Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Porcelain of the Possessed: Julie Elkins at Sherrie Gallerie

Julie Elkins, Lily Can't Sleep. Porcelain and porcelain stains. Author photo.
Note tiny bed in midst of rubble at top of the sculpture.
Julie Elkins' porcelain is positively weird. It's the sort of thing that stops you in your tracks, sets your jaw dangling in disbelief, and your eyes scanning the corners for secret cameras: "Is this a joke?" Elkins' current show at the Sherrie Gallerie in Columbus, due to close the week after Thanksgiving, is full of late-October, perilous, gothic exaggerations: abandoned, derelict buildings; deep earth packed with mortal remains; lonely shacks shuddering in the wind; and spooky, talking tree stumps of the rotted, Halloween sort. And yet, here we are in the gallery of Joe Bova and the sublime Davide Salvatore. On the other hand, we are alerted that we are in for something different here. The name of the show is, "Misadventures of a Ceramic Artist Lost in Paradise."

If at first the visitor is surprised to see work that resembles set designs or storyboards for animations, they wouldn't be far off. Elkins is a story-teller who doesn't write, but who compresses her imaginings, which spring from the world observed around her, into one artifact at a time. Not an artist to work in the tradition of her material, Elkins brings her materials to her own narrative purposes. But if you insist on on the functional soul of ceramics and serve canap├ęs off Lily Can't Sleep, then you've probably found a kindred soul in this artist.
Lily Can't Sleep, detail of room construction.
Author photo.
Elkins is a miniaturist on a monumental scale. In Lily Can't Sleep, above, she not only represents an abandoned, destroyed bedroom, down to the details of lathe behind the broken plaster wall, structural uprights behind the lathing, and the exterior wall executed brick by brick, but she has also articulated each element of the rubble, the precarious, post-disaster earth on which the ruin stands, and a blasted, anthropomorphized tree, clinging for dear life to the fragile world. Not only is the detail of the work awe-inspiring, but so is the feat of cantilevered work, miraculously stable despite its apparent will to fall over.
Lily Can't Sleep, detail of rubble.
Author photo

Elkins brings to her work in ceramics a willingness to tell stories in any medium available to her:  "I'm good at telling stories; I want to pull them from life wherever I see people interacting." As a child, she liked to draw people. This interest was continued when, as a teen, her father presented her with sections of a felled cherry tree and she learned how to use wood-burning equipment to draw portraits into the wood slabs. She is also a puppeteer, used to putting on silent plays that she and her husband devise—they write the scripts and make the puppets.

Julie Elkins, Yolandi the Sea Witch. Stoneware and stains.
Author photo.
Yolandi, detail. Author photo.
Elkins is currently making busts, like Yolandi, the Sea Witch, covered with barnacles. It's a life-size work—like all of hers,  fabulously detailed. The face is so life-like that I asked her if there's a model, and it seems that there is, though there was not a sitter. The face is based on images of a singer Elkins admires. "I was hoping to find a Muse," she explains, so she decided that being a fan was close enough. It seems to have worked, for even with all the fantastical elements—the crazed skin at the scalp line; the huge accretion of barnacles; the eyes without pupils—the face is almost disconcertingly easy to engage with. 

Most of the work in Elkins' show is black and white. It is not glazed because the weight of glazes would overpower and fill in the extreme delicacy of her manipulations. The stain she uses is pure pigment mixed with clay body, rubbed into the clay. Black is the color she has chosen, not a default.

Julie Elkins, The Factory. Porcelain and porcelain stain, acrylic
paint. Author photo.
Note the two mouths, left and right, beneath the surface.
When she uses color, though, the contrast heightens the inherent drama of the work. The Factory is an astonishing piece on every level, and the use of minutely painted graffiti on the walls of the abandoned industrial building underscores Elkins' ability to place high realism (the extreme, accurate detail) in an imagined, symbolic environment (a cut-away of the Earth, which speaks, being filled with the bones of the dead.) Her observations are so keen, so many, and so precisely rendered as to provide unusually secure grounding for the rest of the scene that she imaginatively posits. There is a conviction to her imagination that she really doesn't have to sell us; we are sold by her attention to the normal, the scenes that all of us see every day.

Mouth and bones in the earth beneath The Factory. 
Detail photo by the author.

Elkins is working in Key West, Florida, where she and her husband moved via a masted sixty-foot canoe when things went south for them in Richmond, Virginia. Their two-and-a-half month trip on the Intercoastal Waterway provided considerable grist for her imaginative mill, one that was already convinced about the reality of ghosts and metaphysical realities.

Julie Elkins, Strong Wind, Earth, and Sky. Porcelain and
porcelain stain. Author detail photo.
That habit of mind permeates Elkins' work, which, the busts excepted, is entirely depopulated. What she gives us are ruins, abandoned buildings, and these set in such a way that we are mindful of their connections to the earth—the collector of our bones and absorber or our detritus. So while she does not present us with figures in her scenes, the human presence is felt everywhere in her work. Lily who is not in her bedroom haunts the remaining space; as do the people who used to keep the factory working when we were an industrial country; or whoever occupies the lonely shack situated between Strong Wind, Earth, and Sky. 

Even with the suggestion that humans do not move alone on the planet—that trees have arms and the earth itself can speak—Elkins' fanciful world strikes me as a  place of comfort. Even through bleak scenes, spirits stir to suggest that wherever humans have been, heat and heart remain. It's certain that whatever Elkins puts her dedicated hand to is animated by just those qualities.
Julie Elkins, detail from Beasties. Porcelain and porcelain stain. Author photo.

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