Clay continues to resonate in exhibits here


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This weekend a ceramics exhibition will close at the Society for Contemporary Craft, Strip District, while another will open in Trinity Cathedral, Downtown. Both are noteworthy and are here because of the March conference of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA), which drew more than 4,000 attendees and inspired more than 100 exhibitions throughout Pittsburgh and its environs.

Together, they illustrate the short- and long-term benefits the city receives from attracting artists and arts patrons.

The society, which has made a name for itself in national art/craft circles, is host to "Voices," the NCECA 2008 Invitational Exhibition, comprising 35 exceptional works by 22 artists as widespread as Texas, Minnesota, New York and Washington. It also provided space for a pre-conference workshop and assisted with the high-end NCECA Collectors Tour.

In return, the society was flooded with visitors from early morning until closing time throughout the conference week -- a nonprofit venue's dream come true. Shop sales shot up to nearly $17,000 for the week, and almost $30,000 in art sales were made from "Voices," which was split among the society, the artists and their representing galleries.

And, of course, there's the benefit to the local audience of a scintillating exhibition teeming with works that are cheeky, political, observant, personal, or a mixture thereof. The figure and narrative are the dominant forces that energize artworks selected by NCECA exhibitions director Holly Hannessian, Florida State University professor of art, and by society exhibitions director Kate Lydon.

Worthy of a visit in themselves are four searing works by Sergei Isupov that are technically, aesthetically, conceptually, emotively and creatively captivating. "When I think of myself and my works, I'm not sure, I create them, perhaps they create me," Isupov says in the show catalog.

"Duel" and "Crazy" are eerie chimera, obsessively marked with patterns or figural images. Eyes, positioned naturally or surrealistically, follow the viewer as the figures rotate slowly on their platforms. "Disrobe" is a horrifying evocation of physical and/or psychic violation. The same technical compulsion and dreamland imagery inform the several-foot-high, gouache-on-paper "Learn," the strangest depiction of whispering into someone's ear one is likely to encounter.

Isupov's work had been shown by the society previously, as has that of SunKoo Yuh, whose alluring multi-figure sculpture "Can You Hear Me?" has its own unique dream quality, the engaging and expressive components providing rich material from which to construct a narrative.

From Russell Biles' timely "Final Showdown (Bonanza)," an only slightly tongue-in-cheek commentary on East-West relations, to Jason Walker's impeccably crafted, complex "Mechanized Life: The Rabbit and the Karin"; from Pavel Amromin's playfully dark and risque "figurines" drawn from images of conflict to the encircling, internally focused children of Elise Siegel's "I am What is Around Me," this show represents some of the finest ceramic art being made in the country today. And this collection has been in our back yard for three months.

The Three Rivers Arts Festival also supported NCECA, hosting two exhibitions in March. One of them included work by Jeffrey Mongrain, a ceramic artist festival executive director Elizabeth Reiss knew from her days at the American Craft Museum, New York.

Mongrain, who in collaboration with Nicholas Kripal has created installations in several European and American places of worship, met with Reiss while here for the conference. He'd visited Trinity Cathedral, and when he expressed interest in siting work there, Reiss invited him back for the festival. His and Kripal's installations, inspired by history and iconography, will be on view within the church and on its grounds beginning Friday.


"Voices" continues through Saturday at 2100 Smallman St. Admission is free. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today through Saturday. For information, call 412-261-7003 or visit www.contemporarycraft.org. The installations at Trinity Cathedral, 328 Sixth Ave., will be accessible 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturday, and 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Friday through June 22 (free).

Kurtz 'Seized' show

Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, Buffalo, on Saturday will open "Seized," an exhibition by the collectives Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) and Institute for Applied Autonomy (IAA) that examines the physical artifacts of the 2004 FBI investigation of Buffalo artist and CAE member Steve Kurtz.

The exhibition focuses on four CAE art projects that were designed to stimulate dialogue about germ warfare programs and biotechnology applications to the food supply. Items related to the projects that were confiscated by the FBI have not been returned, but federal investigators left volumes of trash in Kurtz's home (Hazmat suits, hundreds of empty drink bottles, pizza boxes) that will be included in the exhibition.

Artists will speak at the opening reception, which begins at 8 p.m. Saturday (free). CAE videos from 1986-1993 will be screened Sunday. "Seized" continues through July 18. For information, visit www.hallwalls.org.


Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas may be reached at mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.


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