Emily Counts at Carl & Sloan Contemporary
Emily Counts’ exhibition at Carl & Sloan presents big, bulbous ceramic forms stacked, draped, rested and passed through one another. Surfaces are covered with tiny repeating elements: relief circles, triangles, crescents, marks, holes. Never regular or mechanical enough to be perfectly repeated, they are non- patterns, almost-patterns.
Each link of handmade brass chains in three different works has its own unique shape, disrupting our expectations of uniformity without denying a chain-identity/chain-function. Like every piece in the show, the chains give unapologetic evidence of the hand: marks, textures, and irregularities serve as records of interference by a human body.
The objects throughout the bright and clean gallery contain a multitude of small surprises for the careful viewer, resulting in the comforting assurance that every element has been touched and considered. Presence of the human hand and focus on materiality are often found where the usual divides of “art” and “craft” are bridged by artists, craftspeople, and curators. However, Counts’ show disrupts the conventional art/craft separation in a new way by utilizing ceramic’s association with function, along with material, to approach abstract ideas.
Pottery shards are among the most plentiful ancient archeological artifacts – when other detritus of human lives is buried and decomposed, pottery vessels remain through tens of thousands of years. When we interact with ceramics, even today, even in a gallery, we understand intuitively the medium’s relationship to permanence and utility. Emily Counts’ ceramic forms carry a sense of spontaneity, movement and gesture along with that permanence, and combine an aggressive non-functionality with elements of utility. Counts lets us view opposing truths in a single object, and the result is undeniably alluring.
Emily Counts, Future Connect and Bind, 2016
Count’s simultaneous practice as a jeweler informs her sculptures, but the sculptures refer to a functionality beyond jewelry. “Bead-like” elements have been identified in previous discussion of her work as a link to her jewelry practice. Her thoroughly enjoyable show The Ins and Outs at Nationale last summer begged this comparison – where many playful sculptures appeared as overly large necklaces with exquisite, colorful, handmade “beads” hung on the gallery walls. With her show at Carl & Sloan, Counts pushes her sculptures farther from associations with “extreme jewelry” and brings darker conceptual complexity into the works.
The colors of this exhibition are more neutral than The Ins and Outs, emphasizing form, texture, and value. The “bead forms” are still present but appear more as a sheath or skin for the ropes. The sculptures are larger–the largest ceramic sculptures Counts has made to date–with clearer allusions to sex and violence within abstraction.
One may be tempted to link the work of Emily Counts to Constantin Brancusi, who, through exquisitely crafted wood carvings, managed to render abstraction safe for mass consumption. He disarmed skeptical audiences who might have otherwise found modern art frustrating in its apparent lack of skill. But the familiarity and appeal of exquisitely crafted ceramics employed by Counts is not meant to serve avant-garde art to the masses. Rather, it is a declaration that initial appeal or familiarity of craft does not negate conceptual credibility and strangeness.
Emily Counts, Basic Diagram, 2016
In Basic Diagram a large cylindrical shape, perforated with nearly-uniform holes, suggests the containment of some hidden thing which cannot pass through the tiny openings. The cylinder’s white domed lid is covered in small, also white, abstract relief shapes reminiscent of pictorial languages. Relieving the pressure of containment, a rope enclosed in black ceramic hexagonal/cylindrical “beads” ejaculates from the top of the dome, leaving a splash of black glaze. The black line, flexible, soft, draped but composed of rigid, glossy ceramic elements meeting in perfect angles travels twelve feet along the gallery wall, changing from black to a silvery metallic and ending in a collection of dangling ceramic knives. The non-functional knives allude to a passive violence through their would-be function. They are the consequence or end of the original explosion: disappointed expectations, perhaps an event of male sexuality or a battle carried on too long.
Emily Counts, Moves Moves (detail), 2016
Moves Moves starts with a large white drum-like form covered in a relief-shape surface similar to that of the lid in Basic Diagram, atop a concrete base. Thirteen more forms are stacked above, each slightly smaller than the last: a marbled sphere, a gridded cube, a cylinder violently punctured by a curved line of metallic bead-shapes; each element like a word in an unknown question, traveling upwards to a tiny silver-tipped triangle. The triangle might be the end of the line, or just pointing to an invisible continuation, the way a ray is depicted in a mathematical diagram. Counts says of the piece, “I was thinking about tributes, trophies and monuments. It was built after a few of my smaller sculptures that had the suggestion of funerary or remembrance objects.” Moves Moves could be a funerary monument to a life of unfulfilled expectations, each hope a little smaller than the last. It’s not as sad as you might think, buoyed by richness in texture and treatments found along the way, familiarity in shapes of domestic function, and an affirmation that one thing does indeed lead to the next.
Emily Counts, Disaster Kit, 2016
In these works, forms of containers, lids, vases, bowls and colanders are not acting out the functions their shapes imply, but those functional implications provide conceptual fodder in themselves. For example, within the idea of containment is a host of references to collecting or accumulating, preservation (saving for later), imprisonment, control, internal and external, visible and non- visible dichotomies. Counts collages together these functionalities – containers, chains, perforations – to manifest complex ideas, abstracted relationships, and paths of travel between points. Counts does use a material knowledge rooted in craft to create abstract sculptures but, more importantly, she uses craft’s ability to depict function as a method of communicating within abstraction. These sculptures ask us: ‘What steps does it take to get from one point to another?’, and, ‘Will we like what we find at the end?’
Emily Counts is at Carl & Sloan through April 17, 2016. Visit www.carlsloan.com for more info.
Images courtesy of Carl & Sloan