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‘Monumental Clay’ fires up viewers at Palo Alto Art Center


“Fired Up: Monumental Clay,” on view at the Palo Alto Art Center, is an impressive exhibit highlighting the powerful effect of large-scale clay sculptures. This exhibit plays on the juxtaposition of new versus old, and the size of the pieces versus their relative delicacy, in order to make a statement about the nature of art itself. This exhibit features a diverse group of artists from around the United States, including the work of Viola Frey, Peter Voulkos, and other sculptors based out of Northern California. “Fired Up” is a part of the Art Center’s 45 Days of Clay, a celebration of the Center’s 45th anniversary and its dedication to displaying and educating the community about ceramic art.

Upon entering the open gallery, one cannot help but be struck by the sheer size of the artwork. These pieces are attention-grabbing and awe-inspiring in their largeness, filling up the viewer’s field of vision completely. Size is a powerful tool and its effect is not accidental. By creating larger-than-life pieces, the artists force us to confront their work head-on and consider what their monumental pieces represent. Item: Courtney Mattison’s sprawling coral reef wall installation, “Our Changing Seas III”, incredible in both its size and attention to detail. Captivating and beautiful, it also raises awareness for the worsening conditions of our oceans with an effectiveness unattainable by a smaller-scale piece.

Not just an opportunity to showcase the potential of large ceramic pieces, “Fired Up” is also an amalgamation of opposites. Walking through the gallery reinforces the fascinating contrast between the new and the traditional on display. At one end of the room stands a sculpture from Jun Kaneko’s “Dango” series, a classic hand-built, glazed ceramic piece. At the opposite end, Clayton Bailey’s “Mad Doctor’s Laboratory” tableau incorporates modern technology such as lights, screens, and sound to create a comprehensive sensory experience.

Perhaps most interesting is the balance between the colossal size and power the pieces seem to exude and the delicacy of ceramics. Elyse Pignolet, another featured artist, revealed that she works with ceramic because of its relative permanence. Viola Frey’s supersized human figure “Stubborn Woman, Orange Hands” is especially impressive in its size and sturdiness. However, other pieces in the gallery offer another perspective on the idea of ceramic’s immortality. By far the largest piece in “Fired Up,” Shay Church’s “Stand,” towers over the viewers, nearly scraping the ceiling in the gallery. Created by applying wet clay to a wooden frame, the piece undergoes a transformation as time passes: the clay dries and begins to crack, leaving nothing but ruins in its place. While Church’s piece speaks to the sometimes ephemeral, delicate nature of clay, Pignolet provides the opposite view, highlighting the true message of this exhibit. Despite its seemingly ephemeral, delicate nature, clay can be used to create sizeable pieces of art that convey an artist’s message with strength and authority.

Contact Gwen Cusing at 17gcusing ‘at’

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