Schulman Project is a newish fine art gallery on The Avenue in Hampden. The location, nestled between cafes, handmade tchotchkes, and shoe stores, as well as the logistical decision to split the space between a storefront gift shop and a back gallery, sets up expectations for a cute, craft-centric aesthetic, which can be a turnoff to those who want serious art. Upon entering the space, you will find local, affordable, and gifty functional ceramics, small sculpture and jewelry in the shop area. However, if you cross the threshold into the back gallery, you will find fine art on par with the area’s most ambitious galleries with a roster of nationally known artists, smattered with just a few of the area’s best local sculptors and ceramicists.
The newest exhibition, Just at Bare Reserve, features ceramic sculpture and vinyl wall works by David S. East. The artist, previously based in Baltimore but now in New York, commutes to MICA, where he is the Chair of the Ceramics Department. According to East, in an exhibition statement provided by the gallery, his new work “revolves around issues of ornament and design as signifiers of our cultural history,” which is a broad way of saying that East is inspired by the man-made things around him. An initial scan reveals vague references to classical and suburban architecture, with molding, tile, and other building materials combined into non-functional compositions.
As you make an approach, there are several bold wall works that grab your attention first. Although they look like paintings, these tight arrangements of geometric stripes and brightly colored squares are actually built from strips of Vinyl Composition tile, collaged together into one surface. In digital reproductions, the vinyl ‘paintings’ appear harmonious and lively, but in person the mottled, familiar flooring material is a downer. This faux tile was widely used in 1950’s as a cheap replacement for actual tile, and its presence brings a decidedly institutional quality to the works, which is ironic but not appealing. East’s desire to use “populist material” is admirable, but these works detract from his much more subtle ceramic works, which appear to be his main area of expertise.
Displayed on a wall, on podiums, and a central wooden table, East’s porcelain and terracotta sculptures possess a restive exuberance and an opaque sense of humor. All of the pieces appear to be combinations of molded and hand-built forms and all manage to simultaneously reference architecture, cartoons, and common building materials. Like many contemporary functional ceramic vessels, each piece is small enough for an individual to pick up and hold, but large enough that this would require effort. (I do not recommend this, by the way). Each piece is decidedly non-functional, but their size gives them a contemplative presence without being too aggressive or thing-like.
‘Cultivated an Opening’ is glazed a sunny orange and combines a thick, oversized arch with what appears to be a bit of corner molding. From a logical perspective, the piece is curious and the two parts come together like fried chicken and waffles, a union that sounds weird until you experience it. At its edges, seams of terracotta clay peek through the glaze like a secret revealed and, as you circle around the piece, it completely transforms. A shocking stripe of lime green glaze adorns a back edge, which now appears to be nothing more than an upside down cartoon letter U or the mouth of a cave. It’s an unexpected, inspired touch and the pop of color provokes a response of pleasure. It marks your own personal discovery.
Using the same lime green glaze as an accent, ‘Myth Functioning as Memory’ also presents a vague rounded architectural form combined with a piece of cast molding. In addition, this piece includes a football shaped seedpod at one end, which balances the composition and makes it even more curious. From an aerial view, the architectural model becomes a cartoon quote bubble and the organic pod serves as an exclamation point. Glazed in a bright, lemon yellow, this piece has a yummy and magnetic gravity. You will definitely want to caress it and possibly cuddle it, which is odd because it is a three dimensional, formalist collage. The artist’s craftsmanship and sense of design cause these anomalous pieces to fit together into something whole.
The most ambitious piece in the exhibit, ‘Bisected Field Study’ is a combination of flat and three-dimensional elements, held together by a thin plywood shelf. On the wall, a grid of fifteen white porcelain tiles reference digital calculations and mediocre drop ceilings. Up close, the tiles use a 3-D woven ‘ginko’ plaid to create a subtly textured grid. Lumbering in front on the shelf is a long piece of molding coupled with a smaller piece to create an L shape. Unlike the straight piece of wood used to create the mold, the longer piece slumps and curves lazily, as if giving in to its own weight. Glazed in the tangerine orange with a chocolate brown foot, this piece luxuriates in its own silliness and the pristine white grid serves as a visual counterpoint. Each opposing part reinforces the otherness of the other, illustrating the familiar tension between the ideal and the real, and speaks to the ridiculous compromises negotiated when building anything in the real world.
It’s not clear whether East’s sculptures are fantasy architectural models, suburban ornament, or three-dimensional collages of classical building elements and this is probably a good thing. The ceramic pieces in ‘Just at Bare Reserve’ draw attention to the materials and surfaces we are surrounded by in our homes and in public places, and effectively question their aesthetic value through humorous transformation and purposeful contrasts.
Whenever one part of a composition draws attention to itself as a separate part, this is the mark of bad design. However, when works appear to effortlessly coalesce, despite visual evidence to the contrary, this is when you know it is really working and the artist is onto something successful. East’s ceramic sculptures are oddly appealing, despite being slightly absurd, and the way they adjust and reveal themselves as you move around them creates an enigmatic bond between the work and the viewer.
* Author Cara Ober is the founding editor at Bmoreart.