‘Walter McConnell: New Theories’ at Cross MacKenzie Gallery


"A Theory of Everything; Black Stupa" features hundreds of individual ceramic artifacts. The installation is part of the exhibition “Walter McConnell: New Theories” at Cross MacKenzie Gallery. (Cross MacKenzie Gallery)
February 14, 2013

Devotees of conceptual ceramics — people who look to clay as a vessel for something more than tea — almost surely made a pilgrimage to the Renwick Gallery’s recent “40 Under 40” survey of contemporary craft. There they would have seen the boundary-busting work of such ceramicists as Cristina Cordova and Joey Foster Ellis.

Now they should head to Cross MacKenzie Gallery to check out the work of Walter McConnell, a professor of ceramics at Alfred University, where Cordova got her master’s degree and where Ellis briefly studied as an undergraduate before moving to China for intensive training. McConnell’s “New Theories” spotlights the two bodies of work for which the artist is best known.

“Dark Stupa,” from McConnell’s “A Theory of Everything” series, is the showstopper. Like other works from that series, it consists of a small mountain of ceramic tchotchkes, hundreds of which have been piled precariously on a custom-made table near the gallery’s front door. (The name refers to the mound-like structures, found in Asia, containing Buddhist relics.) Smaller than similar works, which often are stacked from floor to ceiling, “Dark Stupa” includes a bust of Elvis, along with religious icons, a salt shaker, beer steins, a goldfish bowl, a pin-up-style female nude, a teddy bear and several flower pots.

Priced at $35,000, “Dark Stupa” is presented as a single work of art. Do you like that adorable little cartoon mouse sitting near the top? It’s not sold separately. All together, the individual objects on display took McConnell years, not months, to create. When — or if — it’s purchased, it probably will be by a museum.

Which is kind of funny, considering that the objects in “Dark Stupa” were cast from kitschy hobby-shop molds, of the sort preferred by amateur ceramicists. Deepening the irony, McConnell uses a high-fire porcelain and a sophisticated crystalline glaze, materials normally reserved for high-end ceramics, not home kilns.

This clash of lowbrow and highbrow is intentional. So is the way McConnell leaves the casting seams visible. He’s pointing to his process, of course, as well as to the history of the clay art form, the roots of which couldn’t be more humble or democratic.

The second body of work is equally process-centric. McConnell’s “Itinerant Eden” series consists of still wet, unfired clay sculpture, which the artist displays inside transparent containers. Condensation typically forms, creating a terrarium-like effect.

Although these installations are usually quite large — and temporary by design — the two on view at Cross MacKenzie are small, featuring tiny, doll-size human figures sealed inside airtight glass vitrines. “After Adam” is a self-portrait, created from a 3-D scan of the artist’s body; “Hermetic Garden” features a man and a visibly pregnant woman in an Adam-and-Eve-like tableau.

The rest of the works on view resemble more traditional fired ceramics. Six terra cotta botanical works — in eye-catching glazes that range from curry yellow to a brilliant red — represent McConnell’s “Artifact” series, which he creates by carving up chunks of old, dismantled “Edens.”

Although the “Eden” pieces also speak to the ceramic process, there’s another, deeper message here as well. McConnell is interested in the idea of what’s “natural” — not nature in its raw, physical form, but as we conceive it in our minds. In McConnell’s art, the world isn’t just something created for our pleasure, but something precious that we hold the power to shape — and, yes, destroy, if we’re not careful.

The story behind the work

You might notice that many of the objects in “Dark Stupa” are sitting on what appear to be crusty little saucers.

Because crystalline glaze tends to be runny and messy, ceramicists often spread a layer of sand on the shelves of the kiln, in the same way that bakers will sometimes sprinkle cornmeal on a baking surface. This not only helps to catch any glaze that may drip off the clay, but also makes it easier to remove the fired artwork without sticking.

Normally, those fused puddles of glaze and sand — which under high heat turn into a kind of glass — are removed by grinding. Walter McConnell, however, leaves them on. In his art, an ugly accident of production becomes a conscious, and strangely beautiful, aesthetic choice.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular — and unpopular — culture.
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