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.
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.
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.
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.