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Geneva Conventions

The Contemporary Tracks Trends in Swiss Art

SWISS HIT: Arnold Annen's shell-like ceramics, such as "Stichtyomitra," are bound for nigh-iconic status.

By J. Bowers | Posted 2/23/2005

Swiss Contemporary Ceramics

At the Contemporary Museum through March 25

For a bunch of people living in a landlocked country, the Swiss have quite the obsession with the sea, if the works featured in the Contemporary Museum’s Swiss Contemporary Ceramics are any indication. Many of the 12 internationally exhibited artists involved in the show seem fascinated with re-creating the shapes of crustaceous exoskeletons, coral towers, and groping anemone tentacles in clay.

Perhaps the impulse to borrow oceanic shapes stems from each sculptor’s constant contact with water, for without water clay loses its attractive resilience. It’s possible that the visceral act of digging barehanded into their medium has moved them to tackle natural forms that feel just as ancient, just as primeval. Either way, it’s time to start giving Switzerland props for its sculpture, not just its supermodels, chocolate, and cheese.

Eager to cover the entire Swiss sculpture scene, curators Hanspeter Dahler and Christoph Abbuhl have selected an eclectic range of work for the United States’ first-ever national exhibit of contemporary Swiss studio ceramics. At first glance, Ruth Amstutz’s “Prozess” installation seems like it might not even be made out of clay. She has created a copse of translucent polythene columns that connect the ceiling to the floor, and rustle suggestively at the slightest draft. Upon closer inspection, however, the larvalike porcelain and textile forms suspended within each column grow more visible, and “Prozess” feels more like an incubator than an installation. According to the wall text, Amstutz created her mysterious ceramics by pouring porcelain slip into textile and allowing the medium’s notoriously long drying time to occur within her plastic shrouds. Whether actually in process or not, the sheer originality of Amstutz’s approach makes “Prozess” one of the most compelling works in the show.

But Amstutz’s installation is merely arresting when placed anywhere near celebrated “light artist” Arnold Annen’s lime-white “Stychocapsa II.” Even though it’s crafted in porcelain, this massive, freestanding spiny sphere possesses all the gravity of bronze, without the warmth. This solidity, along with a masterful command of light-bending curvature, should earn “Stychocapsa II” and Annen’s other shell-like works nigh-iconic status in the years to come. Here, however, “Stychocapsa II” and its attendant twin stalactites are tucked into one of the Contemporary’s oddly shaped alcoves, and poorly lit. It’s a three-sculpture testimony to why galleries should stick to rectangular floor plans.

Several vessel specialists offer up recent collections. Andreas Steinemann’s porcelain and neriage bowls are smooth, conical triumphs, but his psychedelic, op-art color schemes ultimately overwhelm the elegance of their forms. Fabienne Gioria has a similarly modern interpretation of pottery; her green, blue, red, orange, and white naked raku vessels combine soft black interiors and muted background colors with well-defined, angular designs. These pieces walk the wire between cutting-edge technique and traditional form. Returning to the mania for marine life, Sophie Honegger presents a series of urchinlike vessels, encrusted with tiny molded faces, short pointy tentacles, and tiny balls of clay impaled on straight pins. Garishly glazed in acid greens, rusty oranges, turquoise blues, and thick, tarlike black, Honegger’s “Alginblues,” “Oppiorange,” and others have the air of Fiestaware gone horribly wrong—there’s just far too much going on in each piece to isolate a central idea. By contrast, Bettina Baumann’s window display of coral-inspired tubes sprout perfect oval mouths, sporting coats of moray eel green and slate blue, and Phillipe Barde’s charming “Bowl Face” series borrows the angular white lines of primitive Greek statuary.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are works by two significant pioneers of Swiss studio ceramics, Edouard Chapallaz and Aline Favre. Favre’s dark, cylindrical stoneware and porcelain sculptures are reminiscent of Dimitri Hadzi’s recent works, with gracefully flowing folded edges and curves. Her strength is in her willingness to interrupt said flow, however—the white fissures running through the center of her pieces lend a sense of vulnerability and impermanence to their solid, monumental stature. In his recent work, Chapallaz continues to master and remaster the delicate art of creating perfectly rounded, mouthlike vessels drenched in earthy tones.

Still, there’s an aura of timelessness—and therefore stagnation—in Favre’s and Chapallaz’s work, and it feels somewhat out of place flanking Müller -B-’s “Toolboxes,” five hinged wooden suitcases that contain paper, plywood, and terra-cotta images of Earth’s terrain. Müller -B-’s understanding of topography is a whimsical one, strewn with nail polish-red drops of glaze and unsettling, spinelike lines of broken white tile. Rock paintings in miniature, with uncertain legends, there’s an element of the endless and primitive at work in the construction of “Toolboxes”—and this element plays nicely off of the works’ space-age, aerial perspective and segmented, archeological aesthetic. More avant-garde than anything else in the gallery, Müller -B-’s portable installation serves to underline clay’s ineluctable association with the earth. The bottom line: Whether you’re using it to craft giant seashell-like forms, functional bowls, or three-dimensional maps of the planet’s surface, terra cotta is terra firma.

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