Raising glasses

Raise a Glass detailFor an Office for the Arts Ceramics Program exhibition, modern artists respond to ancient artifacts. In conjunction with an exhibition at Harvard Art Museums, the new ceramics creations offer insights, commentary and reflections to viewers. 

By Sasha Barish ‘20

It smells like wet clay in the gallery. I don’t mind that. I like the smell of clay. I’ve liked the feel of clay, too, the few times that I’ve played around at a potter’s wheel. Let me explain. See, you plop this big lump of thick gray stuff right onto the center of the wheel, and it sticks there. It’s suctioned onto the surface. It’s totally inert. And then you get the wheel spinning, and you put your hands onto the clay and suddenly you feel it wriggling and dancing, slipping back and forth under your palms, writhing, then rising and growing as you start to shape it. That moment, when it begins to move, brings this rush of exhilarating joy, because you can feel the clay come alive.

The Residuum by Russell Wrankle
"The Residuum" by Russell Wrankle
There’s something philosophical about these earthen golems that we animate for our purposes and then bake into unchanging vessels of a brittle hand-made stone. For the thousands and thousands of years that humans have had ceramic technologies, we’ve valued clay because it can move both from natural substance to human craft and from malleable to rigid: It exists in a limbo of inanimate and living. It’s no wonder that, across cultures and eras and regions, so many craftspeople have turned their clay into hybrid forms: pitchers shaped like people, cups that are also animals.

The Harvard Art Museums exhibition Animal-Shaped Vessels from the Ancient World: Feasting with Gods, Heroes, and Kings put these hybrids on display with a groundbreaking selection of artifacts from various societies (primarily in the ancient Mediterranean and Western Asia) and in various mediums (largely, due to its durability and availability, clay). My favorite containers in the collection are those whose very existence conjures up scenes of Ancient Greek drinking parties and the interactions that happened there, where intoxication brought out puns and intellectual debates and performative storytelling. For example, many cups have animal faces positioned on them in such a way that a person lifting the cup to drink uses it simultaneously as a mask, jokingly taking on the persona of a wild, lusty donkey.

The Office for the Arts Ceramics Program’s current exhibition at the studio in Allston, the one in the gallery that smells like clay, was created to complement these ancient vessels.

The Ceramics Program exhibition is called Raise a Glass – A Contemporary Response to Animal-Shaped Vessels from the Ancient World, but if the title were up to me, I would pluralize it: contemporary responses. What struck me about the exhibition, once I had looked through it all, was how each of the 14 sculptors featured had “responded” to the ancient artifacts, because everyone sees unique elements in the same art, focusing on and interpreting them in varying ways.

Cortez the Syncretistic by Richard W. James
"Cortez the Syncretistic" by Richard W. James
Here are several of the connections I noticed between the contemporary and ancient art.

Salvador Jiménez Flores saw how ancient vessels can turn humans into animals and responded with a piece that alludes to racial justice. Russel Wrankle saw how they let decorative form and sculptural realism run together and responded with a detailed turkey head that transitions into a neck embossed with metallic gold spots. Richard W. James saw the ways that people use and repurpose other cultures’ motifs. Natalia Arbelaez saw the distortion of the body into functional shapes. Adam Shiverdecker saw how far removed we are from the artifacts, how little we have of the world they came from, and how temporary material culture can be.

I mentioned earlier that I particularly love the ancient vessels because of the cultural uses they are clearly designed for, and that aspect is missing in their modern counterparts. The objects in Raise a Glass are sculptures – some rather similar to usable drinking vessels, others not – that can’t and won’t be used in a real party. It’s true that part of the original artifacts’ meaning is absent from the explicitly artistic modern responses, but the shift in purpose opens up a host of new ways to look at the originals.

Raise a Glass – A Contemporary Response to Animal-Shaped Vessels from the Ancient World is on display through November 26 at the Ceramics Program building 224 Western Ave. in Allston, and Animal-Shaped Vessels from the Ancient World: Feasting with Gods, Heroes, and Kings is at the Harvard Art Museums through January 6. Both exhibitions have upcoming events, including a workshop and lecture with Raise a Glass artist Ian Thomas. Photos for this story by Sasha Barish.