Monday, March 23, 2009

Tang Dynasty Camel and Rider

It is hard not to obsess about a work like this, seen recently at the Met museum. The photos I managed to get of it, I'll admit, are an affront. It didn't help that this beast and his rider are backed into a glass case that prevents really seeing it in 3-D. No wonder the camel is freaking out! It is an earthenware funerary sculpture from around the 8th century. Every part of this work shows gorgeous attention to detail, and the dynamism of the movement is thrilling. The Asian galleries are always peaceful and quiet; coming upon this sculpture can startle you a bit. It seems to have a story to tell you, and it seems like it is rushing toward you with that in mind. It is the kind of great work that will have you looping back through galleries after you have moved on to look again at how it is put together. I almost cropped this first image to remove the glare from my flash ( which shouldn't have been on at all ), but then decided I would imagine it as a hot desert sun beating down on this nomadic group.

So, we have a camel, a rider, a boy hanging on behind him, numerous blankets and provisions and two scrambling puppydogs. All in all, the feeling of an overloaded jalopy heading for parts unknown. Seems like there is too much of everything perched up there. Preposterous! But the rider shows such a powerful assurance you end up seeing that it's not really unbalanced at all, you just perceive the shifting load moving forward at a pace that will occasionally be interrupted. As a funerary sculpture, I suppose one function of this work, in its day, might have been to reassure that life's material and emotional necessities were somehow still within reach. But I honestly know less that zero about beliefs, burial rituals, etc. during the Tang (or any other) Dynasty, so don't take my word for it. From a technical standpoint, it is worth noting that this quite large thing is actually composed of ( I think ) 3 separate units, stacked one atop the other, and held in place by protruding elements, such as the humps of the camel. The small hole you can see at the center of the rider's fist would have allowed some type of cord to attach and appear to pull back the camel's head.

Every spot on this thing has something great to look at. Beautiful claywork. But I think my favorite details are this flask with an inscribed heart, and the way that sheepskin blanket curls around the contour of the other piece which it abuts. Whoever made this, I salute you.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Sanam Emami @ Greenwich House Pottery

This is a small, focused, and lovely show which primarily explores the unusual form of the tulip vase. Sanam Emami is known for elegant functional porcelain that combines various approaches including screen-printed underglazing and stamping. The subtle glaze colors are enlivened as they break over the complex forms, and the motifs and treatment of the underglazes reveal themselves almost as ruminations on ideas that preoccupy the artist. Though small, the parts where a stamped bit of design gets a little wash of bold underglaze color gives a percussive little blast of energy that feels kind of like paging through a sketchbook of ideas and finding a little gem of something. In places, the silkscreened imagery feels as if it might be code or shorthand for a personal thought or memory, and the uneven coverage/saturation of these underglazed bits contributes to that feeling of something susceptible to slipping away. The eyes take their time and make their way around the vases and are rewarded.

I recommend the excellent interview that this artist did for American Craft magazine. Her way of talking about her work is a real pleasure to read.

The show also has a wall piece made up of numerous stoneware trivets (whose shapes seem derived from Islamic tile forms) presented as a group against its painted and filigreed backdrop. These go even further in their freewheeling combination of techniques and imagery, but my photos disappointed. I also felt that many of the individual pieces here were too high up to really see well.