McKnight shows, part 1: Northern Clay Center

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Ursula Hargens, Wallflower, 2010, earthenware, gold luster, 62″ x 26″ x 1″. Photo by Peter Lee.

If you’ve been paying attention to local arts calendars in the past few weeks, you may have noticed a certain name popping up time and time again: “McKnight.”

As most artists will tell you, the McKnight Foundation is one of the pillars in Minnesota for funding the arts, and each year it offers over a million dollars to Minnesota artists in fellowships that cover a wide range of disciplines: theater, dance, choreography, photography, visual arts, ceramics.

Right now, McKnight’s partner institutions are displaying the results of the past years fellowships. A few weeks back I looked at the work of McKnight’s photography fellows, on display at Frankling Art Works, and last weekend McKnight dancers performed new solo works they commissioned at the Southern Theater.

Today I’m looking at two different McKnight funded exhibitions , starting with ceramic artists at Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis(check back later for a profile of visual artists on display at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design).

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Maren Kloppmann, Stacked Pillows III/09 (8 Elements), 2009

Northern Clay Center’s fellowship program differs a bit from other McKnight programs. In addition to providing fellowships to two Minnesota ceramicists, the center also brings in four artists from outside Minnesota for three month residencies. The idea is to provide artists around the country with time and professional studio space in which to develop their work, while also giving local artists the opportunity to learn new techniques in workshops with these visiting fellows.

Exhibitions Director and Curator Jamie Lang says what always surprises him is how, although their styles are techniques are quite different, these artists’ create bodies of work which actually pair together quite well.

What always surprises me is that there is a cohesiveness to the exhibition even though when they’re here you don’t think they’ll work together, or you even worry that they’ll compete with one another.

This year’s Minnesota fellows are Ursula Hargens and Maren Kloppman (first and second images, respectively). While Hargen’s is richly decorated and colored, Kloppman’s is sparse and minimalist. Yet both show an expertise with architectural lines and spiritual overtones.

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Yoko Sekino-Bové, Noblesse Oblige, 2005

Photo by Jamie Lang

While Kloppman and Hargens created more contemplative bodies of work, the pots and tiles of Yoko Sekino-Bove and Ilena Finocchi reach out and grab you with their biting commentary. Sekino-Bove riffs on the typically precious vases of China and Japan -depicting pandas munching on bamboo and flying cranes – and inserts modern, disillusioned dialogue that burns away at the zen-like veneer.

For her part, Ilena Finocchi casts her eye on modern politics, and finds it lacking. She created tiles that resemble posters for freak shows depicting such familiar faces as Sarah Palin and George Bush. She also sculpted a couple of three dimensional pieces which reveal, quite plainly, her disenchantment with the U.S. government as a whole

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Ilena Finocchi, National Frivolity, 2009

Photo by artist.

Finally ceramic artists Elizabeth Smith and Cary Esser are dealing more purely with pattern. Esser creates two dimensional piece with geometric shapes which feel as they could have been removed from a garden wall. Smith used her fellowship to create one very large installation piece called “The Garden;” its four panels reflect the season, affixing ceramic structures to a wall that’s been painted with repeating patterns of stencils.

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Elizabeth Smith, The Garden (detail), 2009-2010

Photo by Jamie Lang

Lang says the show reflects some of the latest trends in ceramic art.

Decorated surface is a hot trend now. You can see even more of it in our sales gallery. There’s more decoration or imagery on the ceramic pieces, such as Yoko’s animals and text, more of an exploration within decorations and graphics. I don’t think that’s unique to ceramics – I’m seeing it on the street with stenciled graffiti, and in graphic novels, too.

Lang says this particular group of fellows stands out for two reasons; they’re all women (a first in the fellowship’s 13 year history), and almost all of them created work designed to be hung on walls, not just set on tables. Lang notes how both Kloppman and Smith incorporated the walls into their artwork, using paint and shellac to extend the artwork beyond the clay and porcelain objects.

“Northern Clay Center: Six McKnight Artists” runs through August 23 in Minneapolis.

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