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Ruth Duckworth’s statue and ‘Radical Clay’ at the AIC

Sculpture lovers who prefer clay to other materials have much to celebrate in Chicago this month; ceramicists with a pair of not-to-be-missed shows at the Smart Museum of Art and the Art Institute, dedicated respectively to Ruth Duckworth and contemporary Japanese women.

Those who prefer marble and bronze, especially those torn between all these materials, need not be dismayed. Also ongoing at the AIC is an exhibition of clay sculptures made by the 18th-century Italian master. Antonio Canova As preparatory sketches for the famous lifelike marble figures of Pope Clement XIV, mother of Napoleon, and various mythological characters. Elsewhere in the museum is a display of groundbreaking mixing of finished marbles and bronzes, as well as plaster and clay pre-preparations. Camille ClaudelShe became one of France’s leading sculptors at the beginning of the 19th century, challenging gender norms.

The decision to use this material was not the choice of historic European artists such as Canova or Claudel. An important statue had to first be drawn in clay and shaped in plaster so that it could then be cast in metal or carved in stone. But contemporary artists often thought otherwise, and one of Chicago’s most persistent rule-breakers was Ruth Duckworth, the subject of an elegantly constructed monographic exhibition at the Smart Museum, on view through February 4.

main idea “Ruth Duckworth: Life as a Unity” Curated by Laura Steward, Duckworth is a sculptor who works in clay, as opposed to a potter or ceramist. This distinction is crucial in traditional debates between art and craft, but there’s no need to bother visitors who come for a close look at the work of one of Chicago’s little-known masters. Over the fifty years of work collected here, from organically amorphous “mother pots” to clean-lined biomorphic figures and ecologically textured murals, Duckworth has greatly expanded the possibilities of her chosen material, using it to express everything from the state of the body to the state of health. the state of the planet.

Duckworth was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1919 and, as the daughter of a Jewish father, fled to Liverpool, England, in her youth after she was banned from studying art due to Nazi laws. After years of trying different art schools in England, often feeling constrained by traditionalism, he traveled with a puppet theatre, volunteered in a munitions factory and carved tombstones before gaining enough fame to be offered a job teaching ceramics at the University of Chicago. The year was 1964. She accepted the position mostly because of her desire to visit the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park, and later lived and worked in a converted pickle factory in Lakeview. death He is 90 years old.

Duckworth came to the University of Chicago at an opportune time when the geology and meteorology departments were combined due to scientific advances. His first major commission to design lobby art for a new brutalist geophysical building can still be visited today. “Earth, Water, Sky,” a fully immersive environment located a short walk from Smart, makes you feel like you’re inside and outside the planet’s crust simultaneously. Seeking inspiration, Duckworth toured faculty laboratories and was particularly drawn to Professor Ted Fujita’s photographs of clouds and tornadoes. Formal motifs from his research reappear in many of the landscape reliefs exhibited here (and in “Clouds over Lake Michigan,” a massive 1976 mural recently installed in the Regenstein Library); It looks like fins and mushrooms. anvil clouds and the suction vortices on which they rest. While Smart researched archival clippings, brochures, and other ephemera by regularly displaying them, his was also an interest in the world driven by the environmental and nuclear fears of the day.

Duckworth’s aerial images of land and atmosphere—rocky, mysterious, layered, and earth-toned—may seem to portray Earth as less than it actually is related to World. Of course they are because they are made of clay. His so-called “mother pots” (the artist referred to them as such, but the pots themselves are unnamed) similarly appear to have grown from the ground, imperfectly constructed from thick stone slabs, tight folds, and rough protrusions.

Duckworth’s porcelain sculptures are something else entirely. He made all kinds, mostly by hand and sanded it until it was sparklingly delicate. Some of these take on fascinating humanoid and bird-like shapes reminiscent of Constantin Brâncuși and Henry Moore, two of his early influences. A series of bulbous reliefs recall the corporeal sculptures of Louise Bourgeois and the disturbing voids of Lee Bontecou. And then there are the delightful sets of “cups and knives,” which are small bowls sliced ​​with impossibly thin slices of porcelain, made individually, and then put together when Duckworth will try any number of combinations before settling on the right one.

If Duckworth’s reputation was eclipsed by America’s tiresome debates between craft and art, the problem was the opposite in Japan, a country with one of the world’s longest traditions of ceramic production. Its top practitioners have been officially designated Living National Treasures, and to date, none of them are women.

"Fukuromono (Bag Study)," Tanaka Yu's stone statue is on display "Radical Clay: Contemporary Women Artists from Japan" at the Art Institute of Chicago.

And yet as magnificently shown “Radical Clay: Contemporary Women Artists from Japan” At the Art Institute, many of the country’s most extraordinary ceramic artists are women. From trailblazing veterans to rising stars, the samples from 36 individuals are absolutely astonishing. It’s a work that has to be seen to be believed, and even then, it can be difficult to grasp the mind-boggling detail of Ikake Sayuri’s blue-green “breath”—hundreds of thousands of tiny nails folded in on itself. Hattori Makiko’s pale saree covered in even more delicate ruffles. Uncanny verisimilitude of both nature and culture abounds: Futamura Yoshimi uses new techniques to produce what looks like a huge pile of old wood, Tanaka Yu somehow turns clay into bright yellow fabric and ties it into knots, and Mishima Kimiyo displays a crumpled sheet of newsprint – Made of glazed and silk-screened porcelain. Some of the works are terribly grotesque, including Kawaura Saki’s bloody, disfigured organ; others push the boundaries of taste by overdecorating for parodic effect; just like Oishi Sayaka, a face, lizard, fish, coral, knife, hand, ear, butterfly, jewels, shells and more. Tasty.

“Ruth Duckworth: Life as a Unity” through Feb. 4 at the Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave., 773-702-0200 and smartmuseum.uchicago.edu. “Radical Clay: Contemporary Women Artists from Japan” through June 3 at the Art Institute, 111 S. Michigan Ave., 312-443-3600 and artic.edu

Lori Waxman is a freelance critic.

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