Force of nature

May 10, 2006 at 12:00 am

Ghosts have a terrifying weight, even as they float among the rafters. When artists show at the Scarab Club, they take on the ghosts of Rivera, Rockwell, Duchamp, and other famous artists whose signatures grace the beams of the venerable club's second floor.

Maybe the weight has been too much. For at least the past two decades, the Scarab Club was simply not on the radar for most artists, and was considered the place with yet another flower or watercolor show. But the spirits stopped their bullying two years ago with sculptor Michael Hall's retrospective. And the current ceramic show, Clay Journeys, by Susanne Stephenson and Marie Woo, also commands their respect.

The main gallery is divided into halves, giving each artist's work a strong initial impact. Woo's work is as subdued as Stephenson's is expressionistic. And although they play out their ideas through different materials and influences, the two artists share a deep affinity for landscape and the ceramic tradition of the vessel. Stephenson's art evokes the forces of nature, abstracted crashing waves and volcanic craters, forms relative to a scale we recognize, rendered in plates and vessels. Woo refers to complex systems, such as the cosmos or cellular division, with visual restraint, in simple, shallow vessels.

Abstract expressionism might be the primary influence for Stephenson's swirls of primary color, although you can't help but recall the pure joy of painter Howard Hodgkin's palette as well. "Summer Pool" is a large wall plate. With wide strokes, she makes high-gloss orange marks in a yellow-and-blue sky, surrounded by strokes of matte-glazed ochre and sienna. Her exquisite window into another world is so complete that you actually forget the lovely vision is made of gooey ceramic liquid hardened by fire.

Stephenson's painting references are many, but she never lets you forget you're looking at sculpture. She takes a traditional elongated platter and then pushes clay sections forward and back, integrating the very gestural brushwork on the surface with the underlying form. (Painter Elizabeth Murray should have a look.) In "Tibetan Host II," the abstracted form suggests a giant ear. Some of the small plates have deep color within the strong black outlines of a Japanese woodblock print.

The lovely platter "Blue Wave I" has a kinship with Ando Hiroshige's stylized print of crashing waves and frothy white foam. Their small size proves bigger is not always better.

Woo's work also takes the common form of an open circular vessel hung on the wall. In its simplicity, her art invites contemplation, evoking philosophical ideas through reductive color and form. Island-shaped forms sit in the center of vast oceans of subdued color, covered with a crusty dark glaze like a moonscape. Some sculptures include pieces of found metal that serve as rusty and uneven backgrounds for the objects sitting on them. The objects are either triangular, wedge-shaped like pastries, or like biomorphic clubs that look like they've been unearthed after centuries underground. Woo's "# 5" features a mysterious-looking egg splitting into two cells in the rusty confines of the bowl. Several wall vessels bring to mind the work of Spanish painter Antoni Tapies, such as Woo's cross-shaped slabs and her luscious surface texture of pebbly blobs. Like Stephenson, she culls influences from mainstream art history as much as ceramic history, and exploits the visceral quality of clay to give life to her ideas.

Talking to ghosts is always tricky. They demand the best. The Scarab Club is listening. Their recent agenda to show high quality work of the courageous few who continue making art after 30 or 40 years (especially in Detroit) is good news for young artists who are taking note. What's red-hot in the art world is a blip on a time line — developing an aesthetic voice over a lifetime is what endures. Woo and Stephenson not only endure, they make dirt float and sing.


Closing reception for Clay Journeys is 6-9 p.m., Friday, May 12. Runs through May 13. At the Scarab Club, 217 Farnsworth St., Detroit; 313-831-1250.

Gerry Craig writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]