Voices, an invitational sponsored by the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts, features the work of 23 internationally recognized artists at the Society for Contemporary Craft. With several more evasive exceptions, most of the works offer provocative, blatantly political and highly engaging narratives.
This is especially true of South Carolinian Russell Biles' porcelain "Final Showdown" (2006), which pits Bonanza's Cartwright family -- symbolizing America's enduring good-old-boy/shoot-'em-up political style -- against a clichéd Chinaman. Surrounding their combustible bargaining table are smaller, rapidly replicating, M4 carbine-bearing Chinese. The Cartwrights are outnumbered and outgunned.
Across the room, Florida's Pavel Amromin delivers the jaw-dropping "Kiss Me" (2008). Bearing all the innocent trappings of 19th-century Limoges trinket boxes, it entices viewers with its glossy magnificence, then punches them out with its subject: A puppy is sexually assaulted by two others, while another smears his mouth with lipstick. Each assailant exhibits his enthusiasm with a pink porcelain erection. With their flesh-toned bodies, the puppies look more human than canine.
Amromin has previously stated that the puppies represent highly impressionable, affirmation-seeking young soldiers in Iraq. The assailants' oversized footwear suggests tyranny's jackboot; their extra-large dimensions indicate that they have assumed the gear -- and behavior -- of adults.
Atlanta native Kathy King's black-and-white, sgraffito-carved porcelain plates and vessels have the graphic force of wood-block prints and share subject matter with tattoos and scrimshaw. In "Love me?" (2008), a female pin-up perches on a human heart that expels white blood from its pulmonary veins. The swirling, ornamental excretions also suggest semen, giving the work's titular question a hollow echo of desperation.
Nearby is the aesthetically spectacular but conceptually inscrutable work of Russian-born Sergei Isuprov. His figures, many of them ostensible self-portraits, recall the Italian Mannerist style, with their impossibly long limbs and oblique eroticism. On these porcelain figures, he paints enigmatic iconography in stained slip, giving them the chromatically layered, sfumato quality of Da Vinci's landscapes.
New Yorker Matt Nolen's mixed-media work "Despots" (2008) is composed of a Victorian plant-stand holding flower-pot effigies of dictators. Some hope is offered in that each vessel holds fecund ground for germinating new ideas. One head (Saddam Hussein's?) has toppled and lies impotent, having expelled barren sand.
Further on, Missourian Benjamin Schulman's terra cotta mixed-media piece "I was Converted, I mean Deserted" (2007) examines persistent racial tensions through the confrontational use of "Jocko"-style lawn ornaments. Turned toward each other, the black version holds a lynching rope, while the white version, wearing rapper-style bling, points his gun as if in reply.
It was only in the late 20th century that ceramics developed an aesthetic identity distinct from traditional utilitarianism. (Even Limoges' decorative boxes were intended for housing jewelry or snuff.) Now, ceramics have begun to enjoy form driven not by function or aesthetic experimentation, but almost entirely by political expression. With a few exceptions, Voices demonstrates how ceramics continue evolving as vessels for ideas rather than for objects.
Voices continues through June 7. Society for Contemporary Craft, 2100 Smallman St., Strip District. 412-61-7003 or www.contemporarycraft.org