Making mud magical

“You cannot help but learn more as you take the world into your hands. Take it up reverently, for it is an old piece of clay, with millions of thumbprints on it.”

John Updike

At the West Coast Mud Slingers exhibition at the Brand Library Art Galleries, a selection of California-based artists with varied backgrounds and styles bring to life their intimate yet vastly diverse relationship with ceramics.

The title of the exhibition, which is curated by Ricky Maldonado, borrows its name from ceramics lingo; a “mud slinger” is someone who crafts pottery or uses a potters wheel. The “slinging” refers to the way the mud slips off the wheel as it spins.

While the works of mud slingers and contemporaries Kelly Berning, Trent Berning, Nina Kellogg, Maldonado, Adrian Sandstrom and Fred Yokel vary in subject, form, theme and technique, their passion and desire to explore the possibilities of the clay medium creates a unified narrative.

An education in the ceramic practice, the exhibition points to the demand, rigor and patience required as the fate of the artist’s vision rests in an unpredictable medium that can change at the slightest touch.

Each artist is inextricably linked to the work they create, but it seems an even more intimate gesture when considering the ceramicist and their close interaction with their work, born from their bare hands.

Kelly Berning’s hand-built and wheel-thrown ceramic human form called “The Acrobat” is an oversized female marionette whose vacant and piercing eyes first confront the viewer upon entering the Brand Library Art Gallery. Suspended from an oversized wood bracing, the bald and sallow form delicately poses in mid-air. Separated by heavy chains, the limbs are further removed from the body while three colored ceramic weights placed at varying heights below the marionette seem to support the weight of “The Acrobat.” The sculpture seems an allegory of the artist identifying her internal struggle to find balance in the creative process, which more often feels like a juggling act.

The works of Trent Berning and Adrian Sandstrom hearken to the days when clay objects were used as vessels for religious, spiritual or familial offerings. Created with a multi-fire ceramic and numerous layers sprayed and brushed under glazes, slips and luster, Sandstrom’s “Rise Series Jar” demonstrates craftsmanship that is portable, utilitarian in intention and incredibly fragile. Viewing Sandstrom’s “Jar” is like viewing through a portal in the past as he continues in the tradition in portable and sacred objects.

Trent Berning employs more abstraction and heavy-handedness in his work as seen in the “Odalisque Platter,” a wheel-thrown and alerted ceramic platter rendered in a serpentine green with geometric forms loosely inscribed on the surface. Referencing the “odalisque” type popular in works such as “La Grand Odalisque” by Ingres in 1814, the title refers to a woman who served at the lowest ranks of a harem. The reference in Trent Berning’s work seems to create a domestic pairing wherein the “odalisque” might serve the concubines of the man of the house.

A recurring motif in the exhibition is the transformative power of clay and its ability to fool the eye and appear as a different material altogether.

Such is the case with the works of the show’s curator, Ricky Maldonado, who presents a stunning series of low-fire terra cotta plates called the “Kaleidoscope Series,” which experiment in intricate forms and optics. Employing designs of dots and patterns inspired by his Apache and Yaqui tribal heritage, Maldonado creates a visual play with shapes that emerge from the center, expand and recede back to their point of origin. The “Kaleidoscope Series” mimics the visual tricks activated when looking through an actual kaleidoscope with shapes so fantastical they straddle fantasy and reality.

Fred Yokel’s whimsical sculptures are loosely based on the human form, if not from their block-like limbs and trunks for torsos. While they lack any defining facial characteristics, they emote narratives of jubilance, inspiration and quandary. In “Stumped,” Yokel playfully examines what it means to be literally and creatively “stumped” as a figure appears lost in a series of tree stumps. In “The Build,” a sculpture constructed of blocks is missing a piece of his knee, which has been removed by two smaller figures at his feet.

The low-fire oxidation sculptures reflect a common concern found in West Coast Mud Slingers, and that is how to maintain one’s sense of self in a material that can quickly consume body and mind.


What: West Coast Mud Slingers

Where: Brand Library Art Galleries at Glendale Public Library, 1601 W. Mountain St., Glendale

Contact: (818) 538-2051;

When: On view through Sept. 9. Noon to 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays; noon to 6 p.m. Wednesdays; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

Cost: Free admission and parking

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