That Which is Drawn Away

By Anthony Marcellini

Dusk is a moment of transition between light and darkness.  A period in which clarity fades into theill-defined, and individual objects are gradually absorbed into the gatheringshadows, until eventually everything merges into the single shadow of night.  It is a moment when precision and exactitudesuccumb to the symbolic, the imaginative and, eventually, the unknown.  It is a transition where the fixity of theworld starts to slip, becomes more fluid, more open to interpretation andabstraction.

The Czech philosopher Erazim Kohák, describes dusk as thetime of philosophy, a period in which daylight, with its individuatingbrightness, moves towards darkness, fusing all into a unity[i].  Philosophy, he says “is, most fundamentally,the art of the intermediate vision, of the transition between daylight anddarkness when the failing light mutes the insistent individuality of the daybut the darkness of the night has not yet fused all in a unity.[ii]”Philosophy for Kohák happens in the dusk, a marriage between the rationality ofday and the poetic of night, when we are concerned not just with the nature ofbeing, but “meaningful being­–being animated by meaning”[iii]. It is a time of destabilization when theconcrete moves into the indefinite.

It is dusk in which the artist Marie Herwald Hermannresides, a moment that places the fixity of all things at risk.  The dusk is familiar territory for Hermann.It was the subject of her last solo exhibition, And the dusk turned dawn, Blackthorn (2015), at Simon DeSousaGallery, Detroit.  She describes dusk, asa moment when familiar objects seem to flatten, appear two-dimensional andghostlike[iv].  When the light of day begins to fade and oureyes have trouble adjusting to the softening depth.  In this state of partial blindness everythingwe see is given a character of the uncertain.  Marie creates objects perched on thisprecipice of dusk, shaking between daylight and darkness, the familiar and theuncanny.

The Presumption ofFunction

Ceramics are objects of stability, habit, and routine. Evenwhen presented within a gallery or museum, they mirror familiar objects in ourkitchens and on our tables.  They are common,dependable and comforting.  We handle ceramicobjects on an almost daily basis: while we eat our cereal and drink our coffee,hold them tightly in our hands radiating heat on cold days, and carefully washand set them out to dry.  Their formshave been attentively shaped over thousands of years to match our needs and uses.

Ceramics is an ancient form tied to history and function.  Many ceramicists celebrate its endurance, andhold tight to its utility as a vessel, bound to the archeology of craft.  Even when a ceramic work is rendered uselessor inaccessible by vitrines, pedestals, the museum, or each object’s form, conversationsseem to gravitate more to the design and method of its production, circulatingaround the ceramic object’s color, shape or weight, and the process the workunderwent, rather than the presence of the object in the room. It is difficultto shake the presumption of its function.

This is made even more pronounced by the sometimes strange behaviorof some audience members at traditional ceramics exhibitions, who occasionally pickup functional seeming pieces on display, caressing the surface and testing theweight.  These are fellow pottersscrutinizing the craft, the glaze and the heft. This performance is often allowed because the objects are presumed to beutilitarian; they are not afforded the preciousness and the distance of theuntouchable, paintings and sculpture. This performance may also result from the tactility of ceramicproduction, where hands form intimate relationships with wet clay.  Even when on display the memory of tactile contactendures.

Marie Hermann is known as a ceramicist.  Ceramics is the most consistent material inher practice.  She studied ceramicsextensively and teaches the craft at colleges and universities.  She has worked in the studios of prominentceramic artists, such as the ascetic Edmund de Waal, to whom she shares a colorpalate and a sparseness of presentation.  Yet calling her a ceramicist may add moreconfusion than clarity to exactly what she is doing.  For although she produces all her own ceramicwork and is an expert craftsman, the artwork she develops seems to negate all traditionalceramics stands for.  Her work is sodivisive I might venture to call her work anti-ceramic or perhaps un-ceramic.

Four Tactics

Marie Hermann’s practice serves almost as a critique of theseeming fixity of the ceramic form.  Forher practice gives the objects in her installations an uncertain status,causing them to act quite strange.  Thisdistancing is performed through at least four distinct tactics Hermann employsin her exhibitions: Installation, Supports as Artwork, Anti-Ornament and The Copy.

Hermann’s exhibitions are always installations.  This meansthat her individual works cannot be understood outside their relationship tothe whole.  Could you contemplate a singleHermann vessel?  Yes, but you would bemissing an understanding of the multiplicity of the entire system.  It would be like trying to understand a caror a dinosaur by examining only the carburetor or the femur; you wouldundoubtedly build a beast from these parts baring no resemblance to theoriginal.  Even when her installationsare small and tableau-like, there is still a dialog between each individualpiece, as well as the supports, the plinths, and the space itself.

For almost every show in the last five years, Hermann hasplaced nearly as much attention on the supports—thestructures the ceramics sit on—as the ceramics themselves.  These pedestals, shelves, and risers arecarefully handcrafted for each show, sometimes from the same materials as the bowls,vases, and sculptural forms.  Theattention given to them unsettles the presumed dominance of the individualceramic objects and brings the space of the room into the work, which theplinth is normally supposed to distance. It simultaneously raises that status of the plinth, while also degradingthe presumed focus, the ceramic, to the level of the support.  In contemporary artistic practice this maynot seem so radical.  It was one of thekey strategies of minimalism, installation art and performance, in the 1960sand perhaps earlier with Vladimir Tatlin and Marcel Duchamp.  But for a ‘ceramist’ raising the exhibitionfurniture, another utilitarian item, to the level of high craft or art muddlesthe nature of both objects, especially given that Hermann is known as aceramicist not a furniture maker.

