I love those rare mornings when I open a file sent to cfile.daily and gasp (the good kind of gasp, not a gurgle of horror). That happened recently when I was presented by an exhibition from an artist who got everything right and created a new benchmark for himself, the field and the genre.
The exhibition Mathew McConnell: More Possibilities for Distance and Mass (New York, January 8 — February 5) is at the Jane Hartsook Gallery of the Greenwich House Pottery. You should hurry to see it, it’s in the final week. The Gallery has been pursuing a fascinating exhibition program. There are some slips when they turn to adult education wannabees from the fine art world, but they otherwise host what is arguably the best exhibition series for emerging ceramists in the City.
The exhibition is all black, my favorite non-color together with its grey siblings. It is a perfect counterpoint because tomorrow we begin a week of all white posts. Black is the lack of light. White is all light. Neither is technically a color.
Before we proceed, however, do me a favor. I hope that you can accept that color use, unless intentionally loaded with racial content, is race-neutral. I recently read a ridiculous review by Janet Tyson of Edmund De Waal’s book White Road which argued that the author’s poetic riffs on white (which were, admittedly, a tad too precious) were racist!
How can he obsess about whiteness without ever linking it to race, and without implicating himself as a beneficiary of that racial identity? How can he state that white “forces other colors to reveal themselves” without realizing that whiteness imposes difference on every other skin color? Perhaps obsession simply breeds myopia.
His comments are pure truths about color science. Its a formalist way of seeing polychromy. Reading race into this is frankly being argumentative.
Black isolates form the same way white does. There is no escape into prettiness. It demands more of the eye to cope with its shadow play, which is why I have always loved it so much. When I was 23 I painted my house’s interior black. I was in bliss! So that gets my bias out of the way.
McConnell’s show hits every mark. First, the style of assemblage he employs is as ubiquitous as it is tragically uneven. It’s “The look ma, I found a tabletop!” school. At its worst it’s an excuse to take random objects, your own and others, and mix and merge them in the belief that the act itself contains inherent and instant profundity.
Crafting this action into a viable work of art is elusive. It takes more than scattershot. It requires interconnective tissues that bring the elements, which can be superficially without obvious synergy into a dialogue. It’s like a cocktail party in which the chatter takes on the level of performance art.
The styles allow a certain form freedom. A great assemblage can live perfectly well and have gravitas without each piece having to stand alone as a masterwork. The power is collective. It comes from the chorus of work.
McConnell does not fall back on this latitude. Each object is remarkable, sculpturally convincing, self-standing, independent, without a runt in the litter. And the more I come back to his art, the more it grows. The Band-Aid surfaces are engrossing, as much steel as clay. The precisely delineated layers expand and grow structure. Look for this show in our best exhibitions post at the end of the year.
Then, he takes on another black hole in the arts: appropriation. (Note: We have another example with our post on Mike Bidlo and Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain today). As McConnell explains, his current investigations are based on the works of other visual artists:
“Often using a singular form or image as a starting point, I recreate the work with alterations to suit my own compositional needs. The resulting forms vary between what could be mistaken as a facsimile of another artist’s work and an artwork with a source seemingly outside any individual reference.
“In the construction of these replicant objects, I sometimes find myself trying to pinpoint the exact moment at which the work becomes more mine than theirs. Sometimes this moment occurs in the mere selection of a form, and at other times it does not occur at all. By careful construction of these simulated, manipulated, exalted, and subverted forms, I find, at the best of times, a means of reconciling the difference between what is an art of someone else’s and what is an art of my own.”
Again, he does this with genius. I am not going to point out all the connections myself but I will give a hint. Go to our post on the young star, Jesse Wine and then come back and find the connection. And while I shouldn’t say it because it will bring the ancients down from the mountains with pitchforks, I actually prefer his Rocking Pot to that of Voulkos while recognizing the latter’s preeminence.
Lastly, give this post another scroll through after you’ve had your first look. What has been done in the layout is to often place a work in isolation next to an image of it in situ. Look at each in its own frame. The works thrives equally alone and in dialogue and each has its voice.
I disagree a little with the gallery’s press release, “A cerebral artist, McConnell’s approach to art is analytical and pragmatic, using others’ art as a catalyst for his own.” While he is cerebral the term has negative connotations, a synonym for academic . His conceptualism arrives at that rare mix of an intuitive sensualist with a powerful command of material. This is probably my favorite combination in art: intelligence that does not overburden the objects’ autonomy. Indeed, if I found a work alone with no knowledge of McConnell’s practice the visceral sculptor’s bite would be as strong.
In case you have not felt my enthusiasm, allow me to be clearer: This show is the one to beat for our exhibition of the year award. Let’s give McConnell a run for his money!
Mathew McConnell (b. 1979, Johnstown, PA) holds an MFA from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and a BFA from Valdosta State University in Georgia. He has held numerous solo exhibitions and his works have been included in group exhibitions in China, Australia, New Zealand, and in many venues across the United States. In 2012, Mathew was granted an “Emerging Artist” award from the National Council on Education in Ceramic Art. He has also been a resident at the Archie Bray Foundation, Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts, and was Artist in Residence and Guest Lecturer of Contemporary Craft at Unitec in Auckland, New Zealand. His work was recently the subject of a profile in the publication Ceramics: Art and Perception. He is currently serving as an Assistant Professor at the University of Arkansas, where he oversees the ceramics area.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of cfile.daily.
What do you think of this exhibition of McConnell’s contemporary ceramic art? Let us know in the comments.