Art

Detroit Artists Take a Hammer to Traditional Ceramics

Nathan Tonning, "Starting Over" and "Planters A-G"
Nathan Tonning, “Starting Over” and “Planters A-G” (click to enlarge)

DETROIT — These days Detroit is a hotbed of craft-based forms revisited. We are exploring fiber, we are redefining letterpress, and we are having a ceramics revolution of shattering (not literally) proportions. Double Presence, a three-person exhibition at Holding House featuring works by Nathan Tonning (also the show’s organizer), Victoria Shaheen, and Emily Duke, presents three diverging approaches to reinventing ceramics.

Nathan Tonning, "Squirrel Skin Bongo #4" (2015)
Nathan Tonning, “Squirrel Skin Bongo #4” (2015) (click to enlarge)

Tonning appears to be going back to basics, as his multimedia sign “Starting Over” suggests. His Vessel-Based Ceramic Objects and the body of work he made in residency at Popps Packing in 2014 more than demonstrate his ability to flawlessly render large-scale and challenging ceramic forms; his regression to crude, hand-formed or asymmetrical shapes represents a deeply conscious — and probably taxing — effort to let go of the kind of muscle memory and reflexive habits that potters develop as part of their most foundational training. To supplement this primitive practice, Tonning taught himself a new craft, hide tanning, using for his experimental subjects a few unfortunate members of Hamtramck’s squirrel population. The resulting hides are deployed in the series Squirrel Skin Bongos — a nod to the ancient practices of drum-making and the creation of scared or totemic objects — as well as indirectly, forming the negative of the relief motif decorating his “Tanning Jar.”

Emily Duke is also dealing with objects in relief — a direct allusion to the show’s title — but her objects are crisp, modern, and minimalist. The matte surfaces, hard angles, and chalky pastels put me in mind of mid 1980s Southwestern interior design. In some sense, Duke is also dealing with an ancient and fundamental set of symbols — geometric shapes, which have held architectural, intellectual, and spiritual significance since the dawn of civilization — but her clean, precise, and clinical deployment of those symbols could not be more opposed to Tonning’s loose, rough, and literally violent body of work.

A curio shelf assortment by Victoria Sheehan
A curio shelf assortment by Victoria Shaheen (click to enlarge)

Threading the needle between these two is Victoria Sheehan, who works with molded porcelain and foil to explore the rich cultural wasteland of kitsch. Sheehan’s kitsch deals in a kind of essential symbol set — piggy bank, Christmas tree, flower pot, pumpkin, baseball — whose bright foil surfaces are instantly engaging. A display shelf houses a series of smaller, more abstract works — odd, mostly enclosed shapes in white gloss or pastel tones, embellished with patches of foil. In replicating existing objects via casting and porcelain molding, Sheehan seems to elevate these forms, but the foil wrappings make them somehow common again, like half-unwrapped Cadbury eggs. Her bright pops of color and accessible subjects add levity to the show, breaking up Duke’s dense, inscrutable geometrics and Tonning’s return to the dawn of civilization.

There is no complete cohesion between these three artists, but Double Presence manages to cover ground in a way that feels ambitious, with something unexpected at every turn. For a confirmed ceramiphile like myself, it is an interesting and challenging show, featuring artists who are determined to use ceramics as containers for ideas, rather than containers for other materials and substances.

"45" Taper," by Emily Duke, left a sharp impression.
“45” Taper,” by Emily Duke, left a sharp impression.
Emily Duke, "Parallelogram"
Emily Duke, “Parallelogram”
Victoria Sheehan, "Renaissance 1894"
Victoria Shaheen, “Renaissance 1894”
Nathan Tonning, "Squirrel Skin Bongo #1" (2015)
Nathan Tonning, “Squirrel Skin Bongo #1” (2015)
Nathan Tonning, "Tanning Jar"
Nathan Tonning, “Tanning Jar”

Double Presence continues at Holding House (3546 Michigan Avenue, Detroit, Michigan) through October 10.

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