by Maria Porges
One of the first lessons students learn about sculptural media is the difference between additive and subtractive materials. With clay, for example, makers most often build through accumulation while the material is wet, in contrast to stone’s dry division and gradual removal. In Fired, Broken, Gathered, Heaped, Annabeth Rosen’s spectacular 20-year retrospective, the artist has invented her own set of methods, exploding ceramic conventions in works that range from monumental to tabletop-sized. More than 100 sculptures and drawings are presented in an expansive and brilliantly designed installation at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, many works demonstrating a bricoleur’s can-do indefatigability. Rosen continually invents ways to manipulate clay: adding, subtracting, lashing together multiple bits of fired clay with baling wire or rubber straps cut from inner tubes and incorporating broken fragments into other pieces, in an ongoing, near-constant process of fearless experimentation.
Since early in her career, Rosen has demonstrated a willingness to not only accept a high rate of breakage during firing but to turn it from loss into something positive. As this exhibition reveals, her extraordinary resourcefulness and legendary work ethic have been extraordinarily fruitful. Clay is presently an au courant material, even in the most blue-chip of galleries, and those clay-wielding sculptors now being pushed to art world prominence include many young artists who startle viewers with displays of raw talent. Still, as this show demonstrates, decades of experience can confer a mastery of both form and content that is satisfying on multiple levels.
Valerie Cassel Oliver, who organized this exhibition for the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, where it originated, suggests that Rosen’s hand is an extension of her mind: something that could be said about many artists, but which seems particularly apt in referring to Rosen’s intuitive yet pragmatic approach. Coming from a family background in fashion (her mother, a children’s wear designer, later became a department chair at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology), Rosen also spent time working in costume design early in her career. This seems crucial in understanding her approach to sculpture. She models her material, but also cuts and fits, working with raw or fired clay with equal ease. Open to chance and accident, she sees firing as part of a continual loop of processes — a call and response, a conversation, rather than as the endpoint it is for many ceramic artists. This can be almost disconcerting to experience. The first time I encountered the group of pieces collectively titled Mounds, I remember standing and staring at some pieces with a kind of blankness. Looking at the wires protruding from one, I was unable to process what I was seeing or figure out how it could possibly exist. The glazed surfaces were cracked and spalled, like something from outer space. It was exhilarating. I later learned that to make these pieces, Rosen takes broken parts and wraps them within an armature, covering the whole thing with clay — which really shouldn’t work at all — then firing and re-firing them, adding glaze and slip.
The exhibition at the CJM offers many such exhilarating moments. Organized into several discrete yet connected groupings, it intentionally evokes the experience of being in a very prolific artist’s studio. Series of large drawings hang on the walls, the forms in many of them covering the entire surface with repeated, wave-like gestural marks. They create an immersive environment for Rosen’s sculptural works and foster a deeper understanding of her sculptural intentions.
Many pieces are presented on a very long table that echoes the kind of furniture one would find in a workspace. The earliest of these were made soon after Rosen moved to Davis to begin her appointment as the Robert Arneson Endowed Chair at UC Davis’ art department, a position she’s held since 1997. Having grown up in citified Brooklyn, the experience of nature she found in California fascinated her — as suggested by the dense, vertical accumulations of modeled organic forms in Brick Red Hollow (1999) or Green Vine Hollow (2001). Another series of pieces, built directly on thick square slabs, seems almost geological. Each resembles a cross-section of some fantastical site, cut and lifted from the ground.
A few feet away from the far end of that long table, viewers encounter one of the show’s larger works. A rectangle measuring nearly ten by sixteen feet, Sample (1999) consists of a grid of several such squares, dense with modeled forms, stacked in two layers and elevated on a steel stand. Glazed a vivid yellow, it suggests a baroque, feminist-inflected riposte to Carl Andre’s dour modular floor pieces: nature’s fecundity riffing on the sometimes-humorless dryness of Minimalism. Interestingly, Rosen’s early influences include sculptors Eva Hesse and Jackie Winsor. As the works in this show demonstrate, she shares Hesse’s uncanny ability to make an end-run around the formal principles of Minimalism with emotion and intuitive gesture.
Some of the most compelling works in the show are the Mashups: sculptures consisting of dozens, or even hundreds of individually modeled forms, bound together with wire onto and held upright by tall metal stands that rest on casters. Like characters in a play — or dancers, perhaps — a group of ten such pieces, made between 2009 and 2016, stand near the entrance to the show. Bulbous, gourd-like shapes, glazed in vivid shades of green and yellow, protrude from some; others consist of intertwined tubular shapes in black and white. A later group of Mashups at the end of the long table consists of smaller bundles, held together with rubber strips. But, really, the piece de resistance of these massed forms is Wave II (2017), an
enormous, undulating mass of bulbs and tubes glazed in white with black stripes. Semi-reclined on a steel armature, it is as much an invocation of the seductive curves of a posed odalisque as of water in motion. Drawings hanging on the walls nearby amplify these impressions.
Like a novelist writing in many voices, Rosen, throughout this exhibition, reminds us of the multifaceted, paradoxical nature of her chosen medium. Clay is at once delicately ephemeral and incredibly long-lived, refined as a porcelain teacup and brutish as a brick, as evidenced by what’s come down to us from ancient civilizations. For Rosen, it is “an armature for an idea.” For her viewers, the resulting works are a source of wonder.
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About the author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of more than 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as a professor at California College of the Arts.
Photos: David M. Roth