Bold art grew in communist clay Show of ceramics from East Europe has more guts than polish

October 24, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

The dining room's abuzz with ceramic art. On the table, Wladyslaw Garnik's "Clown I & II," two heads with mouths open, gabble at each other. Over on the sideboard, Jindra Vikova's man and woman put their heads together in an "Attempt to Define One Moment." Even Inna Olevskaya's tea sets, in the cupboard that used to contain the best china, have vocal names: Song" and "Discussion."

Most of the teapots, however, are where they might be expected, in the pantry. Meanwhile, upstairs in a bedroom, Yaroslava Motyka's "Angel" engages in a tete-a-tete with Nelli Fedtchun's "The Figure." Karel Pauser's "Dog Family," all four of them, have the run of the upstairs porch.

You have noticed, haven't you, that we don't seem to be in a museum or a gallery, but in a house. We are in the no-longer-inhabited St. Stanislaus Convent in Fells Point, where the exhibit "Contemporary East European Ceramics" opens today -- upstairs, downstairs, and in the sisters' former chambers.

The show is a traveling one, organized by the Clay Studio in Philadelphia and consisting of about 150 works by 73 artists from 15 Eastern European countries including the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Latvia, Romania, Russia, Ukraine and Moldova.

It's in Baltimore as a collaborative effort of three local institutions, Baltimore Clayworks, The Contemporary and the Maryland Institute, College of Art. Anyone familiar with the history of The Contemporary, Baltimore's museum without walls, will have guessed by now that it was responsible for choosing the site. It has made a practice of mounting exhibits in empty buildings -- a car dealership, a bus terminal. Until now there hasn't been a relationship between the site and the art. But there's more than one connection between East European ceramics, the neighborhood, and this building -- empty since the last of the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph were reassigned more than two years ago.

"We always knew we wanted to do [the show] in East Baltimore because of the ethnic presence," says George Ciscle, director of The Contemporary. "Here in this neighborhood alone there are Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Lithuanian and Hungarian residents. We worked through the Eastern Baltimore Area Chamber of Commerce, which found the place for us, and we have an ad hoc committee from the neighborhood which provides docents and liaison with the neighborhood, and they've also provided input on the art. One of the ceramics, for instance, is in the form of a sewing machine, and they told me I'd placed it backward -- the wheel goes on the right, not the left. So I turned it around."

The convent's domestic, multiroom setting also makes sense for this art. "There's so much figurative work," says Debbie Bedwell of the Clayworks. "Even the abstract work is based in the figure." And the Maryland Institute's Doug Baldwin adds: "The work is very personal. Over here, we all know what [other] people are doing -- we get the publications and so on. The artists there developed in more individual directions, drawing on their own resources and their own environment."

There's another reason why these ceramics look more at home in these plain, somewhat dowdy-looking rooms than they would in a gleaming gallery setting with newly painted walls and state-of-the-art lighting. These are not, by and large, finished-looking pieces exuding technical wizardry. They're not only figural, they're tough.

Mai Jarmut's "Pair of Legs" are just that -- two legs with feet, looking as if they've been separated from a body and don't know how to find it again. Lying on the convent's refectory table beneath a crucifix left over from the nuns' days, they might be praying for deliverance from their dismembered state. Gertraud Mohwald's "Head with Colored Paper" looks as if it were put together with bits and pieces left over from something else -- and it probably was.

No market economy

As Jimmy Clark, director of the Clay Studio and curator of the exhibit, notes in his catalog essay, the difficulty of getting good materials is one reason why many Eastern European artists concentrate less on technique and finish than their Western counterparts. Another is that they were, until recently, less dependent on a market economy. Before the recent upheavals, good ceramic artists made generous livings from work done for the state and allowed their creative abilities free rein in the more personal pieces seen here. Thus, what we see in this show is quite different from what we might expect to see in, say, a show of American ceramics.

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