Building on the exuberant biomorphicism that catapulted her into the front rank of ceramic sculpture nearly two decades ago, Annabeth Rosen continues to expand the material and conceptual possibilities of clay. Her work, which tends to elicit strong reactions, consists of writhing, bulbous, serpentine shapes that are lashed to each other with baling wire and mounted on rolling steel chassis. Aquatic plant life and buoys and terrestrial shapes like gourds and viscera, are just a few of the associations called up by these ungainly accretions. Think of what Jules Verne might have created had he been a ceramic sculptor and you can easily picture what’s on view here; the difference being that in nature, plant and animal life this densely clustered are almost never seen except under a microscope. Rosen, a 2011 Joan Mitchell Foundation grant recipient, calls it “weaving with clay.” This quality of layering, folding, uplifting and compaction probably has more in common with geological processes than with anything biological. Rosen’s brilliance lies in her ability to fuse the two. It’s a trait that has held steady across her career, encompassing a cast of mutant (and ever-mutating) forms which she fabricates serially by hand.
What’s new, at least to my eye, is the increasingly anthropomorphic twist her works have taken. Rosen achieves this quality by first, mounting the component parts on metal dollies so that they stand upright; and second, by attaching elongated gourd-like forms and buoy-shaped wire nets stuffed with clay scraps. The latter protrude outward, like errant “limbs” or malignancies. Adding to the figurative allusions are painted patterns that resemble bodily decorations, African-influenced textile and vessel patterning and outsized forms that replicate internal organs — like the enormous green “heart” that rests atop Bunny, its severed “tubing” bringing to mind Aztec sacrificial rites.
If all this sounds violent, well, it is. David Cohen, writing in Artcritical, attributed this to Rosen’s history of watching television cartoons as a child, and later living in rough neighborhoods as a young artist in New York and Philadelphia. Rosen acknowledges as much, but says her current work is more rooted in the move she made in 1997 to accept the Robert Arneson Endowed Chair at UC Davis. (She’s since been included in practically every major museum survey on the topic you can think of, including Overthrown, boundary-stretching exhibit last year at the Denver Art Museum.) About Davis, Rosen is fond of saying: “I spent more time outdoors in my first year there than I did in my entire life before that.” Gardening became an obsession, plant life a key theme. When the Twin Towers fell, New York, her native city, reasserted its grip. Rosen’s color palette literally turned ashen, evidence of which can still be seen in Bollo, a waist-high assemblage topped by grayish vessel-shaped forms that spill out from the wheeled support structure. Strangely, this anomalous mechanical feature of her work injects levity: simple shifts in the orientation of the wheels seem to effect “personality” or “mood” changes in the pieces themselves.
That we can attribute such qualities to inanimate objects seems crazy until you consider the medium itself: mud. Unlike paint, which, for a spell, was emptied of its tactile qualities by theorists who exerted undue influence, clay has resisted all such efforts. It remains what it’s always been: a maximally expressive material. Rosen remains at the forefront of artists who are enlarging its emotive possibilities. Her new work feels totemic and talismanic.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Annabeth Rosen: “New Work” @ Gallery Paule Anglim through January 28, 2012.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.