The nine glazed ceramic figures and four colored cast-glass heads in Micaela Amateau Amato’s recent exhibition constituted a village of sorts, a tribe of, as the exhibition title stated, “Exiles and Nomads.” An art professor at Penn State, Amato has been exhibiting her work since the late 1970s.

Arranged in clusters around the gallery on simple waist-high pedestals, the ceramic pieces (each about a foot high) display brilliant hues and assume animated postures. They bend, lean, reach and fall; many are contorted or disfigured. In Ecstatic meditation (2010), a head on a neck of coiled clay wears an expression of either pain or bliss, eyes rolled back and tongue lolling, suggestive of death or of transformation. A deep crimson stains the chest of Mother of Mercy (2008), a beseeching figure with outstretched arms and an open mouth.

By contrast, the heads (likewise about a foot high each) wear serene expressions; their rich but cool colors and impassive faces suggest stoicism or the calming passage of time. Also on pedestals, they were positioned among the fluid lines and loose, dripping glazes of the ceramic figures like cardinal points on a map, offering ballast among the turmoil. The heads are, according to the gallery, hybrid portraits that each fuse the features of the artist and members of her family. Moroccan girl (2004) is an intense orange with a ripple of pale pink across the broad nose like a vein of marble in stone, the skull covered in a cap with chunks of glass forming curls beneath it. In Brazilian woman with yellow shoulders (2009), a rich brown face gives way to a glowing yellow neck.

Throughout, Amato’s approach to shape—a conical form stands in for a skirt, a loop of clay defines the contour of a neck—recalls the elegant simplicity of ancient Olmec sculptures or Japanese Noh masks. Meanwhile, her use of color and gesture is reminiscent of expressionist painting. But Amato also appears to be aiming at something deeper than art-historical references. From the personal perspective of her own ancestry (she comes from a line of Sephardic Jews), Amato seems to empathize with all exiles and nomads.

Photo: Micaela Amateau Amato: Moroccan girl, 2004, cast glass, 12½ by 9 by 9 inches; at Angles.