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This exhibit molds clay into an obvious point

'Material Affinities' demonstrates the medium's use in art. But it sets its sights too low.

September 25, 2007|David Pagel | Special to The Times

A five-artist exhibition at USC's Fisher Gallery goes out of its way to show that clay can be used -- like paint, steel and paper -- to make great art. It's an irrefutable argument, ably made by guest curators Tressa R. Miller and Trevor Norris.

Their point is that there is no point in treating clay as a second-class citizen in the big mixing pot of contemporary art, which is filled with hybrids and mongrels of all shapes and stripes. But their argument is academic. It makes for a show that is static and schoolbookish, one in which the diverse works don't converse with one another but instead sit still, like scientific specimens pushpinned into place, enlisted to illustrate an idea that is not as sophisticated or as satisfying as most of the art.

"Material Affinities: To Clay and Back" consists of nearly 75 pieces by Lynda Benglis, Richard Deacon, Roger Herman, Ann Page and Michael Todd. All are accomplished artists whose multimedia oeuvres include works in clay as well as other materials.

The show has been installed so that every artist has his or her own space. In each, ceramic pieces are juxtaposed with ones made of bent wood and steel staples (Deacon); with sculptures made of wax, chicken wire, cotton, plaster, aluminum, bronze, stainless steel and gold leaf (Benglis); with oils on canvas and a huge woodblock print (Herman); with wall, floor and tabletop works in bronze, copper and wood (Todd); and with two- and three-dimensional pieces made of Rhoplex, gouache, charcoal, paper, fabric, synthetic foam, digital prints, tissue, twine and crumpled newspapers (Page).

Deacon's five sculptures are the first you see. They are among the simplest works in the exhibition, each a substantial chunk of matter that seems to be stripped down to the basics. But in Deacon's hands, ordinary colors, familiar textures and basic shapes become wonderfully puzzling conundrums, mysterious objects as physically blunt as they are intellectually open-ended. Their materials matter, but not nearly so much as what Deacon has done with them, transforming clay, wood and metal into vehicles that take the body and mind on spiraling rides through the imagination.

The same goes for Benglis' 10 abstract sculptures. Her six tabletop pieces -- all made of glazed clay -- throb with animal energy: ferocious, primal, sexy. Her four wall-works, whose surfaces are covered with metal or wax, are a touch more elegant. But they are no less dynamic, their glistening nooks and crannies twisting and turning or rippling back and forth to draw viewers into sensual whirlpools of emotionally loaded activity.

Herman goes at canvases, wood blocks and handmade clay bowls as if each were perfectly suited to his purposes: to make images that capture the excitement -- and strangeness -- of living in the moment. Whether Herman uses oil paint, woodcutting tools or glazes, his unpretentious, democratic works combine childlike glee, Stone Age simplicity and an epicurean's delight in life's finer things.

Todd's free-standing sculptures in metal and wood are 3-D doodles -- lines in space that give abstract shape to the funky freedom of assemblage art. In contrast, his assembled clay forms, glazed in tasteful color combinations, lack the scrappy animation of his best works, replacing the serendipity of their picked-junk sensibility with the politeness of match-the-sofa designs.

Likewise, Page's clay pieces are less compelling than her works on paper. Page's forte is delicate draftsmanship, which she cranks into high gear by using a wide range of materials, from tissue to fabric, and "drawing" -- or making lines -- with pencils as well as with thread, twine and various cuts and folds in her multilayered works. Her best pieces have the fragility of insect wings, the menace of wasp nests and the pathos of kids' kites caught in electrical lines. These associations are lost in her unglazed ceramics, which come off as lumpy translations of her idiosyncratic drawings.

Unlike many academic exhibitions, "Material Affinities: To Clay and Back" doesn't attack a straw target. It just sets its sights too low.

Try to imagine an exhibition that set out to do the opposite -- to demonstrate that ceramics and painting share very little, that ceramics and sculpture have nothing in common or, sillier still, that each medium is best served when it doesn't mix with others but sticks to its essentials. That would be a wildly ambitious, even radical exhibition because it would fly in the face of the freewheeling media-mixing that defines our times.

"Material Affinities" settles for stating the obvious. It makes sense, but it doesn't take many risks.


'Material Affinities: To Clay and Back'

Where: USC Fisher Gallery, 823 Exposition Blvd.

When: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays

Ends: Oct. 20

Price: Free

Contact: (213) 740-4561 or

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