In the last room of Annabeth Rosen’s exhibition at PPOW were two astounding ceramic objects, bearing the deadpan titles Bank and Parcel. In fact, each is a collection of many ceramic objects: tubes and gourds and balls and blobs, all piled up on a wheeled dolly and whipped together with wire. These six-foot-high towers are imposing, yet hilarious in their pendulous anthropomorphism. She began making them in 2010 and 2011, just as the art world was starting to go gaga for ceramics by artists such as Sterling Ruby and Arlene Shechet. Since then, baroque clay sculpture has become a fashionable idiom, easily spotted in your average art fair.
Rosen, who received her MFA in ceramics from Cranbrook in 1981, arrived quite early to this particular party, but she carries on a decades-old tradition. She is marvelously erudite in the medium, and holds the Robert Arneson Endowed Chair in ceramics at the University of California, Davis. Recognizable allusions to her West Coast predecessors recur throughout her work: not just Arneson’s sad-sack satire, but also Peter Voulkos’s powerhouse expressionism, Ken Price’s layered coloration, and Viola Frey’s searching humanism. Voulkos looms especially large, as he does for almost anyone working ambitiously in clay sculpture. Arneson had reacted to Voulkos by taking a sidestep into sly parody, as if flicking a cape at a bull; but Rosen grabs Voulkos’s legacy by the horns, matching his scale and intensity, even exceeding it. At the height of his career, in the late 1950s, Voulkos had built enormous integral masses, supported by invisible interior infrastructure, firing them in one go. Rosen employs a more pragmatic approach to equally monumental ends. Each of her sculptures is an amalgamation of fragments, fired and then joined to the mass, the whole accumulating gradually.
The PPOW show itself was a gradual affair, beginning with a series of smaller works set on tabletops. The luscious forms seem to heave under their finishing layer of thick glaze. (Multiple firings, and a recondite technique called “salt fluxing,” help Rosen achieve active surfaces that would not look out of place in the geothermic basins of Yellowstone.) About half of the small works are bundled stacks of slab-built elements, the others slope-sided piles composed of rough coils. One of these latter works, Boogaloo (2015), prompted thoughts of a favorite childhood ice cream flavor––cherries jubilee––while also evoking a rock covered in glistening slugs. (I mean that as a compliment.)
The exhibition included a large number of Rosen’s working drawings, which amply testify to the importance of furious, iterative mark-making to her practice. The sculpture Roil (2016) is similarly repetitive, with innumerable wiggling spermlike elements arranged in recumbent form. This piece can be read as a welcome feminist rejoinder to the macho posturing all too common in previous generations of clay artists. Even so, I preferred the extraordinary variation seen elsewhere in the show; Rosen’s sculpture is at its best when it contains multitudes.
The exhibition’s title, “Tie Me to the Mast,” carries several associations: Odysseus enthralled by the sirens, J.M.W. Turner on storm-tossed seas, a captain going down with her ship. However you take it, the phrase communicates absolute, hell-bent commitment. Not too many artists could deliver on this promise, but Rosen does. Although clay has lately been embraced in fine art contexts, it is often done in a manner innocent of the medium’s history and of the skills the material requires. It takes someone of Rosen’s expertise to show us how deep ceramics can go. Born of the earth, they remain a bottomless well of possibility.