Bodies of Clay


Ceramics has its origin in utilitarian objects – in storage vessels, pots, planters, and vases. As a result, the medium was frequently marginalized as craft, but since the 1950s – and especially in recent years – artists have increasingly turned to clay as a method to critically examine issues of form, function, gender politics, and sexuality. Vessels is a group exhibition featuring works by five female sculptors based in New York who reference traditional vessel forms and ceramic techniques, but push the medium beyond its formal and conceptual associations.

Betty Woodman is the most classically trained ceramicist of the exhibited artists, yet her focus on the more formal aspects of the medium draws a tension between form and function. As Arthur C. Danto notes in the catalog for Woodman’s Metropolitan Museum of Art retrospective, “As the scale, formal complexity, and theatricality of Woodman’s vessels has increased over time, their functionality has diminished.”[1]

Indeed, Woodman’s approach to color, pattern, and line, which has roots in Matisse and Stella, serves to evoke two-dimensionality and disguise the vessel. On the Way to Mexico features a central vessel flanked with two wing-like slabs doubling as handles. Each side of the piece is painted differently, presenting two of Woodman’s distinct styles: a muted, geometric pattern of hash marks and an exuberant floral motif. The floral side is painted with three depictions of vases to remind the viewer of the object’s function while simultaneously flattening the clay to canvas.

Nicole Cherubini’s sculptures display a similar interest in the boundaries between the two- and three-dimensional. She has said, “I think the most amazing part of working with clay is that you have to deal with both: first form, then surface.”[2] Cherubini explores this intersection between sculpture and painting with a recent series created by pressing clay into cardboard boxes (a vessel of our modern times). The works, including White Drip with Arch and Lazy River, take influence from Robert Rauschenberg’s rarely seen trompe l’oeil clay sculptures of cardboard boxes from the early ‘70s. Both artists mount their works to the wall like canvases, but whereas Rauschenberg’s works retain a clear connection to the box, Cherubini’s experiments with texture and glazing resemble minimalist paintings.

Earth Pot 2 is a new terracotta sculpture in keeping with the ceramic assemblages Cherubini is known for – irreverent totems of stacked vessels, including urns, jugs, pots, handles, and tubing. Each section of the sculpture offers a different ceramic texture and a series of dripped, bleeding, and overlapping glazes. As with most of her free-standing sculptures, the base or pedestal is an integral part of the work. Here, the sculpture stands on a low platform painted with a single jewel-like form. The base offers practical protection but also provides a stage for the vessel that elevates its status and forces the viewer’s perspective.

In two sculptures from her Vase Upon Vase series, Woodman also explores a dual role for the pedestal and plays with our notions of utility. Her curvaceous, painted pedestals are an extension of the artwork perched above, yet the title of this series reminds us that both elements are utilitarian in form.

Installation view of  Vessels  at The Horticultural Society of New York, May 7 – July 3, 2013.  (Photo: Chris Murtha)

Installation view of Vessels at The Horticultural Society of New York, May 7 – July 3, 2013.  (Photo: Chris Murtha)

While Woodman adapted traditional ceramic forms and techniques to establish her own style, Francesca DiMattio directly employs a variety of ceramic conventions to bridge the gap between historical ceramics, kitsch and craft objects, and contemporary art. DiMattio fuses together highly refined porcelain vases and other ceramics using rough-hewn slabs of clay to achieve hybrid sculptures that span the history of the medium.

DiMattio credits her inspiration to “daily activities, like setting a table, wrapping a present, making a bed, decorating a cake, arranging flowers, sewing, crocheting, and quilting.”[3] In this context, her work speaks directly to the role ceramics have played in the domestic realm. Though she incorporates craft elements, her work is neither ornamental nor functional. Often, as in Putti Vase (2013), her vessels are crumpled, warped, or fractured and joined with expressionistic, lava-like chunks of clay. In her own words, DiMattio “[presents] the decorative in such a way that it is grotesque and overwhelming but still undeniably feminine.”[4]

DiMattio uses terms like “digest,” “graft,” and “suture” (as opposed to “collage” or “assemble”) to describe how she combines together disparate ceramic elements. Her language acknowledges the strong art historical and cultural associations between clay, ceramic forms, and the body. It reminds us that in creation myths, humans are molded of clay, and often the vessel is a symbol of female fertility or a proxy for the womb.

