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November 10 - December 8, 2001 at galerie yoramgil, Beverly Hills

by John O'Brien

“Crevices,” ceramic and mixed
media, 45 x 25 x 8”, 2001.

"Splitting Storms", ceramic and
mixed media, 28 x 25 x 3", 2001

"Splitting Lakes", ceramic and
mixed media, 55 x 43 x 6", 2001

"Intimacy", ceramic and mixed
media, 12 x 10 x 6", 2001

"In Between", ceramic and
mixed media, 45 x 20 x 4", 2001

The mixed media and ceramic objects installed together by Melissa Maxfield for her exhibition Initiation conjure up diverse sources and draw on a wide range of technical resources. They range in shape from large horizontal stele, to extended elliptical plates, to wall mounted funnels. Their surfaces are articulated with the rope-like coils that are built up in concentric circles from a center, and whose consistency shifts from ceramics to fibers and then to pigments and resins. Looking a little like an irregular world atlas or a strange archaic system for diagramming energy fluxes, the surfaces are minutely treated with softly applied earth tones and embellished with delicate wispy textures. These uncovered parts look like some kind of placid wellspring or swirling tide pool, though the cutting action alludes to a wound.

These works dwell in a kind of space that calls to mind the origins of abstraction. Nature is reduced to an almost essential cipher, with the reduction of resemblance and representational detail being central to the abstracting process. Rather than asking us to consider what they resemble, or the sources from which they were drawn, these objects invite the viewer to engage a level of content obliquely evoked. Maxfield works with the imagination in a playful way, and although she doesn't seem particularly determined to chart out specific meanings for the maps and miniaturized panoramas, she does make them resonate with physical and psychological presence. This is underscored by her titles, which veer from quasi-geophysical states like Splitting Lakes, Crevices and Splitting Storms, to psychological states like Intimacy and In Between.

Her vessel/map/territories lean out away from the ceramic tradition to suggest non-function in heretofore functional items like vessels. At the same time, they abide by the handmade criterion drawn from the past of ceramic handicraft. Intimacy assumes the form of a vessel, but by being mounted perpendicularly on the wall, turns the contents of this vessel into the viewer's curious gaze and subverts any notion of function. This is the point of critical tension in her work, both adhering to and deviating from a specific art history. This stems from what I take to be her desire to conserve the traditions of ceramics, on one hand, and to expand upon our wider aesthetic vocabulary, whatever the technical basis, on the other.

If this is a moment in which ceramists are collectively distressed about having a sort of dual citizenship in the arts and crafts, Maxfield must for now be placed among them. With her Initiation about to begin, I wish Maxfield well in her attempt to achieve the fusion of these diverse intents and traditions. Whether something fundamental is changing in this and other artists' thinking about the art developments for clay, it is too early to say; nor is this work by any stretch decisive. But, as always, it will be interesting to see which artists will provide us with the key(s) should there be such a transformation. Maxfield here throws her hat into the ring.