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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