Monthly Archives: February 2012

Functional enables sublime: Karen Karnes’ ceramics

Five decades after she threw her first pot, Karnes' designs had evolved into biomorphic shapes like this one. Flower Container, 1997, glazed stoneware, wood-fired. (Photo by Anthony Cuñha)

This essay originally appeared on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel blog Art City.

An arts-and-craftsy neighbor probably brought one to a neighborhood potluck at some point: the stoneware casserole dish, handsomely proportioned and glazed, handles on the sides for oven mitts and a twisted ribbon of clay for grabbing the lid. Maybe you never noticed at the time, but that casserole was a sublime meeting of design, ceramics engineering, and function.

It also helped afford its creator, Karen Karnes, enough of an income that she could set aside function once in a while, and just think about the sublime.

After visiting “A Chosen Path: The Ceramic Art of Karen Karnes,” on view at the Racine Art Museum, I’d like to personally thank all those arts-and-craftsy neighbors for supporting Ms. Karnes. In the 50-odd years since that casserole was picked up by a design store, Karnes has been turning out objects that stretch her studio-pottery roots in intriguing and beautiful directions.

Karnes created this glazed stoneware teapot, sugar bowl and creamer (1953–1954) during her time at Black Mountain College.

Knowing that Karnes was A Name in the studio art movement, I expected a certain honest, earthy look that I always enjoy. I was both satisfied and surprised by the collection in this show: stoneware and earthenware objects that ranged from literal to interpretive, disciplined to biomorphic – or that integrated both apparent contradictions.

Forms with the warmth, utility and familiarity of studio pottery are certainly here – a teapot, a candle holder, the casserole. They share the spotlight with provocative, abstracted shapes. I loved Karnes’ boulders, which amazed me for their technical skill but only after engaging me on a sensory level, much as I would stop at the sight of a particular pebble on the beach. (The display cases might not always encourage you, but be sure to get a 360-degree look at these.)

Flower holders sprout multiple spouts, vessels take on fabulous cantilevered wings, bowls grow spliced feet. Glazes that look subtle at first are deceivingly complex.

Winged Vessel, 1989. Glazed stoneware, wood-fired. Photo by Anthony Cuñha

Karnes has been at this since the 1950s. She has adapted to and integrated technologies, materials and aesthetic principles that have evolved many times over, and she has crossed paths with nonconformist stars that ceramics geeks know all about. She’s a treasure.

The earliest piece in the RAM show is from 1950, six decades are represented, and she’s still at work. It’s a delight to see one artist’s creative evolution laid out in a three-dimensional timeline that, for me, also had much to say about the last 50 years we’ve lived in. “I was fortunate to be in on the beginning of the ceramics movement,” Karnes has said. We’re fortunate, too.

“A Chosen Path,” organized by the Arizona State University Art Museum Ceramics Research Center, is the first major retrospective of her work. It will be on view at the Racine Art Museum through May 27.

:: Learn more about the Racine Art Museum here.

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The Deep-Seated Meaning of the American Sofa : NPR

Damn you, NPR! You’ve reminded me of yet another idea I’ve had for a long time  and never did anything about:  The Deep-Seated Meaning Of The American Sofa.  (Good headline by the way.)

Read Linton Weeks’ story, it’s an intriguing look at an under-explored aspect of our lives. I’ve always felt that the sofa (or couch) has important psychic meaning for individuals, and if you get someone talking about their personal sofa stories you’ll learn an awful lot about them. Sofas are significant witnesses to — and often participants in — every phase of our lives, at various times shaping and reflecting our ideas about nurturing, status, family, relationships, sex, money and culture. In my time on earth I have experienced and learned many things through  …

  • Sofa beds
  • Sofas covered in plastic
  • The It’s-a-Futon-But-It’ll-Do Trend
  • The ridiculous Gargantuan Sofa Trend
  • The uncomfortable Post-Modern Sofa Trend
  • The annual summer-break Student-Sofa-Disgorgement Trend
  • Sofa phobias
  • Basement sofas
  • Eating on sofas
  • Boyfriends on sofas
  • Houseguests sleeping on sofas
  • Pets shedding on sofas
  • Tears shed on sofas (my own, others’)
  • The sofa-in-coffee-shop trend
  • First hand-me-down sofa (received, given)
  • First sofa bought with my own earnings
  • First Bona Fide Adult Sofa
  • People who, when given the chance, will / will not take the third spot on a sofa
  • Sofa napping
  • Sofa depressions (literal, mental, figurative)
  • Sofa mistakes (OMG it won’t fit through the door!)
  • Sofa remorse (why why why did I go with a pattern?)
  • Unwelcome roommate sofas
  • Losing things in sofas
  • Finding things in sofas

So,  I am thinking … Sofa Story Corps. I gotta get on that.

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Thoughts on a walk

A collection from the last two weeks.

1. I don’t get how a dog can pass up a scratch behind the ears for a game of catch the ball.

2. Bad sign: I see something in the distance that can be one of two things: (a) A drift of snow that’s resisting the warm temperatures. (b) A drift of white plastic grocery bags that have come loose from the trash.

3. If I were the artist who designed that post-moderny, aluminum-ribbon lawn sculpture, I think I’d be upset that someone had strung Christmas lights on it.

4. My walk on Saturday:

Sonoma Coast State Beach, Calif. Temperatures in the low 60s.

5. My walk today:

Lake Park, Milwaukee, Wisc. Temperatures in the low 30s.

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Eggplant parm odyssey, continued: The search, the showdown, the conclusion

I received some sympathetic suggestions after I disclosed my longing for a certain frozen Italian entree that local stores don’t carry anymore. Someone suggested Trader Joe’s, where I found one boring (above) and one yummy (below) option. I highly recommend the yummy one when you’re in the mood for a post-modern variation.

Trader Joe’s Stacked Eggplant Parmesan, an excellent reinterpretation if you are in the mood for a reinterpretation.

I also called the 800 number at Celentano, and left a message about my plight, including my  mailing address.

While I anxiously awaited a reply, I discovered that a restaurant in my neighborhood has an eggplant parm dish on the menu. Still plagued with a craving, I splurged and was pleasantly surprised. True, it takes liberties — adding spinach and pasta — but it was pretty darned good. The eggplant medallions were creamy on the inside, crunchy on the outside, not greasy. Skillfully done, VIA Downer.

Then I received an envelope in the mail with a form letter, three $1 coupons, and a neatly hand-written note in the margin:

“The Walmart store located at 3355 S. 27th St. carries our Celentano Eggplant Parmigiana.”

Bingo! I had some free time this week so I made the trip to the south side, carrying my letter and my coupons. Wow that’s one big Walmart down there on South 27th, a lot of frozen-food cases to search. I went up, I went down. I tried Italian, I tried frozen entrees. I could not find the Celentano. I asked a gentleman who was wearing a snowsuit and stocking frozen food.

“Uh, we’ve got the meatballs.”

“Meatballs? No! You are supposed to have the eggplant!”

“Um, the noodles?”

“No, no, no! Here, it says right in this letter!” I fear I might have waved it in his face.

“Oh, I think I know where it is.”

And he led me to the boxes. (Queue orchestral music.) Behold:

Pretty great price, too. Four boxes are now nestled in my freezer. John and I were thinking of having a nibble at Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro bar tonight, but maybe I’ll just stay home and heat up my oven … .

(A special thank you to my friend Deborah for assisting in my odyssey.)

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