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L.A. Artists and the 'Squareness' of Clay

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Ruby Neri, "Untitled (standing woman)," detail. | Photography: Fredrik Nilsen.

Pressing the countless bits of brownish coil she has formed in her hands repeatedly into the larger shape, Ruby Neri creates this earthen plinth before us. It's intended to support infinity. She began work much earlier than now, before I was here in her studio, watching it come together. She moves methodically with a rhythm, getting the texture, the form, its shape, just the way it is in her mind's eye. On top will be placed what she calls "the infinity sculpture." She shows me a notebook sketch of this work now in progress. It's a figure eight, the forever sign pulled and turned sideways. It looks slightly like Brancusi's sculpture "Bird In Space," but with infinity's voids. In those spaces are the world itself -- the world clay has been meeting as a part of human culture for millennia.

Neri makes sculptures and paintings -- she is an object-based artist. Her ceramic pieces frequently involve other sculptural elements (such as plaster, rebar, and wooden podium) with the application of glazes as paint on the worked sculptured surfaces. These artworks reflect casually on the histories of human interaction with form, making form, and representing human form. In her 2012 exhibition "Sculpture" at the David Kordansky Gallery, Neri exhibited about 10 smaller and near life-size figures.

Ruby Neri, "Untitled (standing woman)," 2012 plaster, steel, ceramic and paint, 63 1/2 x 17 1/2 x 13 inches. Exhibitioned in Made in L.A. 2012, organized by the Hammer Museum and LAXART,Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, CA | Photography: Fredrik Nilsen.

The mostly untitled works draw from a diversity of references: 19th century handmade dolls, oceanic art, Art Brut, graffiti. Dominating the figures however are all kinds of vessels Neri turned on her potters wheel. The traditional ceramic parts (bowl, handle, spout -- the parts that do work) become body parts: bellies, arms, long necks. Linked to the (frequently naked) female figure, these formerly utilitarian clay vessels as sculpture become metaphoric works -- totems representing the expressive states they contain.

Writing in the amazing and seminal feminist art magazine "Heresies," Virginia Maksymowicz summarizes clay as traditionally associated with women. She connects the gendered female nature of clay not to the medium itself, but to the elemental myths that surround it:

"Mother Earth" is progenitor of all living things. The earth is a womb into which seeds are placed to be nurtured; the sky (masculine) pours down its rain (semen) to produce plant growth (life). (#4 Vol.1, No. 4 1978.)

Neri says that the medium of clay is "so loaded already [that] you don't have to do much to bring up a dialogue." And while she feels that those who care to think about art tend to think of ceramics as "cheesy," "housewife-y," or "weird," she uses these references to produce contemporary art. Perhaps it is this squareness of clay, its essential relationship to such things as domesticity and spirituality, that makes it such an attractive medium to work in today.

In the last several years, clay-based artworks have received a bump in Los Angeles' art world, with a fit of significant conversations and exhibitions focusing on the medium. Yet none of these conversations dwell significantly on the relationship between ceramic works and gender, labor, or spirituality; though these ideas are at play in artists' works.

"'Self-Soothery' developed from my interest in both the history of ceramics and occult traditions that use fire and language in a generative way. In 2010, I hosted a series of three pit-firings in Los Angeles in an effort to mine the social space created by fire, as well as fire's ability to produce shifts in time and knowledge. The first firing was at the beach and was only for 'Annas and Adams.' We made incantation vessels on our own and together. The second event was a storytelling night around the pit fire. For the third firing, I invited only women to come and burn in the fire anything they wanted -- in effigy, with incantation, or for cleansing. Each firing was an event and a site for my art-making. The incantation vessels fired there are exhibited in the gallery as artifacts of both the social space created and of my wishes for family and friends."


Anna Mayer is known as a social practice artist and as a member of Camlab with Jemima Wyman. They use fabric and pattern to connect the public with socio-political conversations. In some of her solo work, however, Mayer is in dialog with clay and its elemental transformative flux and flame. Beyond the event-based performances of "Self-Soothery" described above, Mayer conspires with nature itself in an ongoing (now for five years) collaboration called "Fireful of Fear." The project takes place in 12 fire-prone Malibu canyons. In dense chaparral thickets, she has found places that will function as primitive kilns. In these wild locations, she has placed unfired, torso-sized clay tablets. Scratched into the slabs are phrases or incantations of immanence -- depending on how you want to think of them.

Anna Mayer, "We Are Committed to Burying the Dead with, Rather than Without, Provisions (Piuma Road)," 2008-wildfire-fired ceramic (forthcoming), 20.75
Anna Mayer, "We Are Committed to Burying the Dead with, Rather than Without, Provisions (Piuma Road)," 2008-wildfire-fired ceramic (forthcoming), 20.75

In his essay "Let Malibu Burn: A Political History of the Fire Coast," Los Angeles writer Mike Davis reminds us that Malibu blazes with outrageous frequency. Its topography, geography, and ecology function almost as a fire ring, bellows, and fuel. When those Malibu canyons go up in flames, as they will, Mayer's slabs and the landscape around them will become something else, for better or worse. By nature Malibu wants to burn; our culture, on the other hand, is terrified of this eventuality. In his essay, Davis pays attention to the relationship between Malibu fires, Malibu celebrity, and Malibu's real estate. Davis notes the sum of this math, historically chronicled in the press, is often expressed in apocalyptical terms.

"The 1978 fire, which burned superstars' homes in the Broad Beach area, also set a new speed record, crossing 13 miles of very rugged terrain in less than two hours. One eyewitness account in the Los Angeles Times described how the rampaging fire front 'turned thousands of wild rabbits into balls of flaming fur that darted insanely about, only to start new fires at the spots where they fell.' The surviving beasts -- domestic pets and wild animals alike -- 'mingled in chaos with human evacuees along the beach at Point Dume while oblivious surfers rode the waves.' Traumatized Malibu residents, who were also battered by disastrous floods and landslides in 1978 and 1980, could be forgiven for imagining that Nature was getting at them. 

