Walter McConnell made ‘Dark Stupa’ out of dozens of knick-knacks, including beer steins and candle holders. (Cross-McKenzie Gallery)

As a teenager, ceramics artist Walter McConnell sometimes picked up supplies at the equivalent of today’s “paint a pot” studios. But while Color Me Mine and its ilk primarily offer up pots and bowls to paint, stores in the 1970s sold every imaginable knickknack — Elvis heads, Christmas trees, Virgin Marys and more. Reluctantly, McConnell stuck to his shopping list.

“I didn’t just want one of them, I wanted them all,” he recalls.

He got his wish. In “Chinamania,” which opens at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery on Saturday,

McConnell has arranged dozens of ceramic curios into gracefully curved mounds that are reminiscent of stupas, religious structures that house Buddhist relics.

But instead of buying the tchotchkes, McConnell made his own versions using molds from those old-school paint-a-pot stores. He filled the plaster molds with porcelain and covered the figurines with a crystalline glaze more appropriate for high-end ceramics. Then, he painstakingly arranged the statuettes into 10 ½-foot towers.

The result? A mesmerizing mix of high and low art, exhibit curator Lee Glazer says.

“By creating these pileups, Walter is bringing attention to the gross consumerism of it all, but he’s also made something that’s quite beautiful,” she says. “It’s a critique of consumer excess, but also a celebration of it.”

McConnell adds another layer of meaning by forming his piles into a shape that’s reminiscent of religious structures, Glazer adds.

“Maybe he’s saying that in our society, what we worship is disposable consumer goods,” she says.

Around the corner from the stupas, McConnell has created two pieces that offer glimpses into consumer culture’s past and future. To display the past, he filled Ikea-style shelves with antique Chinese porcelain. These vessels were the focus of “Chinamania,” a period in the mid-1800s when England’s burgeoning middle class collected blue and white china to demonstrate their wealth and good taste.

“The whole idea of shopping as a form of self-expression dates back to this period,” Glazer says.
To peer into the future of collecting, McConnell had all the vessels in the first display scanned and 3-D printed as miniatures and placed in a lacquer carrying case. The piece, called “Souvenir Travel Case,” is so cute, you’ll want to take it home with you. But this souvenir isn’t available in the Sackler gift shop — at least not yet.

“The 3-D printing and scanning processes we used to make the miniature vases turned out to be fairly pricey, but in the future, who knows — maybe we’ll be selling the files for people to print at home,” Glazer says. “Collecting information, rather than the objects themselves, might be the Chinamania of the 21st century.”

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW; Sat. through June 4, free.

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