The organizing committee at the Eretz Israel Museum couldn't have chosen a better individual than Hagai Segev to curate Clay, Sensation: The Fifth Biennale for Israeli Ceramics. Coming from a background of art history, criticism and theory, Segev, compared with previous curators of ceramic exhibitions at the same venue, has brought a breath of fresh air to the event.
Having worked for two years, during which time he received more than 200 requests from artisans wishing to participate, Segev narrowed the initial responses to 100, and after moving among their studios and workshops decided on 57 finalists. Because he is not a crafts person by training, nor did he possess a particular penchant for ceramic art, he was able to divorce himself from standard criteria previous curators closer to the subject would have adopted to make their decisions.
Once his choices were made, Segev decided, together with the participants, to display existing works or works in progress that he observed while making his rounds of the ceramicist's workshops. This approach revised the accepted norm of previous biennales in which ceramicists were asked to create new and novel pieces or installations expressly for the show.
Ever since the first biennale was launched by the Eretz Israel Museum in 1998, it has become apparent with each new outing that traditional ceramic skills for creating domestic pottery has pretty much been relegated to the purely commercial firms, while the hand-molded pieces and sets of yesteryear have all but vanished. Essentially, ceramic artists, using clay as their medium, are transforming themselves from crafts persons into fine artists. The lines that have been drawn between skill, dexterity and sculpture are still rather thin, but according to Segev in his introductory catalog essay: "Ultimately, it became apparent that many of the issues concerning ceramic artists are the same subjects approached by those who work in other areas of creativity."
Attempting to confirm this thesis he continues to say that "creativity is initiated and expressed through the body of the artist, whose passion is for creativity, for movement and for the feel of the material. It is a kind of elemental creativity, generally free from the critical approach prevalent in contemporary culture... The manual work of the potter is foremost, and his contact with the material is truly fundamental to understanding the field and its craftsmen, much more than in other artistic endeavors."
Segev has divided Clay, Sensation into five sections: Cultural Material; Natural Materials; Building Materials; Myths, Histories, Culture; and Material Pleasures. In its entirety the exhibition, in which all the objects are positioned meticulously on stacked wooden palettes of varying heights, is controlled by direct lighting that embraces and at once emphasizes the forms, creating a haven of discretion and solace and allowing for maximum coverage without excessive theatricality.
Enchanting is the most appropriate adjective I could suggest to describe Mika Drimer's sculpted miniature party gowns, works that introduce the subdivision devoted to Cultural Materials. Colorfully flamboyant, with names like Angelina and Duchess, and decorated with an array of printed fabrics, buttons, bows and a smattering of lace, her seductive Baroque garments sit on the fence between 18th-century fashion design and bric-a-brac kitsch. But despite their superficially bizarre look they are marvelously inventive and quite beautiful.
Adjacent to Drimer's dresses are a few still-life forms by Anat Shiftan produced in a highly-fired porcelain technique. Inspired by 17th-century Dutch culture, her ceramic tableaux, Still Life with Green Fig and Still Life with Flowers and Shards, exude a sense of affluence as she is able to transform clay into exacting compositions based on undulating folds of mellifluous satin onto which she places figs and brittle flowers.
More realistic and less romantic than either Drimer's or Shiftan's productions, Karen Zur's dimensional feminine corsets and vests, fronts only, contain a marvelous array of textures, accessories and metallic luster glazes and sharp oil colors that contrast sharply the unglazed, rather surreal installations by Leonid Gosin. Hand-built, Gosin's small coastal houses on stilts with trees sprouting from their roofs take on a cryptic narrative, decipherable differently for each and every visitor.
The introduction Segev provides for Natural Materials is both informative and incisive. "The connection between nature and ceramic creativity is well established. The material, formed in nature, returns again to its natural state... there are those who express this connectivity by imitation and duplication, while others prefer to distance themselves from the source."
The former option is adhered to by Daniela Yaniv Richter, whose display focuses on exacting replicas of boulders, boughs, stones and fruits. Using brown and beige clay in its original state, she molds, sculpts and casts crusty textures and geometrically angled and shaved planes into tromp-l'oeil volumes that emulate their sources exactly. Esther Beck's series Erosion summarizes her irregular rectangular forms that have been stretched, bashed and pulled into treaded stoneware trays decorated by glassy internal glazes.
