featuresa featured item from THE LIST
Sunday, November 18th, 2012

Lady MacBeth Nail Polish: Mary Carlson at Studio 10

Mary Carlson: Beautiful Beast at Studio 10

October 5 to 28, 2012
56 Bogart Street
Brooklyn (718) 852-4396


Mary Carlson, Four Part Snake, 2010. Glazed ceramic, 41 x 12 x 14 inches.  Courtesy of Studio 10
Mary Carlson, Four Part Snake, 2010. Glazed ceramic, 41 x 12 x 14 inches. Courtesy of Studio 10

Slaying dragons is messy work, usually reserved for saints and heros, but Mary Carlson takes on a few at her Studio 10 exhibition.  Her weapon of choice is a delightfully brittle sword, the medium of glazed ceramics.  Ceramicists have been baking the hallucinatory and the terrifying into grotesque ornament since antiquity. Carlson, though, is after more than decorum.  Using clay with searching sculptural ingenuity, she defies the tendency of ceramics to prettify, and thus succeeds in killing her beasts and having them too.  Viewers may smile at her delicately clunky monsters, but their unwieldy, segmented bodies, stricken eyes, and elaborate snarls and teeth can leave bite marks of genuine pathos on the soul.

Besides large-scale dragons, Carlson includes a gathering of tiny figurines of dragon-slaying saints inspired by Renaissance depictions, their features and attributes nervously indicated without being overworked, and a pair of toddler-sized fists in glazed porcelain whose exquisite breakaway wrists resemble hatched eggshells.  The mastery of craft in these smaller works contrasts with her cloddish dragons, which flaunt clay’s almost comedic inaptness for hazardous duty.  (Equally outlandish weapons for dragon slaying, a plastic cocktail sword and a tinfoil spear, are wielded by a couple of the saintly figurines.)  The humor in Carlson’s choice of materials cuts both ways, not only against the grandiose tenets of monumental sculpture, but against the cuteness of artisanship; and by the same token her dragons resist pervasive clichés, whether Wagnerian or Potteresque.

Big Blue, a misshapen, 13-foot-long serpent laid out on a feasting table, is all the more hideous a monster, and all the more compelling a sculpture, for abusing teacup materials.  As if digesting a kill in one place while pinching to nothing in another, the dragon’s body – assembled from separately-fired stoneware elements drizzled with blue crackle glaze – swells in a way that makes one think queasily of a blocked intestine, or of an enormous tapeworm crashing a dinner party.

Mary Carlson, Catherine of Alexandria (after Pintorichhio), 2012. Glazed porcelain and plastic sword, 7 x 3 x 3 inches. Courtesy of Studio 10
Mary Carlson, Catherine of Alexandria (after Pintorichhio), 2012. Glazed porcelain and plastic sword, 7 x 3 x 3 inches. Courtesy of Studio 10

Carlson’s no-nonsense tabletops, custom fitted to her dragons, can also suggest pathology slabs or fish market counters.  Four Part Snake (2010), though, is not quite ready for filleting: its googly, doglike eyes flicker with the last light of fateful recognition, perhaps of betrayal, while its gaping, floundering head tips the balance of its useless coil of a body like a spent cornucopia.  On the floor below we find a separately titled piece, Pool, which, given its placement, reads as the pitiable creature’s blood.  Yet this shiny pink, plate-sized lump looks more like fake vomit –– it’s as comical as it is tragic.  Is this wounded Goofy dying for our ridiculous, insatiable sins?

However you read Pool, there is blood everywhere in this show, and it creeps up on you. The most carefully modeled and most fearsome of Carlson’s dragons, the fully decapitated Head (2012), rests fang-first on a crimson stain of such direct address –– a spill of watercolor on paper ­­–– that the theme of blood begins, likewise, to soak in.  Meanwhile, Head’s upturned, severed neck reveals Carlson’s expertise in managing folds of interior and exterior, while displaying architectural scale and trim; no fragile table ornament, this bloodthirsty fragment might have fallen from the cornice of a sacrificial altar.  Here and there on the gallery walls, meanwhile, red-beaded embroidery takes the macabre form of enlarged bloodstain splatters and forensic drips.  Even those white porcelain child’s fists can be seen to be tinted red at the thumbnails –– nail polish, perhaps, as applied by Lady Macbeth.

Dragon’s blood in pre-Christian legend could be lethal or magical –– a drop of it scalded Siegfried, yet empowered him with the comprehension of bird talk, thus saving his life.  Carlson’s subversive mastery of different craft traditions (previous work has included a crocheted giant squid, cast brass chicken feet, and vivisected upholstery) always seems aimed at some down-to-earth enactment of ambivalence between death and transfiguration.  She succeeds best of all when indulging a gruesome sense of humor.  If her inner demons tend to resemble slavering, woeful-eyed dogs as much as Renaissance dragons, it only enhances our appreciation of their double nature.  Like the brilliant, curlicued monsters of Raphael and Pinturicchio, Carlson’s, in their own vivacious way, are not quite despicable enough.

installation shot of the exhibition under review: Mary Carlson: Beautiful Beast at Studio 10
click to enlarge