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A sign posted outside cautioned viewers to enter at their own risk. In Seizure Crevasse, her first show at The Pit, Jennie Jieun Lee offered a provocative reminder that clay’s ability to convey the possibility of breakage is a key to its persistence within culture. Stepping up into the space became an act that required heightened physical awareness, as Lee filled it with a raised walkway constructed from reclaimed wood that gave off a musty smell, creaked when one moved across its planks, and exaggerated the dimensions of the deep pit that gives the gallery (a former mechanic’s shop) its name. A wrong step would have resulted in a nasty fall; the specter of injury also haunted the works on view.
As observed from the front door, the squat Adeline Boone (all works 2017) was perched directly at eye level on the walkway itself. Actively confrontational, its slapdash glazing and crumpled, jagged upper edges recall the metal sculptures of John Chamberlain. Hanging nearby was Public Transportation, a quasi-pictorial wall-based work in landscape format; it resembled a municipal mural that had been scorched, shrunken, and fossilized. Frenetically applied black glaze had been used to loosely render a gure sitting on a bus or train, but formally speaking the image, like the object itself, was subsumed by action and threatened to come apart. Mass transit being a place where everyone rides together, this seemed an apt metaphor for the crumbling faith that plagues the public sector. If the commons disintegrates, individuals will too.
Figuration is a constant—if sometimes only implied—presence in Lee’s work, made most apparent in three garishly glazed busts, each installed idiosyncratically. The Witch, a head on its side entwined in a looping, salmon-colored ribbon of clay, was barely visible in the depths of the pit. Another bust, Green Lantern, could easily have been mistaken as the crowning segment of Untitled Green, a chest-high object doing double duty as a pedestal.
The pairing begged the question of whether the other columnar works of this kind, the most ambitious objects in the show, had all been beheaded, leaving behind a series of vertical forms—ominous monuments to a culture edging toward ruin. Unlike presentations of antiquities, however, in which missing limbs or broken pots are symbolic of the passage of time, Lee’s work is born of rupture, seemingly pieced together in collage-like fashion from mismatched parts. Even her glazing, which is forcefully heterogeneous and made up of washes, pencil-thin lines, and expressionistic brushed passages, serves to atomize the overall visual effect of each object’s surface. Colors range from muddy to electric and back again, sometimes within the space of a few inches. The strongest works thrive by barely holding together as collections of distinct sections, each with its own grisly physicality and visceral mood.
The cumulative effect of seeing these works installed together in the spaces surrounded by the walkway was powerful (together they felt like trees in a petrified forest), but the individual objects are so commanding that I wondered how they might read when isolated in a more traditional setting, in part because of a desire to better understand their complex relationship to the vessel.
Though contemporary artists often use clay to make a wide variety of non-functional objects, a previous generation of artists known for working with the medium—including gures as diverse as Ken Price and Betty Woodman— played up unavoidable connections between ceramics and utility (as well as the medium’s technical demands), expanding possibilities for painting and sculpture by using a material that had long been considered unsuitable for serious artistic exploration. In fact it was precisely by confronting the issue of utility head-on that these artists renovated modernism’s aesthetic dogmas, charging them with embodied energy that brought them closer to home.
Lee retains the contrarian ethos of this approach, but the rawness of her exhibition, including the disorienting nature of the installation, suggested a more radically destabilized kind of intimacy very much in keeping with the political climate in which we found ourselves. Rather than using ceramics to shed new light on the formal issues at stake in so-called “major” art historical disciplines, she shows how these disciplines, like clay itself, are durable precisely because of their ability to retain meaning when broken. Hopefully our social institutions are capable of summoning the same kind of strength.