arquitectura da Universidade Técnica de Lisboa. In 1998, he began teaching in the Department of Architecture at the Universidade Moderna de Lisboa. From 1995 to 2000, he served as an advisor to Portuguese president Jorge Sampaio at the Bureau for Youth, Education, and Science. Montepegado’s firm specializes in private-home construction and the renewal of public spaces and buildings. Collaboration is a central aspect of Montepegado’s method. He works closely with artists, combining his technical and scientific knowledge with their artistic vision to evolve schemes for a given space.

RISD Museum | Tiago Montepegado | Arnie Zimmerman | Lisbon Architecture Triennial | Keramiekmuseum Princessehof | New Deal |

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