In the past, Swiss-artist Mai-Thu Perret’s work has addressed relationships between pure formalism, applied craft, and spiritual discourse. It has revealed points where seemingly contradictory approaches to object- or image-making overlap.
The works in Astral Plane (David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles January 25 through March 22, 2014) include a new series of tapestries, ceramic objects and a wicker sculpture. They push Perret’s investigations further by subjecting formal vocabularies to degrees of visual emptiness and blankness. Though they bring together specific narratives from diverse cultural histories, many have been made using processes in which control and intentionality are offset by chance and pre-existing material conditions.
New ceramic vessels allow for experimental use of color. Unlike the allover strategy that defines the wall-based works, however, Perret differentiates the inside and outside of these forms by applying glaze to them in distinct ways. Their exteriors have been treated in a serene, matter-of-fact fashion, with drips and other marks typical of the medium. Their interiors, meanwhile, are complex, chaotic, 3D environments in which the glaze has been allowed to flow and pool according to its own natural properties. The discrepancy in mood between the inner and outer surfaces of the vessels accentuates the strangeness of their shapes and scale. Reminiscent of giant cups or otherworldly baskets, they retain ties to the domestic and the utilitarian while asserting their presence as highly individual sculptural objects.
Because of its wide-ranging anthropological significance, its inherent tactility, and its dependence upon the transformative role played by fire, ceramics has long played an important role in Perret’s work. Here, she demonstrates several new approaches to the medium. In a series of wall-based objects, she has allowed a platinum glaze to undergo chemical reactions that leave it riddled with ghostly patterns evocative of nebulae or the “paranormal” entities captured by early spirit photography. Because these effects cannot be controlled once the piece enters the kiln, they are records of a process that exceeds human intervention; they are the incidental visual expressions of a non-visual phenomenon. The platinum works offer a contrast to other wall-based ceramics whose bold, saturated glazes heighten their forms, which are either handled and torn (and therefore highly expressive), or sharply defined and pop-like.
A black wicker sculpture of a donkey lends a contrasting aura of figuration to the mutability and formal openness that define the rest of the show. At the same time, its woven construction makes it a bearer of geometric patterning, and therefore representative of yet another variant of applied abstraction. However, it is the narrative possibility suggested by this beast of burden (titled Black Balthazar, after the film by Robert Bresson) that channels the underlying philosophical positions central to Astral Plane. A symbol of labor and humility, the donkey is, like the ceramic vessel, a mode of transport often considered secondary to what it is asked to carry. As such, it is also a metaphor for the fleeting, transient nature of the material world, and a reminder that all physical forms are temporary.
Tapestries have bridged traditions of art, textile design, and architecture at least since the middle ages. For Perret, the medium also represents a way of working around the compositional problems of abstract painting. The use of natural fibers and dyes means that the tapestries featured in Astral Plane are based on a restricted color palette, one that provides a neutral backdrop to the exhibition as a whole. And while the images on them resemble pure geometric abstractions, they are informed by a variety of specific sources. These include Indian tantric art, meditation videos, and the 19th century Kindergarten movement as conceived by Friedrich Froebel, wherein educators used invented symbols––which happen to resemble of forms common in modernist painting––to instruct children in what they believed was a pre-linguistic, universal logic.
Above image: Installation view of Mai-Thu Perret’s Astral Plane and David Kordansky Gallery. Image courtesy of the gallery.