There’s a device filmmakers use to show the passage of time. It starts with a closeup of a calendar—the type where each day is a single page that is torn off to mark the arrival of a new day. On film, the pages slip off as if being plucked away by invisible fingers, while when a long time passes, the pages fly off like a flock of birds. But the calendars on Alyce Carrier’s gallery wall don’t move by themselves, and if you tear one page off, the day underneath is the same day as you hold in your hand. For her, time stopped when her sister disappeared, and while one may wonder if the missing one reappeared, it’s clear that the trauma of the unexplained absence continues: in fact, it changed Carrier’s consciousness permanently, and in more than one way.
All a visitor to the Projects Gallery at UMOCA can learn directly about this is what the artist writes in her statement, a narrative that properly focuses on sketching the impact of events on her mind, rather than telling what ultimately happened. If she were to give away the end of her story, the viewer could move on, satisfied but not having learned anything about what it means to live with an unendurable mystery. The unexplained, in fact abrupt disappearance of a family member, as anyone to whom it has happened will know and might tell you, cannot be imagined. Worse, it’s like a sudden paralysis that cannot be escaped. You simply don’t know, can’t know, and in that handful of words is encoded a torture that halts the passing of days. Since nothing that can be done makes any difference, time ceases to mean anything.
So what does one do? Alyce Carrier had one tool to restart time: one small space where she could exercise some initiative. Her ceramics gave her the opportunity to do what anyone with her skills learns how to do: to design a project and then carry it out, one small step at a time until, uncounted hours later, it was done. Then, if necessary, to do it again. Why else build a cake stand out of a hundred elaborately ornamented tiles — millefiori, it’s called in the analogous art of glassblowing: Italian for “a thousand flowers” — combined seamlessly and shaped into a low drum. But these Cake Stand Altars didn’t stop there. On each one stands a sacramental vessel, a tower made of far more squares of clay, these not blended but kept separate. And handles, at least four, as many as eight. Then on top, a bowl or a leaner extension. In one bowl stand two four-legged animals whose bodies intersect, as though passing through each other: symbolic, perhaps, of how it feels to desire to go and do, but be unable to move.
Those two quadrupeds recur, life-sized so far as can be told, in two presumed guardian figures that stand before the five altars. One has a slender body and long neck, the other is short and squat. Between them, they seem to cover a range of unknown principles or priorities. Their hides reveal the steps that went into their making, with no attempt to conceal what lies beneath, just as a living animal’s skin takes its shape from the muscles and joints that support it. Just as a work of art takes its form from what went into its making.
Alyce Carrier: Cake Stand Altar, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City, through Oct. 14
All images courtesy the author