"WHAT'S WITH all the clay shows these days?," a colleague who pays attention to such things e-mailed me the other day.
If you're in the art biz, it's been pretty hard to miss it. Since early last month, there has been a slow but steadily quickening drumbeat, as one ceramic exhibition after another has opened in venues between Baltimore and Washington. The brainchild of Baltimore Clayworks, the coordinated multi-site mega-exhibition is called "Tour de Clay," and it's taking place in conjunction with the annual conference of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts, held this year at the Baltimore Convention Center March 16-19. By the end of April, there will have been about 160 different area shows, large and small, devoted to ceramics, from the Baltimore Museum of Art ("Richard Cleaver: Gathering at the Latrobe Spring House") to Alexandria's Target Gallery ("Fertile Earth: Islamic Influences in Contemporary Ceramics").
Margaret Boozer has work in five of them. Along with Target Gallery director Claire Huschle, the artist has curated a sixth, somewhat conceptual show of four artists, "Existing to Remain," which opens Friday from 6 to 9 at the D.C. Arts Center. Is that a record? Maybe not, but Boozer happens to be one of the most interesting contemporary artists around, one for whom the expressive power of clay -- a humble material whose power comes not despite, but because of, its physical limitations -- is seemingly endless.
I spoke to her at the opening of "Metro Clay," an invitational exhibition at Rockville Arts Place curated by former Renwick Gallery curator-in-charge Kenneth R. Trapp. In a survey heavy on traditional ceramic vessels (albeit from some heavy-hitters: Rob Barnard, Joyce Michaud, Jill Hinckley, Gary Schlappal), Boozer's work stands out for its half painterly, half sculptural aesthetic. As she did with her recent exhibition at Georgetown's Strand on Volta Gallery, Boozer here includes a piece created on site: a crudely, and yet strangely beautiful, topographical puddle of white clay drying atop a wooden pedestal. It's called "In Process Porcelain Landscape." On a nearby wall hangs "Out of the Fire," a richly abstract concretion of clay, tar and other media that evokes nothing so much as a patch of cracked and potholed urban pavement.
Each piece seems almost a thing made less by an artist than a kind of found object formed by the forces of time and nature. Which is exactly as Boozer would have it.
"That's why I'm not a painter,' she says. "With painting, every day it's the same thing. I'd go home from my studio at night and come back the next morning to find that it hasn't changed."
What she likes about clay is that it has "physical rules," which imply both a predictability and a certain unpredictability. It shrinks, cracks and changes color. It forces you to "pay attention as you go," she says, "to what is happening right then in the clay."
In a sense, Boozer's art has a strong component of performance then, often directing our attention toward things that we would normally overlook. Yet it's the clay that is as much the actor as the artist. In fact, during slide presentations at Rockville Arts Place in which Boozer, Barnard, Schlappal and Michaud spoke of their varying approaches to ceramics-making, Boozer offered as many pictures of her finished work as she did scenic pictures of Stancills Quarry, a clay source in Perryville, Md., known as much for its six varieties of natural clay (eight bucks a ton!) as for it raw, unadulterated splendor. Look for Boozer's work to be featured there next month, in "Coming Home: A Journey in Clay," an outdoor group show displayed in a gallery carved out of the quarry.
In looking at a lot of tightly controlled ceramics (of which Schlappal's work provides some virtuosic examples), it's sometimes easy to forget that clay is, when it comes right down to it, dirt. Boozer's art reminds us of this, yet it excavates that thing right under our feet, molding it into shapes of surpassing, visual, intellectual and emotional muscle.
EXISTING TO REMAIN -- Through April 3 at the D.C. Arts Center, 2438 18th St. NW (Metro: Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan). 202-462-7833. www.dcartscenter.org. Open Wednesday-Sunday 2 to 7. Free.
METRO CLAY -- Through March 26 at Rockville Arts Place, 9300 Gaither Rd., Gaithersburg. 301-869-8623. www.rockvilleartsplace.org. Open Monday-Friday 10 to 5; Saturdays 11 to 4. Free.
FERTILE EARTH: ISLAMIC INFLUENCES IN CONTEMPORARY CERAMICS -- March 16 through April 24 at Target Gallery, Torpedo Factory Art Center, 105 N. Union St., Alexandria. 703-838-4565, Ext. 4. www.torpedofactory.org. Open Wednesday-Sunday noon to 5. Free.
RICHARD CLEAVER: GATHERING AT THE LATROBE SPRING HOUSE -- Through April 3 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive at North Charles and 31st streets, Baltimore. 410-396-7100. www.artbma.org. Open Wednesday-Friday 11 to 5; first Thursday of every month until 8; Saturdays and Sundays 11 to 6. $7, seniors and college students $5, 18 and under free; free on the first Thursday of the month.
COMING HOME: A JOURNEY IN CLAY -- March 13 through April 16 at Stancills Quarry, 499 Mountain Hill Rd., Perryville, Md. 410-642-2223. www.stancills.com. Open Monday-Friday 6 to 4. Free. An opening reception for the exhibition will be held March 19 from 2 to 5, featuring music by an-all-clay-instrument band, pyrotechnics, kiln firing and participatory sculpture-making.
For a complete listing of other "Tour de Clay" exhibitions, visit www.tourdeclay.com. For a listing of exhibitions featuring the work of Margaret Boozer, visit www.margaretboozer.com.