'This is hell, dude!'"

For Mayer, the phrases pressed into the tablets up Cold Canyon, Skull Rock, Newton Canyon, and others, address imperialism and frontierism in differing forms of address:

"There Are Territories Beyond Your Conceptual and Perceptual Limits"
"This is What Gives Life to Our Living Culture"
"There is No Need to Have a Mysterious Relationship with Power"
"Would You Burn a Child? When Necessary"

Mayer told me why she works in clay:

"Before paper was invented, clay was what was used to record finances and history. Because ceramic can survive for [thousands of years], we have lots of examples of clay tablets that tell us everyday information from when they were made and used. In many cases, the clay tablets were not meant to become archival. Usually the tablets weren't fired in a kiln so they could be reclaimed and reused for another set of information -- when a village would get pillaged, often there would be fires and the tablets would harden. So the Fireful of Fear slabs are in this tradition."

Also, in that Fireful of Fear is an earthwork that is purposely anti-monumental in scale, ceramic's domestic associations are very meaningful. I am forever interested in the way that ceramic is tied to the home and women's work and feminized craft. I like the idea that this material can be used to consciously create didactic artifacts and earthworks."


Anna Sew Hoy says she approaches her art's craft as a stylist might, articulating form, color, and texture as language through surface to produce the proper effect. You can buy an Anna Sew Hoy ceramic pretzel incense burner at Otherwild. You can also purchase a geode or rocklike soap dish there too. The price is the amount you'd expect to pay for a one-of-a-kind handmade boutique item meant to hold smoldering sweet sage or scented soap. Otherwise, you can see Sew Hoy's hand built artworks at Venice's Various Small Fires gallery. There, her 2013 exhibition "Home Office" was the finest ceramic, fabric, and mixed media sculpture installation I've seen. Its subject matter is the seductive yet insecure nature of post-Fordist labor models.

Anna Sew Hoy, "Mental Beach" (detail view), 2013, glazed stoneware, denim, vinyl wallpaper on wood. Orb: 13 3/4 x 14 1/2 x 14 in, Pedestal: 22 x 24 x 26 in. | Photo: Michael Underwood.
Anna Sew Hoy, "Mental Beach" (detail view), 2013, glazed stoneware, denim, vinyl wallpaper on wood. Orb: 13 3/4 x 14 1/2 x 14 in, Pedestal: 22 x 24 x 26 in. | Photo: Michael Underwood.

In "Home Office," the large and articulated glazed ceramic orbs are dressed consciously, with tailored denim neoprene and flocking. These balls are most likely metaphoric stand-ins for Apple computers and the creative class, if not just stay-at-home workers. They are creative and smart, with a cosmic outlook. They are also sensitive -- one of them actually offers us a tissue. At their workstations, they sit on tables and pedestals. The tables are covered with dongle-patterned contact paper. Though the orbs are grouped together, each has such a distinctly unique handmade style, so much so that they may as well be standalone pieces. Some of the tables have T-shirts casually draped on their edges. "Working from home rules -- I can show up at the office with my boobs hanging out!" they seem to say. The forgotten tees have spacey iron-ons, as if they'd been worn by some kind of tripper.

The finished ceramic balls on the table are open in parts, revealing their hollow interiors -- though some contain colored sand. Like the artworks that hold it, the colored dust is attractive. I admire it, but am slightly saddened, too. The sand, the ceramic vessel, the body with its viscera, the machine with its wires, the universe with its stars -- it all feels frighteningly fragile, able to blow away, decompose, spill out, and disappear. The dongles patterned on the tables in each home office are connected to nothing, except an iPhone here or there. They sit there, perversely proud of their own ready utility, yet they don't do a thing. Sew Hoy says she's afraid of the implications of a broad society where labor (and perhaps the identity and sustenance it provides) is left contingent to large corporations, and we are unmoored.

Anna Sew Hoy bashes together clay in Planets Meet Planets, performance at Human Resources LA, 2013. A LAND Program: Nomadic Nights: Anna Sew Hoy, Math Bass, and Claire Kohne. | Photo courtesy of Lesley Onstott.
Anna Sew Hoy bashes together clay in Planets Meet Planets, performance at Human Resources LA, 2013. A LAND Program: Nomadic Nights: Anna Sew Hoy, Math Bass, and Claire Kohne. | Photo courtesy of Lesley Onstott.

Sew Hoy's relationship to clay is personal and physical:

"Clay is the medium I use for thinking with my hands, instead of drawing. It is so dynamic, moving from soft and supple, to brittle and hard, to very hard when fired. It's extremely responsive to my touch, and I can see the results of my thinking and movement in the clay immediately. It's reactive - it's like I have a long, ongoing conversation with the material."

She recently collaborated on a performance at Human Resources called "Planets Making Planets." She tells me the project's impetus was to make apparent the demanding labor she does when she rolls large balls of clay around her studio floor to make the forms she needs in her artwork. During the performance, the audience was invited to toss "miscellanea" like "pennies," "shoe laces," and "costume jewelry" onto the floor to be picked up by large balls of clay as they were rolled around the performance space. This was done while the artist Math Bass improvised on the spot a minor tune.

L.A.'s clay artists seem to use the medium in relationship to its marginal status in the art world, responding to its questionable lineage in women's labor and spirituality through their work; but these artists are also to using clay to create astounding new contemporary works. This marginality of clay is not the end -- it's fueling the future of the artform.

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