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“Atemwende”, defined as the point at which a word transcends its meaning, is the title of Edmund de Waal’s exhibition (September 12 – October 19, 2013) at Gagosian Gallery in New York. In a similar way, his installations transcend their medium. These installations of tiny porcelain vessels arranged in exquisitely crafted vitrines, are about the visual melodies created by their groupings, the shadows they cast, and the negative spaces between them. The largest pieces could represent complete songs, while the smaller pieces are individual phrases, and the smallest pieces, chords.
These works are not, however, about being ceramic. In fact, the same point could have been made with beautifully crafted wooden or stone objects just as eloquently. That said, the ceramic medium has been harnessed to great effect, and the histories of Asian and English ceramics, about which de Waal is a well published authority, are visible in their execution, adding to their depth and richness. This is particularly evident in their glaze treatments. The pale pallet displays include Song Dynasty inspired Qingbai and Ding-yao glazes, and there is a pale mallow colored glaze that resembles the blush on Korean Ido tea bowls. But the unglazed porcelain pieces are the most effective, as light and shade cling to their surfaces in appealing ways. They bring to mind Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, which chides us to embrace shadows that enhance the beauty of textures, hues and forms around which they reside.
In a new departure DeWaal has created all black wall-sized arrangements, which look like the lovechild of Gwyn Hanssen-Pigott and Louise Nevelson. (Never mind that for the price of his large works, one could buy a similarly sized Nevelson plus ten Hanssen-Pigotts….) The dark pieces feature shiny and speckled blacks. English influences may be seen in the dark gray and russet brown hues, as well as the mottled black glazes of later Hans Coper works. They are beautiful and moody, but their shadows are diminished, rendering them less striking than the pale colored pieces.
The most contemplative work in the exhibition is that which incorporates a sheet of frosted glass between layers of vessels, creating a ghostly counterpoint to the melody being played in front of the glass. How wonderful it would be to see these pieces by flickering firelight, conjuring both melody and dance from inanimate objects.
The individual wabi-sabi influenced cup and cylindrical vessel forms are not particularly inspired. However, their asymmetry adds variety and texture to the overall composition of the installations and the all-important negative spaces between the objects, all of which stand in pleasing contrast to the perfection of their cases. The result is a warm, Asian-inspired minimalism.
The gallery’s installation was meticulous, and particularly effective when lit by skylight only. However the exhibition can be faulted for being too large. The sheer volume of pieces served to amplify the fact that there was only one idea being expressed in the entire show. This is not necessarily the artist’s fault, but a problem inherent to minimalism. (An encounter with a zen garden might be arresting, while an entire zen theme park will have a soporific effect.) I had quite the opposite experience when I came upon one of Mr. de Waal’s medium sized installations in Art Basel – Hong Kong, where it struck me as a welcome oasis of calm sophistication amongst the surrounding cacophony.
In less knowledgeable and sensitive hands, these groupings might have resembled their real world equivalent, the uncontrived arrangements of sake cups, plates and ewers on the shelves behind the cook in an old Japanese restaurant. However, through circumspect reductivism de Waal overcomes this comparison to create elegant and contemplative installations.
Eric Zetterquist is the owner of Zettrerquist Galleries, New York, and a specialist in Asian ceramic antiquities. He has also dealt in, written about, and curated exhibitions on British and Asian contemporary ceramics.