Any depiction, literary or visual, may be thought of as dichotomous. A system consisting of the depiction and the depicted. In a standard depiction, these two parts have a direct relationship. A photo of a car and the word “car” are both representations of a car. Of course, this relationship need not be literal. A car can be described as a rust bucket. There is no literal, direct, meaning — neither a bucket filled with rust nor a rusty bucket. Both are commonly understood to mean a car. In literary terms, such relationships, these plays on words, are known as tropes.
Twentieth Century Philosopher Kenneth Burke identified four main tropes, or plays on words, used to define literary objects: metaphor, synecdoche, metonymy and irony. Metaphor, of course, defines an object through a comparison to another object. Synecdoche uses an element of the object to describe the whole — or the whole to describe a part, such as “wheels” meaning a “car.” In the case of metonymy, an attribute or characteristic of the object is used to identify the whole, calling a business man a “suit,” for instance. Finally, irony describes an object with something that can generate two contradictory meanings. This type of play is not exclusive to literary depictions. So it is that visual tropes resonate in Contemporary Ceramics: The Familiar Unknown (Blue Star Contemporary Art Center, San Antonio, Texas, December 3, 2009 – February 13, 2010), the work of four artists, Anne Drew Potter, Rebecca Hutchinson, Susan Breiner, and Rebekah Bogard.
"Big Baby" by Anne Drew Potter, 2009, Ceramic and Cloth
The Familiar Unknown’s most provocative image is that by Anne Drew Potter. Her piece Big Baby is a work with multiple and complex narratives. This work comprises of two figures. The dominant figure is a deformed image of a baby glazed in shiny vibrant yellow. Potter drastically foreshortened the figure’s arms and legs, and articulates an obese, protruding belly; resulting in a figure that has the proportions of stuffed turkey carcass. Opposite this figure is a smaller, ivory colored baby. Made from stuffed cloth it has far less detail. It is tumbled on its side. This figure is a foil for the yellow tot. He sits there, arms wide, an open mouth grin on his face; given the context, the primary figure reads as having a sadistic grimace. Potter’s choice of yellow to color the larger figure generates many associations, Ming Dynasty imperial ceramic porcelains, the color of jaundice, a figurative reference to cowardice, a derogatory word for Asians. The viewer’s comparison a contrasting of these allusions is tantamount to a visual metaphor. The genius of Big Baby is its discordant nature. The human mind wants to build connection, see patterns, but the allusions Potter generates clash like bumper cars.
"Sile Bloom" by Rebecca Hutchinson, 2009, Clay and mixed media.
Rebecca Hutchinson’s installation, Sile Bloom, is distinctly non-illusionary. She painstakingly constructs her large site specific installations by dipping hand made paper into porcelain slip and then folds, rolls and weaves the paper with sticks and twigs into large hollow forms. They are too large and monochromatic to be illusions. They are metonymic images. Sile Bloom does not mimic the appearance of its subject as much as it appropriates the physics. While they do not have a shared appearance, the forms share physical qualities. They do not look like, but they are like. They are engineered for some kind of function — seducing a humming bird or protecting a body. At the same time, Hutchinson’s work alludes to the physical forces found in nature, sun, wind, and gravity. To bring this to the fore, Hutchinson uncannily repeats a chaotic geometry. It is this geometry of fluctuating between chaos and intent that Hutchinson captures. Her works defined by each idiosyncratic fold or roll of paper or drip of slip. Like nature, the works are ethereal; with time, decomposing first into slip and paper pulp and eventually into dirt, the foundational element for another artwork.
"Synthetic Stems" and "Synthetic Reality" by Susan Beiner, 2009, Ceramic and Mixed Media
"Synthetic Reality" detail by Susan Beiner, 2009, Ceramic and Mixed Media
Perhaps the most common of tropes in visual expression is a synecdoche. They often manifest themselves as visual keys — a stylized knife and fork representing a restaurant on a map, for example. The image thus mutates into a symbol and is read more then viewed. This dynamic permeates Susan Beiner’s two contributions to The Familiar Unknown, Synthetic Reality and Synthetic Stems. Both depict a menagerie of flowers and leaves. The first, Synthetic Reality, is a luscious cascade of watery greens, pinks and blues punctuated by fields of opaque matt turquoise. Synthetic Stems is comprised of clusters of orbs stacked into long rods and flower forms set on semi orb bases. Like symbols providing meaning on a map, her works are stylized. The bulbs are simple, the stems no more than elongated clay shafts punctuated with orbs. The most fanciful elements are large stuffed vinyl pink and yellow flowers, looking nothing like flowers, but are read as such, nonetheless.
Beiner reinforces synecdoche by making it clear that her installation is made of connected sections, parts of a larger whole. In both works, collections of smaller works are arranged together. This allows for her works to be condensed or expanded as need. Throughout, black lines and puddles lace and pool. This metaphor is overwrought, the black indelible pollution. Unfortunately, her hackneyed and heavy-handed approach seems out of character, failing to resonate with the indulgent baroque formal quality of her work.
"Distract Me", "Your Heart's Desire", "A New Romance" (Love and Leisure Series) by Rebekah Bogard, 2009, Ceramic
"Distract Me", "Your Heart's Desire", "A New Romance" (Love and Leisure Series) detail by Rebekah Bogard, 2009, Ceramic
Irony stands at the core of Rebekah Bogard’s Love and Leisure Series installation. Three figurative groupings comprise the work. All three are set on brightly hue flattened orbs. One shows a fawn like creature licking its Aubrey Beardsley proportioned tail-penis. Another depicts a winged slug bending over and eating. The third pairs two doe like forms set to begin copulating. Intermingled among these pieces are stacked orbs that look like painted snowmen. Furthermore, Bogard litters the Love and Leisure Series with pink and purple butterflies. The effect is unsettling — a surreal hybrid world of Hasbro and Hustler.
With recognized irony, Rebekah Bogard appropriates visual queues commonly used to promote both children’s toys and pornography. Like all good irony, it’s unsettling how many of the abstractions are shared between these two assumedly opposites, both turning our world plastic. Although their common visual language eliminates the annoyances of our natural world, the ends are completely different. Thus, Bogard shows us a caustic and subversive irony.
Like words, a visual vocabulary gains meaning through implication and allusion. Sometimes those meanings result from illustration — a painting of a tree. Others gain meaning through comparison, while others give us the whole by emphasizing a part; still others represent two entities by having one as a symbol of an essential quality of the other. Finally, images can even represent two contradictory things at once. Like any phenomena assigned meaning, all tropes exist because of the human mind, its logic, emotion, and vast unplumbed depths. Ultimately, this is the appeal of The Familiar Unknown.
Tony Merino has published internationally and gives lectures on ceramic art, criticism and critical theory.
All Photographs by Emily R. Barker
Blue Star Art Center
116 Blue Star
San Antonio, TX 78204