At MFA, These Contemporary Ceramics Don't Just Hang on the Walls

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In 2007, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston acquired the Garth Clark and Mark Del Vecchio Collection -- a private collection of contemporary ceramics that amounts to a whopping 475 works spanning more than 50 years. In Shifting Paradigms in Contemporary Ceramics, an exhibition of the collection currently on view, the museum narrows that massive collection down to nearly 160 works. It's still a lot, but there are some really standout pieces.

Though spread out through four distinct "rooms," the exhibition feels cluttered -- there's so much to see and take in, but not a ton of room to walk about. But it flows well, so even if you miss some works, you get the gist. The collection moves logically from modern pots to functional ceramics to postmodern to decorative. There are works on the walls, naturally, as well as hanging high from the ceiling and lying low on the floor. And they're more varied than you could imagine -- there are works that are illuminated, abstract sculptures, conceptual, broken. Works that comment on war, homophobia, "society," dreams. There are works made the old-fashioned way, by hand with clay, and others made with modern, digital technology.

Falling into the latter category, there's Marek Cecula's The Porcelain Carpet -- one of the standouts in this immense show. It's a puzzling piece -- it's a carpet that you can't walk on, and decorative plates that don't hang on the wall or are on a table for eating, but lie on the floor. And it's massive -- at 192, there are more plates than individual pieces in the entire show. They all have part of an image of a North Indian carpet digitally scanned onto them, so when you look at it as a whole, it resembles the carpet, however fragmented. This porcelain "carpet" plays with function effectively and simply, and, since debuting ten years ago, has become emblematic of contemporary ceramics.

There are other works, too, that really struck me -- Chris Gustin's nebulous Vessel, #9925, a piece of yellow stoneware that looks straight out of a Dali painting; Jean-Pierre Larocque's Untitled Head, a damaged-looking clay sculpture in his distinct craggy style; Elise Siegel's haunting Into the Room of Dream/Dread I Abrupt Awake Clapping, a Children of the Corn-esque room of children seated, staring at you, the viewer, who has apparently interrupted them. It's one of the last works you'll see before exiting, but even if it were the first, it'd stay with you.

"Shifting Paradigms in Contemporary Ceramics: The Garth Clark and Mark Del Vecchio Collection," now through June 3 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's Beck Building, 5601 Main. For more information, call 713-639-7300 or visit the museum's Web site.

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