An installation by Einat Arbel, Anthropea, contains a plethora of cast marine creatures, sea shells and a range of coral. Several are realistically renderings, others imaginary, but all are all tinted a delicate matte ivory, especially a fragile, two-dimensional, lacy vegetative form sprouting from rectangular solids. Rachel Rothman Garji has thrown dozens of palm-size forms, something between a children's top and a pear, that repeat them like a camp of mitotic cells. Joined one by one by hand into heavy arched walls, these scores of turquoise solids form into a spectacularly large bowl. Segev sees Garji's work also influenced by the marine world.
Moving from the organic to the geometric and manufactured, Segev has chosen several participants who prefer architectonic modeling and installations to the leafiness of natural substance. What comes to mind immediately are dwellings and assembly sites. The trio of Leah Sheves, Anat Bar-El and Ronit Zor attack the subject without any consequence of being misunderstood. Assembling their pieces either from slabs of clay or by carving from solid volumes, they are all schematic edifices and all question concepts of weight, mass and the replacement of space. Zor weaves thin lines of thread into her facades, which creates a subtle contrast with her unglazed, robust forms.
Also in the Construction Material category, Segev has chosen works by three of the most interesting potters in the exhibition. A wall relief by Yael Atzmoni, mechanical wheel thrown domestic pottery by Itamar Beglikter and illuminated porcelain ware by Gila Ben David. The former assembled her installation from several individual parts, Trgm-Mo and Trgm-13blw, etc., prepared from paper clay and colored a deep gun-metal gray. Not totally clear but each piece might refer to a fragment, a part or a limb of a crashed vehicle or aircraft. Nevertheless, Atzmoni's ersatz manufactured sections, with their dents, scratches and jagged edges, can in no way fit into a sister unit but, when viewed as a whole, the viewer cannot but accept the artist's premise of demolition and renewal.
By contrast, Ben David's hand-wrought porcelain slabs, Light Drawings, with gray, black and red glazes hacked, drawn and dripped onto the irregular surfaces are simply beautiful, especially the wall fixtures whose back lighting creates an indistinct halo and only the hint of light penetrating the colorful facade. Unlike anything else in the biennale, Begliker's Grandma's Soup is mold cast and designed to be mass produced. The plates, cups and pots are all cleverly designed to stack and stand and are exquisitely produced in a soft light butter colored glaze.
The area where the biennale takes a turn toward pure sculpture, without the least indication of function or decoration, is the section devoted to Myths, Histories, Culture. In the hands of a sympathetic artist, employing archeology as a means to comprehend the historical and social forces that controlled early civilizations can also be an invaluable asset in cultivating contemporary ideas. Many Israeli ceramicists have engaged this science to recycle its discoveries into tailored subject matter.
Beginning with the Cycladic purity of Lea Dayan's Untitled hand-built clay constructions, whose human characteristics are evident but understated, to Mervat Essa's Communal Grave, a hauntingly personal statement about environment, mores and the collective memory of expulsion of her people that contain, on her horizontal grave, Christian symbols and historical data in the form of gold jewelry and paper documents. Very private yet incredibly revealing is Varda Yatom's Autobiography, a visualized emotional message set on two tripods. In each a realistically carved head, placed as a vortex upside down, is the plumb line of the work and refers to a variety of allegorical items set on a broad shelf that relate to creativity and mortality.
The last section, Material Pleasures, contains several interesting displays. A range of bombastic Teapots, constructed in a slab technique with a porcelain glaze, appear to have been formed not by Laurie Goldstein but by Alice on her way to Wonderland. They are one part organic, one part geometric and several parts imagination. Roy Maayan, according to Segev, explores the concepts of variability and diversification as can be seen in Bubble Covered Vessel, a tall wheel-thrown, mixed-media storage jar that has an ancient feel to its crackled and uneven surface. A decorative Bowl with Cuttings in Lily Motif (or Iris or Pomegranate motifs) was made by Ruth Simon from raw earthenware (with a blue glaze base) that has embellished the entire surface with intricate hand-cut floral design. Here, Simon's creative effort is focused on the fantastic workmanship more so than in her conception of a final product.
Clay, Sensation: The Fifth Biennale for Israeli Ceramics is highly recommended.
Eretz Israel Museum, 2 Rehov Haim Levanon, Tel Aviv, (03) 641-3217; Sunday-Thursday: 10 to 6; Friday: 10 to 2. Hebrew-English catalog.