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Heavy handed: Elizabeth Emery’s Awfully Blue

All Consuming

By Nadine Wasserman

Elizabeth Emery: Glazed Over

Courthouse Gallery, Lake George Arts Project, through June 15

‘Affluenza will get you down, buy, buy, buy.” These lyrics from the Chumbawamba song “Buy Nothing Day” refer to the overconsumption and materialism that characterize capitalist societies. The designated Buy Nothing Day takes place annually on the biggest shopping day of the year—the day after Thanksgiving—and functions as a global protest against a consumer-driven culture. The theorist Jean Baudrillard criticized overconsumption because it often leads people to acquire goods for status rather than necessity. He argued that meaning, not use, is primarily transferred through consumer objects and that the individual buying into a group identity is under an illusion that she is satisfying her individual desires. His theories come to mind when looking at the work of Elizabeth Emery. The title of her current show at the Lake George Arts Project, Glazed Over, not only refers to her experimentations with clay, but suggests the feeling one gets when confronted with the dizzying array of consumer goods one can accumulate in a capitalist society.

It’s hard to ignore the fact that, here in the United States, we are inundated with stuff. But humans seem to be hardwired for collecting, and it’s hard to resist. Emery explains that her sculptures are like the memories we collect of people and places and that they also “question whether the objects we accumulate offer insight into our own identity and our need to control both actual and perceived chaos.” The artist primarily works in porcelain, and many of her objects are cluttered with replicas of low-end consumer goods—those tchotchkes and trinkets we accumulate that have questionable purpose. It seems that we can never be rid of these bothersome souvenirs that appear to multiply of their own accord. But Emery is not altogether disdainful of them. She upgrades them from their baser materials, such as plastic, and renders them in porcelain, or assembles them to their best advantage. In How to Wrap 5 Eggs, she creates delicate assemblages of varying textures made of materials such as decorative ribbon, fabric flowers, plastic cowboys, and foam. While ceramics often take utilitarian forms, Emery’s sculptures and wall pieces are clearly of a different sort. She describes them as “stream of consciousness,” and thus they are not easy to categorize. Her influences appear to be as various as surrealism, psychoanalysis, postmodernism, and art history. But she is also clearly interested in exploring the medium of clay itself.

Emery’s sculptures have multiple layers, both literally and figuratively. She writes that she’s fascinated by “the physicality of clay” and that working with it grounds her to “natural processes, scientific principles and the continuity of life.” The first thing one notices when entering the small Courthouse Gallery is a piece titled Deer, which is a hefty block of jumbled stuff all lumped together and sitting atop a pedestal. Porcelain is not usually a heavy medium; it’s most often associated with delicate tea cups and fine china. But here, the artist forces it to hold the weight of overabundance. The mass is like a barely contained overstuffed toy chest. She manipulates the material so that it exhibits qualities of both delicacy and fortitude and fills the block with an assortment of the slightly familiar and kitschy shapes of so many gewgaws. Ultimately, the piece serves as a kind of ruptured nostalgia. It reminds us of our own trinkets, each bearing the weight of some memory, but ultimately the sculpture plays with our perceptions. Do these knickknacks really give us what we want, or are they just consumer products that provide us with distorted recollections? Emery writes that her work “addresses our habit of sugar-coating or ignoring aspects of our own consciousness.” While from a distance Emery’s work looks precious and refined, on closer inspection, the pieces are more unsettling. Tiny heads and legs stick out here and there, and forms start to take on the look of decaying internal organs or sea creatures.

Emery also experiments with shapes and glazes and occasionally incorporates other materials, such as encaustic, wire, and photographs. Ultimately her juxtapositions can be disturbing and unbalanced. There is none of the preciousness we expect from porcelain, nor is there a feeling of nostalgia for the trinkets we discover embedded within many of the pieces. While the viewer may be drawn in by the physical beauty, there is a moment of disorientation and confusion as it becomes clear that there is something unsettling beneath the surface. Ultimately, Emery hopes that despite the unnerving quality, the viewer will discover the calm within the chaos of the piece. There is so much detail in each individual work that the small gallery feels crowded, but otherwise the show is compelling and well worth the trip. The kitschy environs of Lake George are an appropriate setting to contemplate our consumerist penchant for souvenirs.

 


PERIPHERAL VISION

-no peripheral vision this week-

 



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