The one-year anniversary of the pandemic has been cause for a lot of collective looking back and assessing. How have we used the past 365 days? Some people took to cleaning closets, baking bread or learning a new language. For New York-based artist Arlene Shechet, it was a fruitful period when she retreated to her Woodstock studio and created a series of sculptures that reflect her passion for form, color and shape, executed in the medium of glazed ceramic. "Together: Pacific Time" is a debut show of 12 works created specifically for Pace Gallery in Palo Alto, and is on view until May 1.
Any preconceived notions about "glazed ceramics" will likely be quickly dispelled upon entering the gallery. These are not your standard pots or bowls. And those who've worked in clay may be astounded at what Shechet has been able to do with a medium that is soft, pliable and often highly fragile. Like many women who have taken on the mantle of "sculptor," Shechet has striven to overcome the notion that only male sculptors can work with heavy materials and equipment, and produce art of monumental scale. In the catalog produced by Pace Gallery New York, the artist described how when she was young, being a sculptor was identified as a "male vocation." Her interest in clay was sparked, interestingly enough, when she spent a short time as a student at Stanford University and got to use a pottery studio in the basement of a dorm.
After earning degrees from New York University and the Rhode Island School of Design, she began to forge her own signature techniques. In the catalog interview she explained that she "feels closest to the tradition of Minimalism and Donald Judd," but also that, "I want these finished sculptures to work as dimensionalized paintings." She succeeds in this endeavor, mainly through the exploitation of color.
Upon entering the main gallery, the viewer is gobsmacked by a rainbow of hues. The walls are a rich goldenrod yellow, the sculptures are deep and glorious reds, purples, yellows and greens. The gallery staff explained that Shechet directed (via FaceTime) the installation of the 10 plinths in this space and had very definite ideas about how they were to be positioned. They are arranged, like a sculpture garden, in the center of the space so that the viewer can both take them all in at once and walk around each one. The pieces are affixed to either wood or metal stands that serve as extensions of the sculptures, rather than just supports. To that end, they are painted in contrasting colors. In some pieces, like Together: Pacific Time: 5 a.m., it appears that the sculpture is balanced quite precariously on the edge of the metal base. It's a great bit of trompe l'oeil by the artist and will encourage you to look even closer. (Fear not, however, each piece is firmly affixed underneath.)
Describing the sculptures is a challenge. They are colorful, highly tactile, dense yet shaped very purposefully by the artist. You may find points of reference. Together: Pacific Time: 9 p.m. reminded this writer of giant red lips. Somehow the artist has taken this highly malleable material and folded it, looped it, prodded and formed it into these mysterious shapes. The hand of the artist is clearly visible, as in Pacific Time: 5 a.m., a neon-orange sculpture that bears the indentations of the artist's fingers. There is a hollow in the center of this piece where an orange-yellow ooze of glaze emerges and drips over, sort of like a lava flow. The artist described how these pieces seemed especially appropriate in light of the past year's events. "They have gestures; they aren't straight up and down. They're bending like trees, bending like humans."
The focal point of the works in this space is color. Shechet, who has developed her own unique glazing methods, has said that she dealt with the isolation of the lockdown by"shifting her mood" via the use of color. "Everything is color. I think everything has color, and I think that's another language that some people are more sensitive to than others." In Together: Pacific Time: 1 a.m. (the titles make reference to the marking of time, as in a medieval "Book of Hours"), the deep, rich purple glaze conjures up such disparate associations as grape juice, royal vestments and jelly beans. The artist has said that these jewel-toned pieces "reflected what I needed: color therapy."
The remaining two sculptures in the exhibition reflect Shechet's ability to work in large scale. Under cherry trees/There are/no strangers is an amalgam of glazed ceramic and painted hardwood. This piece is typical of the artist's "half-made, half-found" approach in which she combines tree sections with ceramic forms. It's a strong, bold, Cubist assemblage that changes from every vantage point. In the last gallery, Iron Twins is a monumental piece made of cast iron that has a Stonehenge-like quality. Or, it could be perceived as two standing figures, confronting each other with just a whisper of distance between their bases. These works have a strong physicality to them. As Shechet explained, "It's quite muscular what I do. I don't mean that they don't have a lightness or female presence, but making sculpture is a very muscular, tough activity."
How fitting that, during Women's History Month, Pace is featuring the work of a female artist who has challenged the macho, male-dominated world of sculpture, forging a long and successful career — and she did it her way.
Pace Gallery, located at 229 Hamilton Ave., is open by appointment only, with COVID-19 protocols in place. Information is available at pacegallery.com.
Contributing writer Sheryl Nonnenberg can be reached at [email protected]