Free to be accidental—bound to poseharmonized

By Osman Can Yerebakan

A shelf is an island—its own land,universe, even planet. Inhabitants on a shelf are like us, injected into aworld, congregated, left in an impromptu harmony. A book leans onto itscompanion which echoes the akin gesture with another volume: binders align likeelegantly poised ballerinas. A vase sprouts a flower whose petal gently tapsonto a silver frame’s ornate corner—the picture inside shows two smileyexpressions which might have as well been three or four; the sheen of theplexiglass blankets the joyous faces. Chance governs the lives of a shelf’sdwellers; a spontaneous constellation proves the infinite possibilities ofother possible configurations. Intruding touches, abrupt decisions, orsometimes the wind prompt instant movement. A shelf is a microcosm, an innerportrait of the hand that orchestrated the symphony, willfully or unaware. 

The precision in Marie Herwald Hermann’s ceramic shelves stems from chance encounters, objects’ endlesslingerings within their orbits. Her vessels are immobile, but they containpotentials of mundane circulations—art in fact imitates life. A mug’s take offfrom a cupboard may be followed by its caress by a mouth, then may come alanding onto a console. Or, a bowl’s journey might cruise the entire day, froman early morning breakfast to a late evening dinner. Hard or soft; wet or dry;even painful or soothing, instances that are not particularly distinct butgiven compile to hours, days, and years.

“A tactile decision,” Hermanncalls the simple act of reaching for an object of use, a choice made with nodeliberate intention for one over another. The joy, in fact, lies in thisimpermanence, our natural trust on the familiar promise of a vessel. “I oftenlook at tables where people have been working, eating, drawing…” she says. “Suddenly,you have those strange objects placed next to each other without any logic.” Theyare everyday still lives shaped by our routines. The poetry lies in theirrandomness, as well as their quiet penetration into our familiar spaces.

Hermann spends time just movingobjects around until she feels the arrangement is right. She chases thejuxtaposition that convinces us the endlessness of possibilities for ways thingsconvene, as well as the very abruptness of the particular iteration sheeventually settles on. “Movement and possibilities,” she says. “There are millionways objects could gather.”

Our eyes are numb to things’ galactictravels, their drift with the speed of a mundane haze for our utilitariancravings. In Hermann’s universe, objects are in clay but their relationshipsare not unlike those of humans. Interchangeable yet singular, the artworksco-depend while refusing to be defined by its other; they are territorial butfickle, present yet fleeting as they claim presence. Movement is notdiscernible but possible. “We navigate our world with these spectacular momentsas objects guide us through the world,” says Hermann who, however, is not aPenelope among us. Neither is she a tireless chronicler of what others omit: “Idon’t always notice them either—in fact I don’t want those moments to beprecious.” They would otherwise lose an essence; being premeditated do notconstitute their existence. The fleeting never occupies our memories, nor dothey haunt our dreams—they are the glue for the remembered, the binders of whatthe subconsciousness clings onto. This in-betweenness however paints theirbeauty, making them worthy of being rendered in clay and displayed invignettes.

Hermann’s attempt is inherentlysculptural: a desire to encapsulate. She rather eschews sculpting humankind’sboisterous glories and carnalities but chooses a humbleness that lightens theintimacy of the overlooked. Hermann’s scales are gentle, her hues warm, and thetextures velvety. The ceramic is born out of a tactile waltz between the wheeland the hand—but the surfaces keep their secret; no process is hinted. Clay hasa temporal specificity, a quality to hold the moment when fingers knead thewatery earth. The moist doughiness stiffens with the maker’s fingermarks. “I amreferencing to the exact moment they were made,” Hermann says about the stagethat predates the wet sculpture’s entry into the kiln. They come out of theburner freed from finger marks, smooth like kids’ sandcastles on the beach, ora chef’s perfect flan. The key here is heat. The source of power that turnssoft into hard, bumpy into flat. Scorching flames wash the clay and penetrateits high temperatures into the soft earth. Once clay consummates itsfrom-moth-to-butterfly metamorphosis into ceramic, the freshly hard surfaceyearns for another heat. This time, it is the warmth of the touching hand thatenergizes the object; the glow radiating from the fingertips breaths new lifeinto a cup or bowl, starting from the rim into the hollow. Heat is energy, areminder of life and skin. “Something happens once you touch an object becausethere is heat,” Hermann says. “This is almost a symbiotic relationship betweenceramics and heat.”