Beverly Semmes' multimedia work, which includes fabric, glass, and ceramics, delves deeper into the analogy of the vessel form and the body, especially the female body. Smoke is a human-scale column of pots painted bright red and outfitted with an over-abundance of handles. Semmes often pairs her ceramics with her fabric pieces, including long, billowing dresses that flow down the wall and into a space. This sculpture, with its shocking color and multitude of appendages draws attention to every inch of itself, like a woman in a red dress.

Here, Smoke is paired with drawings from a new body of work, Feminist Responsibility Project, in which Semmes paints on photographs cut from pornographic magazines. Her vibrant paint jobs are intended to mask the imagery, but they do not completely conceal the photos and, in many cases, the censorship amplifies the figure’s illicit posture or gesture. In a dialogue about Semmes’ recent exhibition with Cherubini, Tuesdays and Saturdays, Semi Koike notes, “The censor bar has a charge all its own. The cover-up is more powerful and enticing than the crime ever was.”[5] With wit, Semmes converts objectified women into actual objects: a brightly colored, textured pitcher in Slippers or a mound of clay shaped by a pair of hands in Eye.

Detail of Brie Ruais , Unfolding (Liquid Color) , 2011. (Photo: courtesy of the artist and Nicole Klagsbrun)

Detail of Brie Ruais, Unfolding (Liquid Color), 2011. (Photo: courtesy of the artist and Nicole Klagsbrun)

Brie Ruais takes the concept once step further, using her own body as the catalyst for a series of performance-generated sculptures. Leveraging the force and reach of her body, Ruais pushes wet clay against built surfaces. Often, the pieces are created on-site within a gallery, documented with video, and left to dry—cracking, and crumbling over the course of an exhibition. The video Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner, which documents one such sculpture and performance (both of the same title), conveys the strength, fortitude, and ferocity required to push 300 pounds of clay into an unyielding corner.

Unlike her ephemeral, site-specific pieces, Unfolding (Liquid Color) was cut into 19 tiles and fired. Ruais created the blossoming flower form of this sculpture by spreading out a mass of clay equivalent to her body weight. By adding pigments to the clay in advance, her gestures double as paint strokes, spreading the color as she manipulates the clay. By referencing her own weight and so actively engaging with the material, her body is both the tool by which this painterly sculpture is created and the volume by which it is defined.

Ruais’ actions quite literally define the physical limits of her body and the indelible mass of the clay. As she pushes the clay out from a central point, she is also pushing ceramics into new territory, incorporating performance, process, and video and de-emphasizing the medium’s preoccupation with the object.

The history of ceramics is too often perceived as a struggle between art and craft, but more so it has been a battle with objecthood. The artists in Vessels challenge this association, using the vessel as a canvas for painting, a figure of desire, a complex and fraught history, even a stand-in for the artist’s body. Through their own point of view and method, these five ceramic sculptors ask us to reconsider our basic understanding and association with ceramic objects. This collection of work pushes us to see double – to see the vase within the vase, the history of vessel, and the artist behind the object.

Written for the exhibition, Vessels, at The Horticultural Society of New York, May 7 – July 3, 2013.



  1. Arthur C. Danto, “Communicating Vases: The Centrality of the Vessel in Betty Woodman’s Art,” in Betty Woodman (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, with The Monacelli Press, 2006), p. 33.
  2. Elizabeth Reichert, “Nicole Cherubini’s Art Pots,” Ceramics: Art and Perception, Issue 77 (2009): p. 20.
  3. Francesca DiMattio, “Vertical Arrangements,” from Painting from the Zabludowicz Collection (London: Zabludowicz Collection, 2013).
  4. Ibid.
  5. Sumi Koike, “Ditto,” a conversation with Maria Kunz Garcia, in Tuesdays and Saturdays: Beverly Semmes and Nicole Cherubini (Boston: Samson, 2012), p. 3.