Enter Ferrin Contemporary, a gallery dedicated to ceramic artists, from MASS MoCA’s parking lot and find your self gazing at an array of beautiful, vibrantly colored vessels, relief paintings, and sculptures. What resemble the most vivid, glistening rubber band-like loops hang from a myriad of pegs on voluminous vessels and relief paintings that are round, rectangular, and square. The inside of each vessel is glazed in unexpected hues that play with the sense of depth and width. This is the work of Lauren Mabry, an artist re-imagining the definition, technique, and outcome of ceramics.
“…the objects I make exist where haphazard sketching meets the precision of chemistry.”
Ceramics dates back thousands of years, predating bronze, and was originally utilitarian. The Chinese were the first to use earthenware for pottery during the Neolithic period, around 17,000 BCE (before common enumeration), and, in 6,000 BCE invented the process of firing clay in a kiln at temperatures of around 1350 degrees Celsius (2462 degrees Fahrenheit). I mention this historical background since Mabry’s exhibit is titled, FUSED, referring to the melted surface of a piece created within the kiln. Often ceramics is viewed as a craft reaching a level of art through an artisan’s technical skill developed to its zenith. It is a discipline whose character requires precision, while outcomes are left to a modicum of chance. Each step in creating a work is usually followed by a waiting period. Often this process does not lend itself to the spontaneous innovation enjoyed by artists working in other mediums.
Lauren Mabry has set out to change this perception. Referring to her work as ‘dimensional paintings,’ she works like a painter using the skill of a ceramist. In her own words Mabry articulates her technique, “ Because I strive to keep my work as playful as it is scientific, the objects I make exist where haphazard sketching meets the precision of chemistry.”
Loopy Cylinder (Black Textured with Stripped Interior) exemplifies Mabry’s intentions, a vessel that conjures the simplicity and weight of ancient Chinese bronze cauldrons while enhanced by a highly engraved surface. She sees the three-dimensional surface as a support much like a canvas, “I consider each cylinder to be a round painting. I keep my structures elemental in order to serve as a dimensional, but paired down canvas. The juicy characteristics of the glazes are opposed by hard-cut, linear edges of still, calculated, forms.” In Loopy Cylinder, gleaming pegs jut out from an obsidian background with gleaming, sensual gobs of sea green and coral dripping towards the base. Upon closer examination, the inside is a surprise of luminous deep cadmium orange and blue strips. The inside of the vessel further has significance to Mabry: “When approached, the inside of the vessel is revealed, creating another dichotomy: interior and exterior. I use form as a means to reiterate the psychological depth of the surface, but also to emphasize the important presence that objects have.”
The use of this palette also hints at Mabry’s unconscious channeling of a Pachinko machine (Pachinko is a Japanese pinball game) that her parents kept in the basement of her home. “When I was making this,” she said, “I felt inspired by the dusty vintage Pachinko machine that was in the basement of the house I grew up in. It was cool enough to play even when it was covered in spider webs.” The pins on a Pachinko machine mirror the pegs embedded in the vessel and the colors resemble the carnival like background of the machines.
On the walls hang several relief paintings that are created in the same manner as Loopy Cylinder, but these are, without question, abstract paintings rendered through ceramic techniques developed by scientific experimentation by Mabry. It might be interesting to know how she uses glaze as a material, but in the end, the beauty of the outcome is the reward for the viewer.
Last, but not least is a group of 3 sculptures, called Line Work Stand (Blue, Pink and Purple) made from stoneware and glaze. These challenge the notion of medium. They are playful 3 dimensional drawings, sculptures and ceramic pieces all at once. They appear 2 dimensional but possess all the qualities of a successful sculpture.
Through her own determination, experimentation and talent Lauren Mabry is proving there is not delineation between mediums, and not only creates exquisite work, but provides a clarion call to other artists to break loose and take a risk. Go see Lauren Mabry: Fused at Ferrin Contemporary, Building 13 on the MASS MoCA campus, North Adams. You have until June 30. Treat yourself.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect the correct name of the exhibition venue, which is Ferrin Contemporary.