Melting Point: Movements in Contemporary Clay

the Craft and Folk Art Museum, Los Angeles
Reviewed by Christopher Michno

Figuratively shouldering the weight of the world in his performance El Peso de la Tierra (2017–2018), Armando Cortes dragged a piece of clay equal to his own weight a quarter of a mile along Wilshire Boulevard, from Chris Burden’s Urban Light installation to the Craft and Folk Art Museum, during the opening this January of the CAFAM’s inaugural clay biennial, “Melting Point: Movements in Contemporary Clay.” Saddled with a hand-carved wooden yoke — an object that symbolically confers the role of beast of burden — in order to tow the pyramid-shaped black clay mass, the artist posited this gesture as an expansive reference to divisions of labor aligned with immigration status and cultural identity, and as an implication of systemic racism.

El Peso de la Tierra foregrounds one of the exhibition’s major themes — sociopolitical meaning embedded in emerging works in clay — and introduces a significant underlying motif present in several of the exhibition’s other works: the conflation of clay and the human figure. The relationship between earth and the body, made explicit in El Peso by the equivalent weights of Cortes’ body and the clay block, finds resonance with Kahlil Robert Irving’s Concerned Student 1950; or The Johnson Family Reunion (from the Undocumented Series) (2015), which also uses clay as a metaphorical stand-in for the human form. Though this relationship has long been established in the language used to describe ceramic vessels, which adopts terms such as belly, neck and lip, Cortes and others use it for social and political critique. Irving’s Concerned Student, a mass of black glazed stoneware that the St. Louis-based artist created following the Ferguson, Missouri uprising, similarly addresses systemic injustices. Jennifer Ling Datchuk’s Making Women (2014–2017), a series of finely made porcelain and human hair powder puffs that reference the ritual of “making up” one’s face, addresses the nexus of personal identity, race, femininity.

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Installation view

To read Michno’s entire review (and for a full slate of images), go to Riot Material magazine: https://www.riotmaterial.com/melting-point-movements-in-contemporary-clay/

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