LOS ANGELES — Lena Wolek’s installation “Help Yourself” (2017) at NowSpace is both funny and grim. A banquet-length table is laid with 100 ceramic plated cakes, cookies, baked pears, ice creams, and every conceivable pastry; it’s a still life orgy. The desserts are fancifully plated, and each confection, paired with a tray, bowl, or dish, is exquisitely detailed. The sweets are lumpy, caving in on themselves as though melting or decaying. Many are topped not only in frosting or cream but in gold, an effect Wolek achieves using eight-karat gold luster overglaze. The effect is somewhere between appetizing and nauseating, an impression strengthened by the long table, which has been fashioned to suggest a bright red tongue protruding from the wall. The piece is a playful conflation of baking pastry with baking clay, but Wolek is not really joking — “Help Yourself” is an acid comment on the greed and decadence characterizing our civilization. As things stand, we will likely consume ourselves out of existence.
Paired with Wolek’s obscene buffet in this exhibition, titled Brittle Peace, are Emily Marchand’s dystopian yet joyous works (all made in 2017), delighting in their materials even as they engage bleak realities. Wolek is a master of traditional ceramic technique, while Marchand asks clay to do things it’s not really supposed to, but both share a love for ceramics and a horror of current events.
Mounted on the wall alongside Wolek’s confections is Marchand’s “international treaty,” where lines of cursive ceramic writing extrude, bend, and loop to resemble words but are actually only inscrutable glyphs, as fittingly elusive as any meaningful treaty these days. Marchand’s take on global accord reminds me of Ernest Hemingway’s phrasing in The Sun Also Rises: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
Nearby is a cluster of eight ceramic sculptures entitled “Repose,” each balanced on a stacked pair of salt blocks, one of which has been partially eaten away by water. The tubular ceramics are bent, knotted, and coiled, vaguely resembling marine invertebrates. Despite the works’ title, the sculptures perch precariously on their plinths, overhanging the edges, the deterioration of the salt supports suggesting they will disappear like melting polar ice.
A trio of looped and knotted clay extrusions suspends from another wall. Titled “surgeon’s knot,” “acrobat hitch,” and “icicle hitch,” the three pieces hang tenuously, continuing the uncomfortable dialogue with gravity initiated in “Repose.” Their blues, reds, yellows, and ochres come from watercolor Marchand has painted onto the clay, and from the colorful paracord she has included in these works. Paracord is popular with both the military and survivalists, and its inclusion in these works suggests the same apocalyptic future signaled by the disintegrating salt blocks.
NowSpace has an additional room in the back where munitions were manufactured during World War II. Wolek and Marchand were in residency on-site for a month prior to the show, and they used this room as a site for collaboration. The result was their installation “soft ammunition,” hundreds of unfired clay missiles standing in clusters on the floor before their leader, who wears a military style cap and faces the assembly. Each bullet is jointly made, the bottom by Marchand and the upper portion by Wolek. The abject, crumpling shapes suggest flaccid penises, while their terra-cotta color and arrangement recalls the ceramic army buried with Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor. The installation echoes Nicole Eisenman’s “The Lesbian Museum, 10,000 Years of Penis Envy” (1992), in which the artist filled the Franklin Furnace with a stupendous array of dildos and other sex toys. “Soft ammunition” resonates with the current tsunami of male sexual assault revelations and the threat of military conflict with North Korea. The fact that this work reverberates back a quarter century and all the way to 210 BCE indicates just how intractable are our problems.
Emily Marchand and Lena Wolek: Brittle Peace continues at NowSpace (5390 Alhambra Ave, Los Angeles) through December 3.