Clay is Hermann’s canvas for brighthues and thick shades. The colors compliment and clash; they are humble towardsone another but determined to grasp our attentions. “It’s taken me a long timeto feel confident with colors, especially bright ones,” Hermann admits. “Now, Ifind something attracting in two strong colors’ contest with each other.” Herrecent exhibitions, And the Walls Became the World All Around in Detroit’sReyes | Finn and And a Haze, lifted at Galerie NeC in Paris, bursted with hues that stemmed frommemories of being in certain places. The first show in 2021 echoed herchildhood visits to Thorvaldsens Museum in Copenhagen where meandering throughthe galleries painted in a brazenly colorful palette always felt amazinglychallenging. Growing up in a family in which pink was not really welcome, shefound refuge—a kaleidoscopic alternative—in the museum with walls washed inaubergine and orange against the Greco Roman bronze or marble statues on heftypedestals. Decades later, Hermann, for her Detroit show, found the courage tomatch colors that do not necessarily agree with one another. Walls in a denseruby and a nocturnal blue held teal or forest green shelves with yellow andgray objects on them. A long narrow table had a bacchanal feast of the urns, aline-up of bulbous bowls and vessels in pastel colors, formed in an array ofshapes and sizes. While the walls were white in Hermann’s Paris show, herceramics let her catch up with pink. A sandy brown and aquatic blue illustratedan abstract seascape with a repeating circular form that hovered bright likethe summer sun. The invitation for the viewer to maneuver around thesolar-shaped ceramic surfaces promised a sheen akin to the sun’s play on thesea surface, bright flickers activating the material like gentle afternoonwaves. “That’s why I love working with clay,” Hermann explains about thematerial’s ample promise. “Generosity and welcoming,” are elements sheencounters while handling wet earth.

We take our relationship with clay forgranted—“a material we are mostly unaware of using,” she says. This innatefamiliarity, however, helps the artist bond her art with her viewers, lettingus touch them without actually placing our hands on their surfaces. We may nothave an immediate reference for how a painting’s acyclic-washed canvas feels orthe sensation of moving our fingers in a bronze sculpture’s intricate butsmooth carvings. We, however, know the mundane joy of holding a ceramic cup,the weight it claims on our wrists and the space it occupies inside our palms. “Bodilymemory,” Hermann calls our subliminal bond to her objects. “Thousands of yearsof familiarity,” she sees the human’s corporal understanding of ceramic.

The occasional appearance of latex onher shelves builds a temporal contrast: rubber’s commercial and elasticnow-ness against clay’s time-defying ubiquity. Latex is soft with a flesh-likebounciness as well as a commercial plasticity. Ceramic and latex are polars,strangers on the material spectrum: latex oozes and ceramic stiffens; oneglares while other is dusky; soft opposite hard; and forever versus of now.Latex’s liquidity is the key that unlocks ceramic’s dormancy. A strip of fleshyrubber drapes over the shelf like Salvador Dalí,’sclocks, melting the moment into a forever malleability. Or latex recalls amirror, yielding a fluctuating portal without the anticipation of areflection.  

Hermann’s sentences are not complete—ceramic’shardness is rarely a period. Rather, she concocts open-ended verses, landscapepoetries stretching over shelfs’ surfaces. Take a look at her titles: amongthe lights, blows apart, and darkness lights, as it will, Bit bybit above the edge of things… They are invitations, gentle blinks to enterthrough the curtain and find your way. “Rhythm,” she says, “existsindependently on each shelf but also overall in an installation’sjuxtaposition.” The way poetry defies reason or language, Hermann’s art refusesbrackets or periods, and the objects rather linger beneath the palpable layer—clay’searthy tactility embodies them, but in fact the vessels are freer beyond thediscernible.

Growing up dyslexic, Hermann feltpressured by the limits of writing until she discovered poetry in her early20s. “I suddenly found a sense of freedom because I could express feelingsdifferently.” Poetry is the rotating shadows that objects cast with the sun’stravel from dusk to dawn, a room full of stuff gathered with no logic, orvelvety vessels’ occupation of a shelf with an elegant randomness, bold huesand gentle touches.

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