Betty Woodman, Revisited

Clay is an impulsive medium. It begs to be touched, formed, and shaped. At the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, curator Ingrid Schaffner and associate curator Jenelle Porter have brought together 22 artists spanning 4 generations of “significant” works. One of those artists is Betty Woodman, a former ceramics teacher at the University of Colorado. Woodmans ceramic sculptures are in the collection of the Denver Art Museum and on display at Denver International Airport, and Woodman, who now splits time between New York and Italy, was featured in a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2006.

She draws no boundaries between art and craft and considers her work to be fine art.Her exuberant and colorful objects frequently contain, or are built around, a vessel, creating a dialogue between subject and form. They are beautiful works, which are decorative, but also represent a hybrid between painting and sculpture. The objects are made of glazed earthenware, epoxy resin, lacquer and paint.Impulsive and conversational are two words that describe Woodmans four-object “Winged Figure.” Soaring, organic leaf or wing shapes surround a vessel. The colorful patterns glazed and painted onto the clay provide clues to Woodmans intellectual process. The markings are gestural and the colors bring to mind Matisse, Cezanne, or, in the case of “Cubist,” one of the four, Georges Braque.Woodmans objects stand on their own. The rest of the exhibit needs some propping.

Most of the artists in the show are living and working today, but their inclusion inspired the curators to look back to who influenced them: Woodman, Beatrice Wood, Robert Arneson, George Ohr. — artists who managed to elevate the formlessness of clay, the delight of ornamentation, and the process of turning material associated with functional “craft” into fine art.

Schaffner said that she and co-curator Porter “didnt want the exhibition to be an arts/craft paradigm.” Yet the wall text accompanying the exhibit says that the show is examining not only clays appeal, but craft in general. How can you fill a gallery at a contemporary art museum with ceramics and not implicate the tricky semantic and meaningful divide? I am left with questions.

Contemporary art continues to be enthralled with the idea of sloppy craft, of creating art from garbage. But placing much of the actual sloppy craft in this show next to a Betty Woodman does not take the craft paradigm out of the exhibition. It might be that the display is at fault. All the work is shown near table-height, on the same level, giving the show a garage-sale feel.

Woodmans objects, however, stand out as complete in thought and form. Her work divorces surface from shape and then puts it all back together. The dialogue Woodman chooses to explore is a re-exploration of modernism, retold. Many others in this exhibit are merely being impulsive.

Betty Woodman “June in Italy (view B)”, 2001 glazed earthenware, epoxy resin, lacquer and paint 39 x 38 x 9 in.
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