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WASHINGTON, DC — A pair of gourds, a uterus, and the rudder of a boat — these are some of the objects that Jami Porter Lara‘s slick, black sculptures immediately bring to mind. As varied as they are, their forms all descend from that of the common plastic water bottle. Twenty-five are currently on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in the Albuquerque-based artist’s solo exhibition Border Crossing, curated by Virginia Treanor.
While its title may suggest a show that deals directly with immigration, border-crossing, here, primarily refers to the transcending of more abstract divisions: those between art and trash; nature and the manufactured; and the past, present, and future. Porter Lara strives to reframe a ubiquitous item we generally regard as trash as what she describes a “contemporary artifact” — an object that was designed by humans that holds significant cultural weight and may one day be of historical interest.
Her 25 sculptures on view are vase-like, each retaining in some form a plastic bottle’s bumpy base and its ridged neck. Some are bulbous, with bottlenecks that recall the thick vessels of a heart; others are elegant and sport graceful curves. Almost all would fail as water bottles, but Porter Lara is drawn to the role of form, rather than function, in how we assign value to objects in a world filled with too many things.
Although new visions of a time-worn object, the sculptures are all rooted in the past through Porter Lara’s use of a millennia-old process. In 2011, she was living with potters in Mata Ortiz, who taught her traditional techniques of hand-building and pit-firing clay, found from nearby stream beds or mountains, into pottery. Each of her works is the result of this precise craft, which she explains in a video in the gallery. Although their smoothness and symmetrical geometries suggest they may have been manufactured, just like a plastic bottle, they are born from individual attention, and each invites close scrutiny.
Border Crossing raises questions of how we define relics, what we choose to save or care about, and why. But the idea to reinterpret the plastic water bottle in the first place did arise from the topic of immigration. While exploring areas near the US-Mexico border, Porter Lara noticed how two-liter bottles, discarded by migrants, dotted the landscape, as did ancient pot shards. Both vessels, once essential to their owners — sacred, even — were thrown away when no longer useful; but they were not destroyed, instead enduring as artifacts.
Porter Lara’s own dark sculptures are a continuation of this timeline of found vessels: she positions them as archaeological finds, each named according to a system she borrowed from the field of archaeology. Every title consists of a series of letters and numbers that relay information about the work’s origin, from where she harvested the clay to when she fired the piece. This system positions her work as a kind of reverse archaeology — one that not only invites us to think about how our objects today may be interpreted in the future but that also further speaks to our human inclination to divide and classify, sometimes based on arbitrary measures.
Border Crossing: Jami Porter Lara continues at the National Museum of Women in the Arts through May 14.