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 the ill-defined, and individual objects are gradually absorbed into the gathering shadows, until eventually everything merges into the single shadow of night.  It is a moment when precision and exactitude succumb to the symbolic, the imaginative and, eventually, the unknown.  It is a transition where the fixity of the world starts to slip, becomes more fluid, more open to interpretation and abstraction.

The Czech philosopher Erazim Kohák, describes dusk as the time of philosophy, a period in which daylight, with its individuating brightness, 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 and darkness when the failing light mutes the insistent individuality of the day but 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 of day and the poetic of night, when we are concerned not just with the nature of being, but “meaningful being­–being animated by meaning”[iii]. It is a time of destabilization when the concrete moves into the indefinite.

It is dusk in which the artist Marie Herwald Hermann resides, 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 DeSousa Gallery, Detroit.  She describes dusk, as a moment when familiar objects seem to flatten, appear two-dimensional and ghostlike[iv].  When the light of day begins to fade and our eyes have trouble adjusting to the softening depth.  In this state of partial blindness everything we see is given a character of the uncertain.  Marie creates objects perched on this precipice of dusk, shaking between daylight and darkness, the familiar and the uncanny.

The Presumption of Function

Ceramics are objects of stability, habit, and routine. Even when presented within a gallery or museum, they mirror familiar objects in our kitchens and on our tables.  They are common, dependable and comforting.  We handle ceramic objects 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 wash and set them out to dry.  Their forms have 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, and hold tight to its utility as a vessel, bound to the archeology of craft.  Even when a ceramic work is rendered useless or inaccessible by vitrines, pedestals, the museum, or each object’s form, conversations seem to gravitate more to the design and method of its production, circulating around the ceramic object’s color, shape or weight, and the process the work underwent, rather than the presence of the object in the room. It is difficult to shake the presumption of its function.

This is made even more pronounced by the sometimes strange behavior of some audience members at traditional ceramics exhibitions, who occasionally pickup functional seeming pieces on display, caressing the surface and testing the weight.  These are fellow potters scrutinizing the craft, the glaze and the heft. This performance is often allowed because the objects are presumed to be utilitarian; they are not afforded the preciousness and the distance of the untouchable, paintings and sculpture. This performance may also result from the tactility of ceramic production, where hands form intimate relationships with wet clay.  Even when on display the memory of tactile contact endures.

Marie Hermann is known as a ceramicist.  Ceramics is the most consistent material in her practice.  She studied ceramics extensively and teaches the craft at colleges and universities.  She has worked in the studios of prominent ceramic artists, such as the ascetic Edmund de Waal, to whom she shares a color palate and a sparseness of presentation.  Yet calling her a ceramicist may add more confusion than clarity to exactly what she is doing.  For although she produces all her own ceramic work and is an expert craftsman, the artwork she develops seems to negate all traditional ceramics stands for.  Her work is so divisive 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 the seeming fixity of the ceramic form.  For her practice gives the objects in her installations an uncertain status, causing them to act quite strange.  This distancing is performed through at least four distinct tactics Hermann employs in her exhibitions: Installation, Supports as Artwork, Anti-Ornament and The Copy.

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

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

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

Maybe her most radical gesture is the copy.  Although Hermann makes each object by hand, her skill and exactitude is so precise that each ceramic appears mass-produced. Lacking the hand or the fingerprints of the artist, their shape, simplicity, and manufactured accuracy gives them an almost empty or generic presence, like the plain white bowls and plates of Crate and Barrel orIKEA.  Although her more traditional bowl forms are sometimes paired with sculptural objects—lumpy fist-size things, smushed breadsticks and question mark shaped tendrils—which lack the known utility of the others and are sometimes made from different materials, such as resin and rubber, they still carry the same precision and tone as if extruded from a machine.

Many of Hermann’s forms are actually duplicates and copies of older forms, remade over and over again for her exhibitions.  Old pieces from 3 or 4 years ago will be recast 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 new version 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, the poet Octavio Paz described Duchamp’s practice as an-artistic, explaining his ready-made artwork as things continually caught in the process of formation—not artwork 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 their history and the process by which they came to be.  Hermann’s artworks function similarly to the an-artistic, or in her case, an-ceramic.  They assert a ceramic quality, while at the same time completely undermine their history by intentionally playing ceramics against the archeology of its form.  They fluctuate between the function of the ceramic object and the uncertainty of artwork, 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 of their supports, structures that seem to want to be as present as the objects themselves.

That Which is Drawn Away

Dense flowered wallpaper with deep forest greens, subtle reds and yellows where stems reach out in all directions like vines looking for purchase. The patterns are thick and consuming; they mirror and repeat like Rorschach inkblots across its surface.  The kind of wallpaper you get lost in: marvelous, immersive and a bit frightening.  This wallpaper, titled Blackthorn and designed by William Morris, lined the walls of the Hermann family’s country house. It stood in stark contrast to the white walls of 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 turned dawn, Blackthorn, Hermann has taken this piece of the personal and the domestic, and put her objects in the place of her childlike self, creating an imaginative world devoid of history and utility. In this environment, these familiar things embrace their freedom, turn alien and strange before our eyes, and we no longer know quite what they are or do anymore. The objects are pulled from the domestic and the habitual towards the uncertain and fantastic.

There are times when we have experienced, or watched others experience contemporary art where they seem utterly confused by what confronted them.  Contemporary art can seem conflicted, working at cross-purposes, possessing two or more contradictory natures.  And the default is often to call this confusing artwork abstract, as if this is any kind of answer.  Rather it simply confirms what is already known, 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 to become uncertain it unsettles everything else. When our definitions no longer fit 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 the familiar. 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 show the presence of the shadow.

[i] Erazim Kohák, The Embers and the Stars a Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Sense of 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 nude female figure dated to 29,000–25,000 BCE. It was  found at the Paleolithic site Dolní Věstonice in 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 Dolni Věstonice 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 Phillips and Donald Gardner (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1990) 22

[vii] ibid 23-24

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

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


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