Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Figuratively Speaking: Russell Wrankle brings together an impressive roster of ceramic artists in Meyer Gallery’s Epics, Myths & Fables

Now on display in Park City, Epics, Myths and Fables transforms Meyer Gallery’s mezzanine into a vision of three-dimensional folklore fantasy. Forty ceramic sculptures emit the curious intellect and imagination of their creators, who range from mid-career to established artists from all over the country. Not only does the exhibition present an array of allegorical journeys and mythic tales as told by 16 different artists, it also weaves together a telling narrative around the field of contemporary ceramics by placing side-by-side some of its most notable contributors. The result may be the finest exhibition of the medium ever to be held in the state of Utah.

“The ceramic world has always been pretty insular,” says renowned ceramic artist and guest curator Russell Wrankle. “We’ve always sort of felt like the unrecognized stepchild, but that’s changing as ceramics begin to take a leading role in major exhibitions and as artists, such as myself, devote their lives to the medium.”

When gallery owner Susan Meyer presented the opportunity to curate the show two years ago, Wrankle immediately began contacting notable Americans, selecting artists who are connected by their figurative subject matter — whether animal, human, or an anthropomorphic combination of both — and as storytellers who narrate the human condition through a mythological framework.

The inspiration for the show’s theme stems from Wrankle’s own artistic vision that plays with the idea of materializing literary parables. An art professor at Southern Utah University, Wrankle has gained a respectable reputation in his field as a national exhibiting artist, guest lecturer and instructor, and he now can add curator to his list of professional achievements. He’s earning considerable recognition from his contemporaries for the show, but he’s quick to credit Susan Meyer, the gallery staff and the participating artists for its success. “It was easy,” says Wrankle of his first stab at curating, “If you ask good artists to send work to an amazing space, then it’s going to be great.”

The inspiration for the show’s theme stems from Wrankle’s own artistic vision that plays with the idea of materializing literary parables. An art professor at Southern Utah University, Wrankle has gained a respectable reputation in his field as a national exhibiting artist, guest lecturer and instructor, and he now can add curator to his list of professional achievements. He’s earning considerable recognition from his contemporaries for the show, but he’s quick to credit Susan Meyer, the gallery staff and the participating artists for its success. “It was easy,” says Wrankle of his first stab at curating, “If you ask good artists to send work to an amazing space, then it’s going to be great.”

Animal imagery easily lends itself to the folklore feel of the show’s inspiration and consequently showed up as the dominant subject matter, beginning with Wrankle’s own wall sculptures. “Frying Pan & Hare” is indicative of his animal series that favors the agile hare and trompe-l’oeil techniques. This piece creates the illusion of the animal’s skin tightly stretched across the familiar shape of a frying pan, leaving the viewer to wonder whether the hare is alive or dead, suffering or complacent. This speaks to Wrankle’s grappling with the existential questions of life and death through his work and his use of mundane materials to evoke a larger narrative.

Artists like Lindsay Pichaske and Undine Brod get creative with the material by incorporating mixed media, resulting in nontraditional ceramic surfaces. Pichaske’s “Fawn” is adorned with white molten chicken and rooster feathers, which brings the figure into a fantastical existence. “In a world where petals mimic fur and hair impersonates bone, even materials upset their expected roles,” says the artist, who was the recipient of the 2013 NCECA Emerging Artist Award and the 2011-2012 Taunt Fellow at the Archie Bay Foundation.

Similarly, Brod uses salvaged fur on her trophy-head animal composites to comment on the manipulation and abuse of animals by the human race. “Does It Mean You Love Me When You Hold Me Tight” is a black burro head protruding from the wall with a bright red bulls-eye pulsing from the side of its neck. Brod explains in her artist statement that even though we’ve used animals as metaphors for human experiences in order to bring us joy and comfort, in reality we control and manipulate our furry friends; this dichotomy fuels her work. The New York artist has received an array of awards and grants including top honors in the Ohio Art League Annual Juried Exhibition.

Jeff Irwin is another who uses the trophy motif as a metaphor for mans control over nature. In fact, Irwin and Brod recently showed alongside each other in Trophies and Prey: A Contemporary Bestiary, a 2015 animal sculpture exhibition at Peter’s Projects in Santa Fe, New Mexico, an example of the intertwining careers of the artists Wrankle has gathered from this intimate community. Irwin’s earthenware animal sculptures with luminescent white glazes have a strong presence in Epics, Myths and Fables as ghostly creatures that quite literally leap through the back wall of the room. An up-close observation of the work reveals textures of truncated branches and shapes of knotted wood existing in place of a pig’s snout or a wolf’s mane. The pieces appear to be carved from a tree trunk rather than sculpted from clay, another eye-fooling effect common to many artists in the show. This merging of tree forms and animal trophies represents mans glorified manipulation of nature while speaking to larger environmental issues.

Crystal Morey’s mythical porcelain pieces also comment on humankind’s perilous effect on the natural world. Intimate in size and bone-white in color, her “Delicate Dependency” sculptures combine curvy female bodies, animal heads and leaves that coalesce into a delicate figurative form. The mysterious narrative surrounding these “modern talismans and precious telling objects” signifies the interdependency between human, nature and animals. Morey has received considerable press for her work and exhibits in museums and galleries around the country and internationally.

The surreal hybrid of human and animal forms also shows up in the work of Lisa Clague, an internationally known sculptor residing in North Carolina. Clague experiments with found material and fantastical subject matter to create imagery that is at once grotesque and delightful. “Monkfoolery” evokes the playful spirit of the monkey as metal fireworks spring from its palms while its eerie human-like face smiles mischievously. Clague says her figures are like dreams, “familiar but illusive,” stemming from subconscious inner journeys.

Montana artist Adrian Arleo uses human and animal forms to reveal the primal nature of humanity and often references mythology found in ancient art. “Artemis and Diana,” a female figure holding a maternal dog, is inspired by the Hellenic goddess of the hunt and childbirth. Christine Golden’s “Squash Blossoms and Seashells” and “Athena and the Confluence” also play on art historical references with a contemporary twist.

Japanese artist Kensuke Yamada bridges language barriers with his contemporary sculptural conversations, creating significant work that has been featured in International Examiner, Ceramics Monthly and The Seattle Times. Another crowd favorite is Mark Burns, the self-titled “King of Kitsch,” who expresses complex cultural notions of sexuality and identity through his work. Burns is an artist in residence ceramics instructor at Harvard University and has had a long career as a teacher and artist.

The artists in this impressive lineup most likely have affected each other’s work and careers in some way or another as influential educators, co-exhibitors and inspirational mentors. “Some of these artists were very instrumental when I first started with ceramics,” says Utah representative Clayton Keyes, who already has sold two pieces in the show. “This is a pretty stellar group that I’m honored to show with.

When asked if he thought the exhibition was going to be notable in the world of ceramics, Wrankle immediately responded with a wide grin, “Yes. It already is.” But when asked if he thought it was revolutionary, he hesitated a bit. “I wouldn’t say it’s revolutionary,” he admits. “These artists have all been making revolutionary work individually, so bringing them together – the synergy of it – that could be what’s revolutionary.”

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