In mid-March, the 2021 National Council on Education of the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) annual conference was to be held in Cincinnati. Due to the pandemic, this highly anticipated event was changed to a virtual conference. However, in preparation for the conference, many exhibitions of ceramics were planned well in advance. The Cincinnati Art Museum, the Weston Gallery, Manifest, and the galleries at Northern Kentucky University, just to name a few, are currently showing impressive ceramic exhibitions, providing an opportunity for viewers to witness a survey of some of the best work in ceramics by outstanding artists from our region and beyond.
For this occasion, the Cincinnati Art Museum has mounted “Future Retrieval: Close Parallel” by artist duo Katie Parker and Guy Michael Davis, known as the collaborative Future Retrieval. Until recently the pair lived and worked in Cincinnati but relocated to Arizona just last year. Future Retrieval is known for mining museum and industrial archives to create installations that explore the technological and conceptual evolution of materials, forms and craft processes. For this exhibition, the pair selected pieces from CAM’s decorative arts and design department as inspiration for new works.
Traditionally the decorative arts are concerned with the aesthetics of functional objects such as furniture, vessels, and textiles, which are often designed to be reproduced. “Close Parallel” initiates a bold and daring conversation about perceptions of form and function through domestic vignettes that feature unusual juxtapositions and mutating motifs. As in literature, where a parallel grammatical structure is used to present the notion of antithesis, (i.e. “to err is human, to forgive, divine”), for this show, a visual parallel, an apparent sameness or similarity in objects such as a copy, replica, or reproduction, is a device employed to underscore differences between historic and contemporary works, urging comparison and contrast of the forms as well the contexts of their making.
I highly recommend viewers first see the companion show, “For Now or Future Retrieval” that sets the stage for “Close Parallel”. In this display are historic works from the CAM collection that particularly excited the artists and preface some details in their new creations. Each piece is accompanied by a brief label text with the artists’ thoughts and observations about the piece, the tone of which conveys their delight and fascination as well as their material sensibilities. Viewers will see, among several other things, a Neoclassical French vase, three soup tureens, and a tiny monkey figurine. The vase is one of a pair in the museum collection created circa 1830 by the Marc Schoelcher Manufactory in France. The tureens occupy their own case, with one centrally located on a riser, “Tureen with Lid, 1745–1747, Meissen Porcelain Manufactory”, flanked by two others of different manufacture positioned below it. In the label, the artists comment on the superior quality of the Meissen tureen, whereas the other two, although charming in their folkiness, “miss the mark”. The monkey figurine is “The Bagpiper from the Meissen Monkey Band, post-1850,” part of a series of monkey figures dressed as humans playing instruments that became popular table decorations. Each of these objects reappear transformed in the Future Retrieval exhibit in ways that illuminate significant themes in the show.
Upon entering the first of two rooms that contain the “Close Parallel” exhibit, the partner of the Schoelcher Neoclassical French Vase appears as part of the installation “Negotiating Space”. In the piece, an open-concept Art Deco inspired shelving unit displays the Neoclassical vase plus a constellation of Future Retrieval’s objects, including three porcelain vases and five digitally cut aluminum silhouettes of floral arrangements. The flat floral forms resemble outlines of the delicate linear 2-D designs on the surface of the Future Retrieval vases. This assemblage make a visual game of contrasting positive and negative space, along with volumetric dimensionality versus flatness. The Neoclassical vase is completely gilded except for a realistic painting of a pastoral scene on its sculptural form, made using painterly techniques of the period. The landscape scene presented in this way is a visual paradox in that it creates an illusion of depth on the surface of an object that has actual dimension.
An adjacent wall mounted piece, “Reproduction Quality”, flattens the Neoclassical vase completely. Composed of hand-cut paper, colored layers approximate a sense of volume and depth in images of three similarly styled vases, one of which is decorated with a landscape image like its 3-D counterpart. The work references how the image of the vase would have been reproduced in historical printed paper catalogues. Such catalogues would have made the exclusive objects available for broader visual consumption, if not actual acquisition. Future Retrieval’s labor-intensive renderings create a counterpoint to the mechanized technology of print as revolutionary mode of reproduction, instead reverting to the specialized work of the hand. The piece’s title also alludes to other junctures of analogue and digital reproduction technologies in play throughout the exhibition.
In the installation “High Rise Farrago”, a large gold painted disk mounted on the wall presides over a visually disparate assemblage of two austere black Art Deco-inspired straight-backed chairs, and a wool shag rug with images of colored vases, all made by Future Retrieval, and an elaborately ornate marble and gilded French eighteenth-century “Console Table” from the art museum archives. The tureen that sits on the table is a familiar form; it’s an intentionally inexact replica of the Meissen “Tureen with Lid, 1745–1747” from the companion exhibit. The thick, honey-colored glaze that coats it is a decidedly more fluid, organic surface design than the gilt and fine painting on the surface of its predecessor. Further, its scale is larger, the handles have been replaced with goat skulls, and its decorative textures are soft and muted.
Although its final form is composed of slip cast porcelain like the historic tureen, this piece was made by a process of photogrammetry, whereby photographic scans of the Meissen tureen were stitched together to create a digital file for output to a 3-D printer. From the 3-D printed tureen, a plaster mold was made so that yet another version of the tureen could be cast in porcelain slip. Because the initial scans were low-quality, the digital flaws became exaggerated in the 3-D version, resulting in a lack of definition in the sculptural details of the final tureen. In this way the artists exploit and elevate unexpected or otherwise undesirable results produced by the tools as they explore their creative potentials.
This tureen is important in the context of the others; its manner of production reflects a paradigm shift in the world of reproduction. Considerations of the perceived quality of each tureen provide insight into what we value in these objects and why, in terms of culture, craft, taste, economics, and function. Future Retrieval’s tureen exists in a continuum of technology that includes porcelain, a more than 2000 year old material, and digital photogrammetry and
3-D printing, both of which have revolutionized contemporary manufacturing.
Another new digital tool for reproduction is used to create “Us”. In the piece, a large rhesus monkey made of computer numerical controlled (CNC) milled wood covered in aluminum leaf, sits opposite its reflection in a large, round Art Deco mirror from the CAM collection, also made of wood covered with aluminum leaf. Hovering over its head is a brilliant white neon halo. With this work, the small anthropomorphized Meissen Bagpiper Monkey figure has evolved from amusing figurine to sculpture. The choice to make a rhesus monkey is no accident. The species is a distant ancestor to humans. They are known to be highly intelligent, self-aware and can recognize their own image in a mirror. They are bred and used for scientific experimentation, and are also the first primate to be cloned, making reference to yet another technology of reproduction, this time biological. In “Us”, while the mirror image of the monkey creates a visual parallel, the title alludes to a familial parallel, a kinship with the viewer. That allusion establishes a space for contemplation of human evolution in tandem with that of craft and art forms. We are seeing eons by looking at an object that could only be made through the technological advances of the present.
This show is at times visually jarring, uncomfortable, bulky, weirdly lit, and absurdly mismatched. And that is why it’s so good. In museums we are often accustomed to seeing things presented in a harmonious, standardized way so that we might cease to really look at them. In “Close Parallel” the lumps, bumps, and awkward pairings are so unexpected as to be almost shocking, and very humorous. The effect is that our sense of the unfamiliar is restored and we are able to observe with fresh eyes. I have only followed the trajectory of three parallel objects that populate this exhibition; there are more to be discovered. Not only is there much to explore here, the work of Future Retrieval shows that there is much to explore in all the functional forms we might ordinarily look past or take for granted. How many ways can you see a vase? When is a tureen revolutionary? What is the future of a monkey?