Ornament is verb almost entirely absent from Hermann’s work.  Like her teacher de Waal, Hermann favorsmuted colors, whites and beiges, with subtle hints of pink, yellow, green andblue.  There is sometimes detail andintricacy within the glazes; if you move in close you may notice a crystallinesparkle or intentional crackle, but it is not used to dazzle or embellish moreto slightly individualize the objects, but only slightly.  This tactic, anti-Ornament, gathers the objects, bringing them together into afield, a group or a single body.

Maybe her most radical gesture is the copy.  Although Hermann makeseach object by hand, her skill and exactitude is so precise that each ceramicappears mass-produced. Lacking the hand or the fingerprints of the artist, theirshape, simplicity, and manufactured accuracy gives them an almost empty orgeneric presence, like the plain white bowls and plates of Crate and Barrel orIKEA.  Although her more traditional bowlforms are sometimes paired with sculptural objects—lumpy fistsize things,smushed breadsticks and question mark shaped tendrils—which lack the knownutility of the others and are sometimes made from different materials, such asresin and rubber, they still carry the same precision and tone as if extrudedfrom a machine.

Many of Hermann’s forms are actually duplicates and copiesof older forms, remade over and over again for her exhibitions.  Old pieces from 3 or 4 years ago will berecast and appear in new installations. Perhaps she is hinting at the history of the craft? All ceramics in someway mirror pre-existing forms; they are copies of copies of copies, each newversion a duplicate of ancient relative.  In this regard, any shape in this 25,000+ year-old[v]art form is a type of ready-made.

In a wonderful essay on the practice of Marcel Duchamp, thepoet OctavioPaz described Duchamp’s practice as an-artistic, explaininghis ready-made artwork as things continually caught in the process of formation—notartwork and not mass-produced object, but somewhere in-between.[vi]  For Paz, Duchamp is “not the maker of things;his works are not pieces of workmanship—they are acts.”[vii]  Meaning they are continually performing theirhistory and the process by which they came to be.  Hermann’s artworks function similarly to thean-artistic, or in her case, an-ceramic.  They assert a ceramic quality, while at thesame time completely undermine their history by intentionally playing ceramicsagainst the archeology of its form.  Theyfluctuate between the function of the ceramic object and the uncertainty ofartwork, between the precision of day and the symbolic of night.  They are a bit too perfect, too manufactured,too absent, unembellished and even generic, and are offset by the precarity oftheir supports, structures that seem to want to be as present as the objectsthemselves.

That Which is DrawnAway

Dense flowered wallpaper with deep forest greens, subtlereds and yellows where stems reach out in all directions like vines looking forpurchase. The patterns are thick and consuming; they mirror and repeat like Rorschachinkblots across its surface.  The kind ofwallpaper you get lost in: marvelous, immersive and a bit frightening.  This wallpaper, titled Blackthorn and designed by William Morris, lined the walls of theHermann family’s country house. It stood in stark contrast to the white wallsof their city home and served as a wild vortex for a child’s imagination,drawing the mind into the extraordinary and the unknown.

In And the dusk turneddawn, Blackthorn, Hermann has taken this piece of the personal and thedomestic, and put her objects in the place of her childlike self, creating animaginative world devoid of history and utility. In this environment, these familiarthings embrace their freedom, turn alien and strange before our eyes, and we nolonger know quite what they are or do anymore. The objects are pulled from thedomestic and the habitual towards the uncertain and fantastic.

There are times when we have experienced, or watched othersexperience contemporary art where they seem utterly confused by what confrontedthem.  Contemporary art can seem conflicted,working at cross-purposes, possessing two or more contradictory natures.  And the default is often to call this confusingartwork abstract, as if this is any kind of answer.  Rather it simply confirms what is alreadyknown, it is an object difficult to define. 

But, if the Latin root of abstract means “drawn away”[viii],then perhaps what we are doing, when we call an artwork abstract, is confirming its alien nature.  It is an object that is drawing away from us,resisting definition or fluctuating between one single position.  

When an object’s status as a thing in the world starts tobecome uncertain it unsettles everything else. When our definitions no longerfit we become unmoored; we realize, as the sociologist Alfred Gell has said“what is uncertain is not the world but the knowledge we have of it.”[ix]  Hermann’s work is this; it unsettles thefamiliar. It exists in the dusk moving from clarity towards the unpredictable,an act of questioning the familiar, a moment in which an object begins to showthe presence of the shadow.

[i] Erazim Kohák, The Embers and the Stars a Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Senseof Nature, (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press 1987) 32-33

[ii] ibid 33

[iii] ibid

[iv] From a public conversation between Marie Hermann and Glen Adamson,Director Of The Museum of Art and Design, New York, at Simone DeSousa gallery,May 30, 2015.

[v] The Venus of Dolní Věstonice (Czech: Věstonická Venuše) is a  ceramic Venus statue figurine of a nudefemale figure dated to 29,000–25,000 BCE. It was  found at the Paleolithic site Dolní Věstonicein the Moravian basin south of Brno, in the Czech Republic. This figurine,together with others found nearby, is the oldest known ceramic object.

Vandiver. P.B., Soffer. O., Klima.B., and Svoboda. J., (1989) "The Origins of Ceramic Technology at DolniVěstonice Czechoslovakia", in Science, Series, 246/No. 4933 (November 24,1989:1002-1008)

[vi] Octavio Paz, “The Castle of Purity” in Marcel Duchamp, appearance stripped bare, trans. Rachel Phillipsand Donald Gardner (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1990) 22

[vii] ibid 23-24

[viii]  New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd Edition. (Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress, 2005). “abstract”.

[ix] Alfred Gell, “The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment ofTechnology” In Anthropology, Art andAesthetics. Ed. J. Coote and A. Shelton, (Oxford: Clarendon 1994). 57


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