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Short, Stout, and Lumpy

Taiwanese Artists Step Back in Time to Reach Future of Ceramics

"Untitled" (2000) by Po-Ching Fang
Form floods out function: Teapot by Yi-Li Yeh

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 8/22/2001

The Fourth Chapter: Contemporary Ceramics from Taiwan

Baltimore Clayworks through Sept. 1

Tea was never served like this in a traditional Chinese household. Po-Ching Fang's wood-fired clay "Tea Table I" and "II" don't look anything like real tables. Although their dirty white-toned surfaces are flat enough to function as tabletops, they're more evocative of rough terrain. Furthering that impression, the tables' legs look like rock formations.

A single teapot rests in the middle of each table. Again, while it looks like you could serve tea in these earth-toned pots, their sides are so misshapen that they seem too badly weathered for functional use.

This tweaking of tradition is emblematic of the eight artists in the Baltimore Clayworks' exhibit The Fourth Chapter: Contemporary Ceramics from Taiwan. Mostly belonging to the so-called fourth generation of ceramic artists, born in Taiwan between 1970 and 1975, the participants in this show are obviously attuned to Western approaches to ceramic sculpture. In fact, if you were to look at the work without knowing who made it, much would seem like what their American contemporaries often display in this very gallery.

While we're still serving tea, consider Yi-Li Yeh's glazed-clay "Spreading." This teapot and cup veer even further from tradition than Po-Ching Fang's teapots and tables. The teacup's shape and white interior seem normal, but its blue exterior surface is decoratively marked with white and orange bumps. Even more extreme is the teapot, which has a number of armlike projections pushing out from its body; the pot's blue body is decorated with green and orange bumps.

This tea service explores sculptural and painterly possibilities to the point where traditional appearance becomes a distant reference point. What's most striking about the modestly sized "Spreading" is that its biomorphic appearance makes it seem as if it might keep growing until it stars in Little Tea Shop of Horrors. Other pieces in the show also spark organic associations. Yeh's glazed clay "To Reproduce" is a pedestal-mounted cluster of tightly linked cilialike forms. They resemble something you'd expect to find living on a coral reef.

Wen-Yin Chen's "10 Small Sculptures" also shapes clay into evocative forms, ranging from geometric abstractions to human-head-like shapes; the same artist's "Balance" is more overtly figurative, a totemic person akin to prehistoric sculptures, and "Bear" is a simplified rendering of that animal.

Working more abstractly, but with occasional figurative hints, Mon-Xi Wu's four individually untitled stoneware "Objects" include one whose resemblance to a pair of female breasts would be recognized in any culture at any time.

The fecund quality of the natural world pungently comes across in Shin-Yu Wang's four individually untitled stoneware pieces in a "Seed" series. Vaguely podlike forms are split to reveal interiors whose ridged sides sometimes cradle small wire-mesh sculptures. Something's being born here, but who knows what?

Other pieces in the show, such as Fang-Yi Chu's stoneware "Dark Hole I" and Yun-Chan Lee's "Boundary No. 1," also involve sculptural shapes with openings that allow us to peek into interior spaces. As with Po-Ching Fang's tea tables, it's tempting to make landscape associations; Chu and Lee's works include terrain that evokes canyons and caves.

Even a piece as resolutely abstract as Ching-Yuan Chang's untitled grid of 28 wall-hung, soda-fired stoneware square panels prompts thoughts about the natural world. The earthy brown, rust, and white hues common to the panels make this inevitable. Also, the panels have a slightly billowing, almost pillowlike quality that makes them seem like rolling countryside. Raised lines on many of the panels create primal X, C, and V shapes that look like some early human attempt at making marks on a wall.

It's striking that most of these contemporary Taiwanese artists push ahead by pushing so far back. They leave classical art traditions far behind and produce sculptures that, at least in our imaginations, represent a pre-classical, primordial place inhabited by teapot-shaped critters.

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