Promises, promises

The day this story comes out, a new man will, overnight, have become the face of America. Clinton’s bulbous nose and hedgerow hair will be excised from current events — replaced by Gore’s leaden mug or Bush’s out-of-work-clown grin.

Down on Asheville’s riverfront, political expressions are likewise prominent — if less instantly recognizable.

Politiclay: Social Comments in Contemporary Ceramics, now showing at the Odyssey Gallery on Clingman Avenue, displays the work of 11 sculptors; almost all live within a few hours’ drive of Asheville. Though widely varied in form and theme, the work in Politiclay evokes one of feminism’s pet truisms — the one about the personal also being political.

Greenville, S.C., sculptor Russell Biles’ “Rebel, Rebel (Lenny Bruce)” (a nude, dark-complexioned Christ figure holding a burning Confederate flag) threatens to ignite controversy. But viewers may take some of the other artists’ statements more lightly — as some television viewers do the catch phrase invoked on inauguration day: “I [fill in name] solemnly swear.”

Take, for instance, Garth Johnson’s “Bill Clinton Novelty Teapot,” which shows the former president indulging in one of his favorite vices — smoking a cigar. Clinton’s nose is overwhelmingly featured in this clay caricature; he holds a stogy in one hand, and his free arm arcs behind him to form the teapot’s handle, coming to rest on his back in a gesture of self-support. In “Novelty Teapot,” Johnson has managed to merge, in one entity, a functional vessel and a pleasure-addled fool (perhaps intending to mirror how a leader can simultaneously symbolize both national prosperity and droll infamy).

Classroom violence is scary, but Cynthia Consentino’s pint-sized vigilantes take back the day with charm to spare. “Girls with Guns,” part of a two-piece series, shows just what the title suggests. The redhead stands tall, while her brunette friend takes aim on one knee. Both point their pistols in the same direction — their cardigans, jumpers and Mary Janes perfect accessories to the impending “crime.”

“The sculptures of girls with guns are intended to be a critique of the violence that surrounds all of us in our society. Little girls do indeed need to defend themselves more than ever. The prevalence of child abuse and violence in homes, schools and streets testifies to this,” says Consentino in her artist’s statement.

“The pieces,” she continues, “also address the subconscious fantasy and need in our culture of a powerful, self-defending (if not avenging) female. Tired of her passive, sweet, nurturing good-girl role, these girls are ready for change and willing to right some wrongs.”

Carol Gentithes’ oversized “White House Bugs” (a set of three) aren’t quite as ambitious, relying on sheer cheekiness to press their agendas. About the grinning “Carterpillar,” the artist remarks: “This seemingly friendly and docile insect remained an independent bug showing no real sense of direction. In the beginning stage, the Carterpillar was extremely small but grew quickly. It shed its skin several times in the process, and its appearance changed consistently after each skin change. … This is the only [White House Bug] exhibiting teeth, and almost always in the guise of a wide grin. Whether this was due to an inner lustful peace or simply an uncontrollable neurological function is still being investigated from shed skins.”

“You can express anything through ceramics,” notes gallery Manager Robin Strangfeld.

In fact, those who spend their days near hot kilns may be particularly prone to creating partisan art. “I think most [ceramicists] tend to work in political themes,” says Strangfeld. “The craft aspect is just one part of ceramics — there’s a whole other side.”

In “Designer Drugs,” Nancy Herman nurses our inner voyeur by offering a lurid peek inside America’s medicine cabinet. The installation’s main attraction is a wall papered with blown-up cartoons from Funny Times, each panel expressing a cynical view of America’s codependent love affair with prescription drugs.

Peering into his lunchbox, a schoolboy tempts his buddy, “Trade you my Ritalin for your Dexedrine.” In another cartoon, a joyless cat addresses a similarly sour feline friend: “I admitted my behavior was erratic and prone to violent mood swings, and I asked them to look into putting me on Prozac … but they said neutering was cheaper.”

Centered in the cartoon wall is a medicine cabinet trimmed by three vanity bulbs. The viewer presses a button and the medicine-cabinet door swings open, revealing fully stocked shelves. But the pills inside aren’t just confined to bottles — on the bottom shelf, a bright litter of clay capsules spills onto a bed of cotton. Opening the door also triggers a recording of the Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper,” which segues into Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.”

Hearing Grace Slick gargle “feed your head” certainly enhances the already-surreal quality of this work, but the second part of the installation — in which Herman turns a traditional tea table into a pill-popping panorama — is equally absorbing. The very teapot cozy is quilted from images copied out of a doctor’s drug manual, while each of the eight teacups has a large, colorful clay capsule molded to its handle.

“Drugs can be used as a form of social control,” the ceramicist said recently from her home in Celo, near Penland School. Her interest in the subject is personal, stemming from a family member’s tragic experience with prescription medication in an institutional setting.

“[The installation] came from a really deep place,” she acknowledges, “but it affects all of us.” She won’t say that all prescription-drug use is harmful or unjustified, but worries about what she sees as “the numbing of America. We’re living in a therapeutic state, being made to feel that something is wrong with us, that we’re not OK. People are [being made to see] society’s problems as personal illnesses. And if you numb yourself out, you may be calm and placid, but you’re not doing anything about the problems of our postindustrial world, which are considerable.”

Moreover, erasing the pain and confusion of being human in a superaccelerated society isn’t always a clean solution.

“Some of the [newer anti-depressants] haven’t been well tested,” she warns. In many cases, says the artist, drugs that produced no serious side effects during their first decades of use are now being found to be toxic.

“That’s unnerving,” she observes.


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