Free-wheeling

British artist Andy Goldsworthy, who sometimes works in clay, has observed that a finished piece of pottery embodies a combination of the four elements. When the clay (essentially, earth) is initially shaped by the artist, it’s malleable because of the presence of water. After the desired form is achieved, the air dries the clay and solidifies the object. And finally, the piece is exposed to the element of fire, thus completing its alchemical transformation.

Through April 21, downtown Asheville’s Blue Spiral 1 gallery hosts The National Clay Invitational, guest-curated by local ceramic artist Mark Burleson, the director of the Odyssey Center for the Ceramic Arts. He selected works by 62 artists representing a wide range of styles and techniques.

Recently, Burleson described the selection process: “My primary concern was to represent the diversity of this medium and the many different ways clay can be handled. I wanted to feature both well-known and emerging artists. I also gave consideration to the balance of genders within the show.”

The resulting exhibit amply demonstrates the way this versatile medium can embrace a broad spectrum of creative expressions.

First to catch my eye were pieces from Yih-wen Kuo’s “Eternal Home” series. These asymmetrical ceramic sculptures — glazed in various shades of blue — testify to the spiritual power of minimalism. Kuo enhances simple geometric forms with small, mysterious openings that evoke a sense of the unknown. The overall effect is compelling, and its purpose is best explained by Kuo, who notes, “It serves as a metaphor for a tomb, a retreat, or the womb, providing a symbolic dwelling for the human spirit.”

Similarly rendered in clay — yet seemingly born on the opposite end of the artistic spectrum — is Kathy King’s installation “To Reproduce or Not to Reproduce.” King uses narrative imagery on otherwise functional ceramic forms to satirically convey the shared experiences of modern women. At the center of her piece is a mirror with a ceramic frame that reads, “To reproduce or not to reproduce that is the question.” Arranged in a pyramid shape around the mirror are seven lidded vases, each depicting a factor in the decision: “Baby,” “Career,” “Body,” “True Love,” “The One,” “Child” and “Mother.” Beneath the mirror is a mantel holding six flower vases that illustrate the story of conception. These are arranged around a ceramic sculpture of a woman’s biological clock. King’s installation recalls the ancient Greek practice of telling tales through pottery. She states, “Each epic story played out upon the surface of the pot [acts] as a self-contained morality play preserving, in part, [a society’s] culture for the ages.”

For artist Megan Wolfe, texture is tantamount in delivering her message. She uses the vivid colors and organic forms of tropical plants as inspiration for her life-sized ceramic sculptures, titled “Passion,” “Vessel No. 2,” “Vessel No. 3″ and “LT 00.” Close observation reveals that the amorphous surfaces of her pieces are purposefully rough — though, from a distance, they possess a macrocosmic smoothness, thanks to her talents with glaze.

Far removed from Wolfe’s earthy style are Sergei Isupov’s detailed renderings of mythological creatures and human figures. His “Warning,” created from porcelain, is sculpted in minute proportions and painted on every inch of exposed surface, presenting a story from every angle.

Transcending definitions of “rough” or “smooth” is artist Gregory Roberts, whose honeycomb ceramics explore a fusion of the two concepts. Roberts’ designs, such as “3×4, Wall Pollen” and “Wall Pollen Dot Com,” create optical illusions by using magnified forms of pollen. Remarkably, he’s mastered a technique for perfectly re-creating the pollen grain — to the point where it’s hard to believe his pieces are made of clay. Politically, Roberts feels his sculpture “echoes the work of agricultural geneticists, whose work can be as benign as generating a redder rose, or as pernicious as creating patented crops that require licensing agreements from farmers and make it illegal to save or re-use seed. In following this deeply human desire to understand and control one’s environment, I am recreating my backyard.”

Though the visual scope of Clay Invitational pieces is beyond categorization, the recurring theme of the teapot ultimately shapes the show. An important instrument in ceremonies across many cultures and eras, the teapot shows up in various shapes, sizes and colors here, some leaning toward a more traditional interpretation and others so abstract they’re identifiable only by the most obvious clues (handles, lids and spouts).

Why did the teapot prevail so unmistakably as the exhibit’s guest of honor? Burleson observes: “The teapot is a very complex form. It can be a complete metaphor and functional at the same time.”

As an avid lover of these meaningful tools, I harbored my own explanation. Like the creation of pottery, the tea ceremony also combines the four elements. The tea, representing earth, is combined with water that’s heated over fire — and cooled by air to the perfect temperature.

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