Unbreakable: Ceramics Redefined

Group Exhibition Curated by Karen Gilbert with Penny Byrne, Kathy Stecko, Claire Curneen, Cathy Lewis and Keun Woo Lee at Jan Kossen Contemporary in New York City

by Christopher Hart Chambers

Penny Byrne, Operation Falconer, 2015, vintage ceramic figurine, mixed media, epoxy resin, enamel paints, 29” x 13” x 13” and Operation Slipper, 2017, vintage ceramic figurine, mixed media, epoxy resin, enamel paints, 29” x 13” x 13”

This exquisite little exhibition of recent, international, narrative sculptures demonstrates the technical virtuosity and wit of the five artists whose works are included. Four are figurative, one implies abstract landscapes.

Directly ahead as one enters the gallery, on the far wall, Penny Byrne’s Operation Falconer and Operation Slipper face us side by side; both standing just over two feet high over their pedestals. They both look at us pertly, coquettishly wearing Victorian hairstyles and outfits, yet their garments are carefully painted in military camouflage patterns and they sport army boots in contrast to their coy countenances. However, each has a prosthetic leg and at least one arm replaced by a hook or, what looks like an electrical plug. They both wear heroic ribbons of valor: an obvious jab at the impropriety of social graces and gallantry disguising the ill gotten gains of their social classes. To the left is a bobble headed Donald T dressed up in stars and stripes like the spirit of ’76, while on the other side is a quintet of vintage Dutch porcelain figurines on a plate that look like they have chili peppers for scarves on.

Cathy Lewis, Mainly Porcelain IIdetail), 2017, ceramics,  47” x 36”  x 6.5’

The gallery consists of two fairly small show rooms and an office area (I think there is a bit of storage space tucked away somewhere too). The largest sculptures on display here are by Cathy Lewis. The are made from shards of white porcelain crockery. Two prepubescent figures, a girl and a boy, stand almost four feet tall; next to one another. Strange little curls emanate from their foreheads quizzically (which are actually teacup handles). They are extraordinarily well made and lifelike, formed in accurate simulacrum anatomically, except shattered, fragmented – like fragile elfin jigsaw effigies.

porcelain, art
Kathy Stecko, Ward, 2017, porcelain

Kathy Stecko’s anthropomorphic figurines have weird doggy or rabbit heads on humanoid bodies with hunched shoulders and attenuated limbs and gobs of glazed color here and there hanging down from a shoulder through hips or pelvis; with oddly existential, vacantly petulant countenances and stances. Other otherworldly creepy aliens have strange ears or antennae. Some of this coterie of etherial, phantasmagorical characters are mounted back against the wall, while a few loiter about on their sinewy legs. Their presentation makes me think of pinned butterflies. The entire exhibition is full of strange pixie-like presences; nymphs and oddly magical creatures that may be winking at one another betwixt the viewers’ gazes, and who knows what they are up to after hours when the gallery’s door are shuttered.

JanKossen Contemporary UnBreakable - Ceramics Redefined
Claire Curneen, Untitled 1 (Bird Figure), 2017, ceramics, 28.5” x 9” x 8”

Claire Curneen’s work is completely strange. Ms. Gilbert, the curator, in my presence suddenly decapitated one figure of it’s owl head, revealing the face of a hominid of sorts lurking beneath. Another, matte black stoneware figure of Curneen’s creation has wide sloe eyes and a generally eerie Edvard Munchian face, or perhaps, it’s the artist’s friendly subconscious nemesis – yes, that is a contradictory and oxymoronic description – and that is precisely why this is such an intriguingly different and special exhibition of similar artworks from widely different cultures worldwide. It indicates how we are all similar way down in the recesses and catacombs of our psyches, and how unusual that our curator managed to assemble this group from such disparate origins that are pervaded by comparable tricky impish gnomes engaging in ironic, humorous, and spooky social commentary.

JanKossen Contemporary UnBreakable - Ceramics Redefined
Keun Woo Lee, Wave 13, 2015, 9” x 11”

Keun Woo Lee is our landscape artist. This work relates to the rest of the show mostly in terms of material rather than content, being artfully glazed nonfunctional ceramic. I mention “nonfunctional” because utilitarian functionality is brought up in the press release as the primary traditional use of these materials (kiln fired clay, basically), jugs, plates, cups, etcetera – but it is certainly a legitimate medium for fine art; as if anything imaginable isn’t. Lee’s works are small rectangular and square panels of subtly hued blurry horizontal stripes inherently implying landscape and atmosphere: granting an obscure environment for the characters in the rest of this show to inhabit. She also contributes a more abstracted three dimensional piece that might be an anthill type of a catacomb for when all of these spirits transmogrify and crawl in it together at night to get about whatever they do when human beings are not there to observe their activities – that is if any of them are even operating within mankind’s concept of inter dimensional time and space whatsoever.