by Glen Helfand
Together: Pacific Time, Arlene Shechet’s current show at Pace vibrates with colors that read happy. Some of the ceramics are glazed in amped-up, neon-hued happy, as if compensating for the dampened moods we’ve been buffeted by over the last year. All but two of the works in this show – a total of ten ceramics perched on custom pedestals and two larger works in separate rooms — were started in 2020. During that spell, Shechet had a show close prematurely at Pace’s New York venue, but she wasn’t deterred or creatively hobbled. Rather, judging by what’s on view in Palo Alto, she appears to have been emboldened. Chromatic hope along with a variety of potent contradictions are the show’s animating forces.
The central space of this storefront gallery is painted in near-ochre chartreuse, a shade said by color psychology to “represent enthusiasm, happiness, nature, growth and youth.” The sculptures — glazed ceramics, about the size of melted-down microwave ovens – are cast in hues ranging from cool to hot, with shapes wavering in identity between mechanical and organic.
A hallmark of Shechet’s work is the intentional connection between object and base; the objects rest on either sanded-smooth, unfinished wood plinths or on three-legged, powder-coated pedestals that stand like bar stools, poising these biomorphic ceramics on utilitarian minimalist designs.
Together: Pacific Time: 1 a.m., is softly geometric, with a complex surface resembling ice-encrusted freezer coils rendered in a juicy Kool-Aid grape-purple, a color that calls forth the sensation of an artificial substance emulating a natural flavor. A fleshy internal organ vibe informs Together: Pacific Time: noon, a sculpture that seems to take as its reference point the human heart, with large arterial cylinders frozen in a paralyzed droop. Its surface is smooth and pebbly, like a chunk of wet Styrofoam – a shudder-inducing notion that triggers associations roaming from sea creature to human viscera; the latter allusion to medical science is enhanced by its slick, sterile base.
Together: Pacific Time: 5 a.m., glazed in electric, velvety vermillion, is positioned at the edge of one of those bar-stool pedestals like a glamorous chanteuse, her legs dangling precariously. The rich textures of Shechet’s ceramics beg to be caressed. They range from sticky and gooey to poisonous, but most often include a dollop of slippery, shiny glaze, akin to sweet syrup running along a curve or coalesced in a surface dimple. These elements are sometimes awkward and seemingly random in placement, but hardly improvisational.
As you’ve undoubtedly noticed, all of the aforementioned sculptures carry titles that reference a specific time zone and hour. The Book of Hours, a medieval devotional text, is said to be the source, but it may also be that Shechet, a New Yorker, was imagining California light at specific moments.
Northern California viewers may see parallels between her sculptures and those of Vincent Fecteau and Ron Nagle: Fecteau for his color choices and architectural use of papier-mache, Nagle for palette and textures that yield confectionery surfaces. All three artists take a polymorphous approach that makes their output hard to classify.
While ceramics form the core of this exhibition, two larger works, both of which appeared in the New York exhibition, bracket the show at either end as if protecting the seemingly fragile contents within. Both stand at about a human scale. Under Cherry Trees/There are /No strangers is made of thick blocks of painted wood and clay. It holds a horizontally striped staff and suggests a mix of flesh and other more durable materials. Iron Twins, a pair of large cast-iron objects, stands with equal, if not greater, stature. The forms, monochromatic and ominous in their brackish lead-gray surface, are visibly derived from cardboard boxes joined with duct tape. While there is a curve between them, they don’t exactly fit together; they’re more like mirror images.
Despite the contrast between these sculptures and the newer, more chromatically ebullient ceramics, it’s abundantly clear that Shechet’s has a knack for uniting disparate elements. That proclivity, which has long been a feature of her work, remains in force. When my half-hour of reserved time came to an end, I had a hard time disengaging from the gallery’s bright energy.
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Arlene Shechet: “Together: Pacific Time” @ Pace Gallery, Palo Alto though May 1, 2021.
About the author:
Glen Helfand is an independent writer and curator, as well as an associate professor at California College of the Arts.