Several years ago, the Brooklyn sculptor Shari Mendelson turned to ancient glass and ceramic containers as a conceptual anchor for formal ideas, material explorations, and art-historical references. The artist had for some time been making three-dimensional constructions out of various plastics; her primary material is now high-density polyethylene, the plastic currently used for most beverage containers. Artifacts, a stunning exhibition of about two dozen elegant, gently humorous, and very smart riffs on the vessel tradition, opened last weekend at Todd Merrill Studio. The show, which includes work from this and last year, brings into view ideas about materiality, utility, time, and the aesthetic experience itself.
Mendelson cuts up plastic bottles and assembles the pieces, using hot glue and acrylic resin, into sculptures that refer to pots, vases, urns, amphorae, and the like. They range in height from several inches to nearly three feet. Mendelson crafts the surfaces with great care but without fuss, often applying washes of acrylic mediums and colors that bring out their beautiful irregularities. “Yellow-Green Heart Shaped Vessel” and a few others are dusted with glitter; candy wrappers are visible on the inside surface of “Pink and Silver Vessel” (both 2016).
The design of plastic bottle bottoms varies widely, and the particularity of these brand-specific articulations, while recognizably mass-produced, serve Mendelson’s needs as a sculptor of unique objects. In “Round Bottle with Extra Long Neck” (2015) and several more, the bottle bottoms resemble the stylized floral motifs you see on early mold-blown glass.
That’s no coincidence, of course — Mendelson derives many of the forms in the show from historical types, mainly from the Greco-Roman period. “Glitter Vessel with Blue Neck Semicircles” (2016) is based, I believe, on a Roman flat-bottomed bottle with a low-slung, bulbous belly, a long, slightly tapered neck, and a sassy flair at the lip. The prototype doesn’t have much of a foot, but Mendelson adds one for the sake of stability (and she tones down that lip-flair). The ancients stored some containers such as perfume bottles and poison vials horizontally, as we do toothpaste, but Mendelson’s works stand upright, which emphasizes their axial symmetry.
A few titles refer explicitly to source cultures. “Syrian Bottle with Long Neck” and “Blue Syrian Vessel with Long Neck” (both 2016) represent a refinement of the earlier Roman bottle. Mendelson’s take on it is so covered with convexities that it sometimes seems to be pressing outward, or containing something that is. (The bumpy surface of “Shiny Blue Vessel” (2016) looks something like those Roman bottles — presumably meant for wine — that are shaped like a bunch of grapes.)
A band of interlocking L shapes encircles the rim of “Blue Urn with Found Greek Key” (2016), the show’s tallest entry at 34 inches high. The title signals that the key pattern was not arbitrarily applied but was somehow intrinsic to the raw, repurposed material. Mendelson, we gather, is in this instance not quoting decorative-arts history but rather utilizing the presence of ancient decorative motifs that adorn the detritus of our age, where they mix with brand names, weights and measures, and sell-by dates.
Mendelson has a lot of fun with handles, sometimes adding more than you figure would be strictly necessary if the vessel were for real. “Vessel with Blue-Green Neck and Six Handles” (2016), nearly two feet high, has handles that seem like flying buttresses compared to its delicate, undersized base. One of the great Roman glassworkers is cited in “Ennion-like Vessel with Ten Handles” (2015); though only 15 inches high, it is one of the heftier-looking works in the show, with a sturdy, fluted base, a streamlined midsection, and a large neck. It wears those ten handles like a crown. Ennion perhaps invented — but in any case developed — the method of decorated mold-blown glass. He signed his work, carving his name (in reverse) into the inside of the mold; in Mendelson’s homage, the inscription instead reads 60 FL OZ (1.87 qts).
Because they are made of cut-up, repurposed plastic bottles, the subtext of recycling is ever-present, but in my read of the work, it is a secondary consideration. The artist’s attention to nuances of color, tactility, craft, presentation, and so on suggests that her primary frames of reference are aesthetic experience and the history of forms, not social commentary.
Okay, yes — if you like, the work highlights the torrents of trash, the daily avalanches of debris our culture of consumption produces and leaves behind for archeologists of the future. But I sense from the work itself that its primary motivation is Mendelson’s love of particular forms as expressions of functionality. (The artist has worked with other morphological types such as the bowl, jug, flask, and goblet, though these are not represented in Artifacts.) She dispenses with the functionality, and celebrates the forms; as a consolation for having to schlep water, the ancients made their water-schlepping equipment beautiful.
For entirely subjective reasons, my favorite piece is “Large Purple Vessel with Yellow” (2016), which is 28 inches high and 16 inches across at the outermost diameter. The main section is meticulously pieced together from little dome-like bubbles, which are larger at the top of the pot and smaller toward the bottom. In places the surface has a metallic-looking patina. Still, it’s kind of awkward; ridges in the neck look like stretched tendons, and the two handles don’t engage the neck at all, but emerge from the hunched shoulders.
I love those deadpan titles, which are like the ones museums assign to utilitarian relics of the past, and it’s a safe bet that Mendelson loves museums. Last year, she was artist-in-residence at the Corning Museum of Glass in upstate New York where, she tells me, the extensive collection includes an object (“possibly Syria”) that combines a pair of small tubular containers with the shape of an animal of some kind; to scale, the creature would have an enormous burden on its back.
Artifacts includes three riffs on that type, among them “Animal with Blue Cage Cup” (2015), 11 inches high. A luxury item in the late Roman Empire, the cage cup has a convex bottom with no base, and nests inside an elaborate, completely detachable openwork stand (the “cage”). In Mendelson’s version — seemingly, a hybrid of the two genres — a rudimentary cage holding a round-bottomed bottle shaped like a light bulb sits atop a horse (or dog, or llama…) with splayed legs and a sagging spine. You sense the weight of the load.
In this case, “blue” is an uneven, weathered-looking gray-blue that, in keeping with the show’s overall pale palette, looks as if it were bleached by sun or time. In other works, crevasses between pieces of plastic are roughly patched over with acrylic mediums, which can look like soil or clay dust clinging to a newly unearthed trophy. Excavation is a potent metaphor for the artist’s studio activity, and Mendelson’s artifacts emerge from her subconscious as much as from her enthusiasm for her subject matter. In turn, they appeal to something preconscious in the viewer; the impulse to grasp and lift these things, just to see how they fit my body, was almost irresistible. Artists such as Elisabeth Kley and Andrew Lord make sculpture that refers directly to vases and pitchers and many similar things, and while I enjoy the work of both artists tremendously, I don’t recall ever having such an urgently tactile response to it.
The context of the exhibition in a high-end design boutique underscores the distinction between design and art. (When is a pot not a pot? When it is a three-dimensional image of a pot.) In a review titled “The Craft of Art” for New York Magazine many years ago, the critic Kay Larson described an exhibition of artwork that “[took] the forms of home furnishings into some never-never land of functionless charm.” About that work, Larson concluded that “the only ‘function’ left is admiration,” and the same is true of this captivating, functionless, and utterly charming show.
Artifacts continues at Todd Merrill Studio (80 Lafayette Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through January 13, 2017.