by Susannah Israel
“CAA artists exhibit at Black Bean Ceramic Art Center.”
Vigorous conversation is a vital and integral part of art practice for the las cadre group. Five years ago a group of Oakland artists met at the studio of Noelle Nakama for a potluck critique, and we have been meeting continuously ever since. Developing long-term relationships with each other’s artwork brings depth and insight to the critique process. The insight and generosity of such dialogue is an invaluable tool for creative growth. (A number of other groups have been inspired to form, such as the Clay Babes of Grass Valley.) Common threads weave through the las cadre group: seven artists studied ceramics at San Francisco State University, three work at Merritt College, six more work or have worked at the Richmond Art Center.
The exhibition was curated by Ruben Reyes and Will Johnson, founders of the Black Bean Ceramic Art Center, and beautifully installed under the direction of curator Albert Dixon. Upon entering the large, light-filled space the viewer is greeted by Elaine Toland’s “Desert Spring,” a nine-canvas abstract painting in deep greens and reds. “I paint memories and feelings,” says Toland. The artist also works in nursing at Stanford Hospital, where she “creates a sacred space for healing” by engaging adolescent inpatients in art.
Tiffany Schmierer’s “Facets” series translates the urban visual environment into ceramic sculptures whose twists and turns, vivid colors and hidden surprises are drawn from her life in the SF Bay area. The artist combines hand-building, printmaking, and relief techniques in unique ways to create a dense, complex megalopolis in clay. Careful examination rewards the viewer, like getting a glimpse of a hidden door or garden. Schmierer exhibits widely and heads the Ceramics Department at Skyline College.
Michelle Gregor is a neoclassic figurative sculptor with a delicate, sure hand with the ceramic surface. Sensuous surfaces gently imbued with color characterize “Traveler,” a life-size ceramic figure leaning forward from its pedestal as if about to descend. The artist says “sculpting the figure is a beautiful language to practice.” Gregor was recently featured at the Pence Gallery, and is head of the Ceramics Department at San Jose City College.
Sterling Israel’s “Dream Commute” uses mixed media on a recycled canvas, an important part of the artist’s commitment to reuse of and nontraditional materials. The artist’s intensive process builds up layered surfaces that create a sense of deep space with complex patterns. Israel received her MS in Community Arts at University of Oregon, Eugene. She has created numerous public art works, served as exhibitions director at the Richmond Art Center and currently teaches art at Vallejo Charter School.
Tomoko Nakazato creates complex narratives with a “Little Boy” esthetic, juxtaposing anime-influenced characters, animals and detailed landscapes. These arrest our attention, as if we suddenly recognize a dreamscape or nightmare. Nakazato grapples with the world’s woes with compassion and humor, as in “Hearts, Hounds and the Howling Moon.” Nakazato was represented at SOFA Chicago in 2010 and teaches at the Randall Museum in San Francisco.
Saadi Shapiro is known throughout the Bay Area and beyond for his expertise in matters ceramic, from clay to kilns. Shapiro is currently working with different porcelain clays, for their nuances of color and the resulting effects on glaze in response to reduction firings. The unexpected “gift of the fire” can be seen in the soft blush of red seen on “Porcelain Bottle, White,” combining masterful form with subtle glaze surface. Shapiro teaches at Studio One and the Richmond Art Center, and runs the Merritt College ceramics studio. He was recently invited to be on a panel about kilns and firing at the 2012 National Council on Education in Ceramic Arts (NCECA).
Jennifer Brazelton describes herself as an abstract artist. Using extrusions and press molds to generate mass-produced parts, she arranges multiple elements in layered, formal relationships. In “You Are Here,” Brazelton frankly declares her intentions, using finely detailed imagery as a mapping strategy that demands conscious examination of our own relationship to our world. The artist says “I juxtapose the macro and the micro to highlight visual parallels and to remind us that we are structurally connate with the world around us.” Brazelton teaches at NIAD, the Richmond Art Center, CSU East Bay, and Merritt College.
Noelle Nakama’s work uses tranquil domestic imagery with intentionally obscured text and altered wheel-thrown forms to create a sense of mystery. She addresses the uniquely individual perspective of memory and family history with her series, “Someday, Son.” Here, four wall-mounted plate forms with graceful silk-screened botanical images are overwritten with cursive text and further blurred by a layer of clouded glaze. Viewers of the exhibition expressed an intense desire to read the text, underscoring the artist’s message about how communication and memory are affected and even distorted by empirical experience. Nakama’s work has been widely exhibited, winning the Juror’s Award from Sandy Simon at the California Clay Competition in Davis, California.
Chris Kanyusik works with figurative imagery, unexpectedly recombined with geometric shapes, using dynamic balance as a key point in his composition. His figures mix realistic anatomy with unusual finishes such as red house paint. Kanyusik recently displayed a large group of figures at the 2011 Ceramics Annual of America, where he used the same white paint for both pedestals and pieces. The flat unification of the presentation conveyed a disturbing sense of the mechanical, holding the viewer at an emotional distance from the work. Kanyusik teaches at Walnut Creek Ceramic Arts Center, Studio One, and Ft. Mason. He recently completed a two-month residency at the Zentrum Fur Keramiks in Berlin.
Tom Michelson’s large heads are deceptively simple. The distorted features grin and grimace, their eyes mismatched and even vertical in a neo-Cubist, Surrealist take on the plight of contemporary humanity. Grotesque yet brave, these heads seem to be struggling to hold their integrity in the face of a relentless immutable force. The intentional nature of this over-the-top expression is made especially clear by the complex, beautiful glazing that gives the works a graphic punch. Michelson is largely self-taught as a sculptor, and is the founder of Red Brick Studio, a collective ceramic workspace in San Francisco’s Mission district.
Shalene Valenzuela invokes social critique through the visual appeal of vivid color and silk-screened images on slipcast porcelain forms of household objects like blenders and irons. “Stay Lovely” invites us to examine the message. Here, an immaculate replica of a sewing machine is used as a canvas for the image of a coy female figure and a measuring tape. Are your measurements acceptable? Do you qualify as an attractive female? Valenzuela has developed her elegantly voiced challenge with careful attention to detail, masterful skills, and a lurking sense of humor that draws the viewer to question our societal roles and expectations. Valenzuela teaches at the University of Montana, Missoula, and is currently the director of the Clay Studio of Missoula.
Susannah Israel is an artist, writer and educator living in east Oakland. Israel teaches at Merritt College and is currently a studio member at the Black Bean Ceramic Arts Center.
Author of this article, Susannah Israel, is a member of this group and represented by “The Year of the Golden Bunnies” in the las cadres exhibition at Black Bean Ceramic Arts Center. This playfully animated collection of rabbits and figures made of unglazed terracotta are derived from the traditional Chinese calendar. (We are told that every five cycles (60 years) the Year of the Rabbit is a golden year, showering change and opportunity on everyone, whether born in the rabbit year or not.) The artist’s inspiration for the composition comes from Sandy Skoglund’s installation “Radioactive Cats,” from the 1908s. Skoglund’s piece is much more menacing, however. Israel’s bunnies are hopeful and spry, blessed by the golden year. The speed with which Israel works her medium imbues these bunnies with bountiful energy. – Kathryn Funk, editor
Black Bean Ceramic Art Center
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