At the Mass MoCA, ceramic art proves its worth

In the art world, rules have always mattered a little too much. This is an area that historically loves boxes and categories, to put things better – and keep things out of the way. Consider the difficult course of photography for the better part of a century – a copying device, according to the old argument, could hardly be an instrument for art – and the comparatively recent arrival from ceramics to the credibility of the art world seems like a snap.

But there is an important distinction that makes the details clearer. New media like photography must always go beyond just being new and need artists to tap into their creative potential to prove it. The same was true of the video; and at this moment the burgeoning field of digital art is still building its case for the many who still need convincing.

Ceramics has never experienced a comparable early adoption syndrome; as a medium he is as old as the hills, or at least mankind. The prejudice against it had less to do with its novelty than with the heavy historical burden it carried. Ceramics was decorative, or utilitarian, or women’s work, or ethnographic craft, and often all of the above, though each of these is easily separated from exalted areas like painting.

The radical craft movements of the 1970s and 1980s pushed the practice forward, usually with a conscious adherence to negative stereotypes of the medium (“The Dinner Party”, Judy Chicago’s icon of the feminist art movement of the 1970s, ne not coincidentally presented personalized ceramic cutlery for an esteemed group of feminist heroes). Later breakthroughs helped: British ceramicist Grayson Perry won the 2003 Turner Prize, an annual prize in Britain that tends to honor a British artist considered to be at the forefront of contemporary thought.

Francesca DiMattio (left to right): “Teddy Bear Caryatid”, 2021; “Lego Caryatid”, 2021; “Caryatid Trash Bag, 2021.” Above: “Chandelabra II”, 2015. Background: “Mosaic”, 2021.

Francesca DiMattio and Salon 94, New York

So now the lowly status of the medium seems more of a relic than a current concern. This makes “Ceramics in the Expanded Field” less of a radical proposition than a measure of how far the field has come. Even so, to work with ceramics is to carry one or all of its many cultural burdens, which each of the eight artists here presents naturally: of the eight, six are women, and of the two men, l one is Mexican American and the other is black. Their work is rich and diverse, but almost always contains marginalized stories.

Linda Sormin’s frenetic assemblage shares the largest gallery here with works by Nicole Cherubini and Francesca DiMattio. Cherubini’s pieces are rough, scintillating perversions of ceramic standards like vases and urns; in a sly nod to a radical pioneer of women’s work, she lines the lip of a red and white piece with dark fur thatch (in 1936, surrealist icon Meret Oppenheim lined a spoon, saucer and a teacup with fur and called it “Object”).

DiMattio draws wider ties, festooning his three towering rude totems with familiar patterns — one has pretty porcelain floral designs stretched across arms of yellow quilted oven mitts; another has Staffordshire blue birds and fish crawling over its shiny, bulbous skin. A towering teapot-headed piece is lacquered with what look like cancerous, bubbling, scaly growths; pieces of trash mayflies are embedded in plates of his ceramic skin. She calls it “Teddy Bear Caryatid”, a collision between consumer culture and classical sculpture (a caryatid is a female form in ancient Greece used as an architectural support). The work is an explosion of formal exuberance shot through with feminist criticism. It’s seductive, annoying and devious, and perhaps the best thing here.

Anina Major, “We all cross water”, 2021.
Anina Major

In the hallway, Anina Major has installed a long, waist-high wooden walkway over a bed of crushed seashells and crockery. It has a blue neon sign: “All Us Come Across Water”, linking the trauma of migration – forced and otherwise, across the centuries – to the practice of making. At the end of its wooden dock are three large, heavily textured ceramic vessels; they are braided or woven using a basket weaving technique used by his Bahamian ancestors. But they are distorted and incomplete, looking as much like disembodied organs – vessels for the broken continuity of memory and culture that displacement creates.

The catwalk leads to a space animated by “El Descanso en La Gloria”, a 2017 video of artist Armando Guadelupe Cortés swinging a rough ceramic pot from his long braided hair and dropping it to the floor until it breaks. He shares a sentiment with Sormin: breaking the old, making new. But Cortes is also a student of history, and the material itself has deep roots in the artist’s Mexican-American identity. An installation by Cortés in an adjacent daylight-lit space is about construction: slender pine forms fitted around the building’s ancient structural pillars have been filled with clay, evoking the traditional construction techniques of pre-colonial Mexico fused with the wooden construction of the possible settlers. Talismanic objects – a mask made for the celebration of Las Posadas, bottled folk remedies for scorpion bites, a dried ocotillo branch, feathered jewelry, a bowl of beans – are scattered around the light structure like offerings. Everything seems precariously improvised, made up as you go – as good a metaphor for the messy circumstances of contemporary life as any.

Kahlil Robert Irving, “BLACK Ice – [+Street views of inherited impressions+]», 2019.

Staff of Murray Whyte/Globe

Nearby, Kahlil Robert Irving’s sandstone panels rest on tall table tops, each resembling a tablet or rune. The panels, which are collectively called “Many Grounds (Many Myths)”, are elegant and earthy, encrusted with remnants of contemporary life – a Camel cigarette label, a ceramic cast of a cartoony pine air freshener , a handful of inspiring tweets. Irving takes the ancient techniques of Antioch mosaics, which depicted daily life as well as exalted myth, and makes them his own in a contemporary way; it’s like reading a scintillating pictogram recast as street poetry.

Amidst it all sits a palette topped with milky, raw, unglazed charcoal tiles, resembling both a fractured slab of asphalt and a star-soaked sky. The distance between these two is the point. Irving’s practice is rooted in the heavy soil of his home in St. Louis, where dense clay deposits made solid brick, produced, historically, by black labor to build the houses and the businesses of the wealthy. In the swirling and churning of the chalky black surface, you can see the toil and the struggle, and an eye to the heavens.

CERAMICS IN THE EXTENDED FIELD Through April 2, 2022. Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams. 413-662-2111,

Murray Whyte can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.