For her first show at PPOW since 2015, Madonnas and Hand Warmers, Ann Agee has produced a bounty of polychrome ceramics that vividly telegraph her wit and inventiveness. In the front gallery, on a room-size platform, are 66 Madonna sculptures, most with infant or child in tow, ranging in size from just under eight inches to three feet tall, all made during the past two years; in the front window, at four feet, is the largest Madonna, wearing gaily patterned bell-bottom slacks and a tank top, with the fitting title “Exquisitely Dressed Madonna” (2021). In the gallery’s back room are dozens of shoe-shaped sculptures that compose an ongoing series Agee calls her Hand Warmers. Each Madonna or shoe is stamped with the artist’s mark, AGEE MFG, referring to her years’-long enterprise of making works in many mediums — from wallpaper to clothes, books, bathroom tiles, and even marmalade — that blur the lines between domestic life, artistic production, and social connectivity.

The impetus for Agee’s Madonna series is the rather simple idea she had, years ago, to create an alternative world to that of medieval statuary, which privileges the male child. What if the child were a girl? Agee’s mother was an artist, as is her daughter, and the show is something of a generational tribute, as her daughter has recently left home and her mother passed away. Consequently, all the children in the show are girls, with their sex discreetly marked. They sleep, fidget around, and suckle their mothers, elongated women who convey a barely contained balletic energy and poise. 

Ann Agee, “Full-On Striped Madonna” (2021) 27.5 x 10.75 x 10.25 inches

Their dynamism is as much a result of chroma, however, as it is of underlying form. Agee has deployed a wealth of sometimes unconventional techniques to color her figures, incorporating pigment evenly in raw clay; marbling slabs that she rolls out and slices; screenprinting, taping, spraying, and otherwise stenciling glazes; and, of course, directly china-painting, to create the brilliant range of patterns and hues that give these sculptures such unique life. Long influenced by 18th-century German and Italian porcelains of commedia dell’arte performers, she has never shied away from the polychromy that was anathema to modernist sculptural aesthetics. Here, she has stepped up her game, infusing the work with a degree of gravitas that obtains in medieval devotional figures. Indeed, some of the Madonnas are perched on bases with tiny drawers, a reference to the reliquary function that much medieval statuary performed.

The material cleverness of these sculptures is one of the many pleasures they offer an attentive viewer, as is so often the case with great ceramics. Agee’s irreverence is one of her gifts. “Full-On Striped Madonna” (2021), with its red, white, and yellow stripes, which abstract it like a machine-age Léger, is made to look like painted cardboard. (Cardboard is actually a medium Agee loves; she used it to make the iconic turquoise-and-orange torches many New York women carried in the protests following Trump’s election.) The big-haired “Moira Orfei Madonna”(2020), named for an Italian circus impresario, is a striated piece of lustered, black-stained porcelain with red overglaze formed of clay-molded dried spaghetti. The mixture of high and low is everywhere. “Colander Madonna” (2021), with its small holes that seem to drizzle green glaze, refers to Italian ceramic colanders, which Agee first admired at the Italian home of her close friend, the late Betty Woodman, whose love of rough folk ceramics Agee shared. 

Ann Agee, “Cult of the Penis Madonna” (2021), 33.75 x 12 x 9.75 inches

Expressive details mask structural tasks. Seams may be cinched in beaded lines that double as ornament. Cast-bronze necklaces or copper waist bands that seemingly embellish the figures disguise a function of strengthening joints between parts. The larger figures had to be fired in two sections, and often incorporate stoneware as the lower, supporting half and porcelain as the upper. As a result, the same color can modulate slightly, as in the pink of “Exquisitely Dressed Madonna”; she resolves the difference by means of a unifying stenciled surface pattern. The smallest pieces, Agee says, were often the most difficult to execute: their forms are more open, the bodies more kinetic, and the possibilities for a fail seemingly endless. Many of these littler pieces are a single color.

Some of the Madonnas, lacking children, proffer instead a large open hole, as in “Raised Curtain Madonna”(2020); made of porcelain with a matte blue glaze, she hunches forward while opening her skirt. The revealed hole suggests the space of a missing relic, or perhaps the missing child, yet she is as robust as Picasso’s 1906 portrait of Gertrude Stein. Indeed, Picasso is a constant presence in the show, in its sheer playfulness and ingenuity — be it in the smiling, off-kilter faces of “Veiled Madonna” and “Folk Pietà with Drip”(both 2020), reminiscent of his ceramics, or the crisply folded joints, in these and elsewhere, that evoke his cut-metal sculptures, which Agee admires. There is a macho bravado in one of the show’s most serene and beautiful pieces, the monumental, sky blue “Cult of the Penis Madonna” (2021), who wears a talismanic necklace with a phallus bauble, a shape based on fertility objects from ancient Rome that Agee produced and hung on the walls of an earlier exhibition.

Installation view, Ann Agee: Madonnas and Hand Warmers at P·P·O·W, New York, 2021

Agee first showed her ongoing Hand Warmer series on a large table at Frieze New York some years ago; she has continued producing these works to the present. They are based — like the “salt-cellar” Madonnas in the other room, who carry curved plates — on objects she first saw at the Davanzati Palace, a house museum in Florence.

On display at the museum were a number of hollow shoe-shaped ceramics of vague origin and function; they may have been wedding souvenirs that originally held wine. Agee imagines them differently, however. She pictures aristocratic women confined to their spacious palazzi, ice cold in winter; the shoes, she believes, were filled with hot water and carried about in pockets or bags. Why not, she asks? So she dubs them Hand Warmers, and she gives them an inexhaustible multiplicity of shapes, glazes, and styles, from old-fashioned slippers with pompons to stylish loafers, and even a slip-on shoe “branded” all over, like a Louis Vuitton bag, with AGEE MFG. Occasionally they barely constitute a shoe, as in an arabesque form that Agee borrowed from a Thomas Nozkowski painting. Roughly organizing them in groups by palette, she offers the shoes up as singles, as if their mates are waiting behind the scenes in a store room. Funky and elegant by turn, they testify to an imagination run wild; though clay, they are as free as sketches.

Ann Agee: Madonnas and Hand Warmers continues at PPOW Gallery (392 Broadway, Manhattan) through July 23.

Faye Hirsch is an art historian and critic who chairs the MFA program in Art+Design, Purchase College SUNY. She is co-writing a book about Skowhegan with Ingrid Schaffner, to be published by Dancing Foxes...