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‘More Clay’ at AU Museum proves there’s strength in numbers

Multiplicity is the key to this ceramic showcase’s power

“Orange Ring,” by Bean Finneran, is part of the group exhibition “More Clay” at the American University Museum.: (RR Jones)

Traditionally, potters made items in multiples, while fine artists produced one-of-a-kind pieces. But while digital technology has allowed artists to create duplicates easily, some potters have taken to combining assembly-line items into singular artworks. That development is the impetus for “More Clay: The Power of Repetition,” an American University Museum show that features work by eight artists and one group collaboration.

“Abundance is their mantra, and less is not more” for these ceramists, writes the show’s curator, Rebecca Cross of Cross MacKenzie Gallery, in her introduction to the catalogue.

The most unified of the constructions happens to be the one with the most distinct parts. Bean Finneran’s vivid “Orange Ring” is a sort of circular thicket made of about 12,000 hand-rolled earthenware spindles, each glazed in the same shade of orange. The catalogue calls the piece, which was made for this show, a “floor necklace.” But it also appears organic, evoking a roundabout hedge or a massive sea anemone.

There’s also a nature vibe to Kate Roberts’s “Gates to Nowhere,” which is suspended so that it seemingly floats in midair. The ghostly white piece does look a bit like a set of gates, but ones whose spiraling adornments resemble narrow vines. While its individual bits can’t be discerned, the delicate fabrication is the sum of many parts: It was made by dripping uncountable threadlike bits of unfired clay along fishing line. To underscore their transient quality, the gates will be destroyed when the exhibition ends.

As imposing as Roberts’s piece is ethereal, Walter McConnell’s “A Theory of Everything — Requiem in White” is a towering monument made of individual porcelain figurines, many of them kitschy. The artist, who previously had a solo show at the museum, often employs mass-market molds of children, animals and saints. He also includes 3D models of himself and family members in this assemblage, all of whose pieces are coated in a crystalline white glaze. McConnell’s ironic edifices are often compared to Buddhist stupas, partly for their domelike shapes but also because they incorporate religious icons.

From the archives: ‘Walter McConnell: New Theories’ at Cross MacKenzie Gallery

The show’s other free-standing artwork is Kahlil Robert Irving’s simulation of a section of street, made mostly of 80 black stoneware rectangles. The horizontal expanse, mounted on a wooden frame that lifts it just a foot off the floor, is dotted with detritus, both real and simulated. A squashed aluminum can and tattered fast-food packaging punctuate this simulated thoroughfare, but it’s the newspaper scraps that are most revealing: Their headlines include references to the persistence of White racism in the United States.

Vanessa Ryerse also delves into American culture, but her medium is cheap crockery in the “willow ware” style modeled on Chinese blue-and-white porcelain. “Rend and ReMember” is the only entry in the exhibition that didn’t involve crafting any ceramics. Instead, the artist visited Midwestern flea markets, where she bought plates decorated with picturesque images of the United States and its onetime imperial possessions: Florida beaches, Abraham Lincoln, Pennsylvania Dutch country, Manila Bay. Ryerse shattered the dishes and collaged them across seven panels that span 15 feet, with a heart-shaped piece at the center. If the uniform color scheme holds the splintered shards together, so do the obsolete souvenirs’ odes to a mythic and mostly bygone U.S.A.

Tightly grouped together, but not affixed to each other, are Zimra Beiner’s “tools for no purpose,” in shades of tan and gray; a display of more than 500 pinkish-tan ceramic vessels on black shelves, courtesy of District Clay, a multi-artist organization that includes studio, gallery and classroom space; and David Hicks’s array of fruit- and vegetable-like forms, held in a steel lattice. Multicolored and made of glazed terra cotta, Hicks’s creations suggest the profusion of things that issue from nature rather than a kiln.

J.J. McCracken also renders fruits and vegetables in ceramics, but her work is made more disturbing by the accompanying performance video. “Fruit for Geophages (Hunger)” depicts clay-streaked women who attempt to eat the simulated foodstuffs. In a show that turns on the idea of “more,” McCracken’s pointed work reminds us that many people must survive on less.

More Clay: The Power of Repetition

American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW.

Dates: Through Dec. 11.

Prices: Free.