Forty-odd pound masses of wet clay bagged in plastic. Scrap discarded by factories, free to takers. Each different, yet each the same: damp metaphors for humanity. A gift from industry to the hands of ceramic artists, to be worked, folded, coiled, or spun into bowls, cups, vases. Lumps of random chunks of random shapes in random order. Lumps patiently waiting for someone to notice them—for what they are.
Enter artist Emily Ginsburg. Known for dramatic digital art in which her vivid imagination is channeled by a plastic mouse whispering to a pixelated screen. Starting from blank, guided by concept, precise. The appearance of total control—but modulated by whimsy and incongruity. One example: Ginsburg’s massive mural, Currents, in Seattle’s City Lights building, is modeled on a circuit diagram but contains coffee cups, carrot tops, thought bubbles and a whole lot else that doesn’t belong.
Several years ago, Ginsburg found that her computer no longer beckoned. Her imagination craved an outlet more real, tactile, and spontaneous. There, in the home she shares with her husband, Chris Baskin, a ceramicist, were these trip-hazard bags of rejected damp lumps. What if? What if they were recognized as acts of nature, meteorites that had pierced the atmosphere on a fiery journey, landing with a ground-shaking thud? What if their fleshy organic mass had something to say? And what if they begged for patterns and for red, green and blue and cyan, magenta, yellow and black?
As the plastic bags came off, an artist’s churning imagination ignited. Then came months of drying, of lumps hogging the warmest places in Ginsburg’s home as if a troop of wet cousins had moved in. Then off to the kiln for bisque firing, fingers crossed (solid masses are not a typical meal for a ceramic kiln, and hidden air pockets can explode).
Several weeks later, we met again over coffee and tea. Like her art, Ginsburg is an unusual harmony of the analytical and the spontaneous. She writes about her creations in the conceptual code of art academia (she has, after all, taught at Pacific Northwest College of Art for most of her career, now serving as Chair of Intermedia) but speaks of her work with the warm candor of family dinner banter.
Ginsburg made one comment that particularly resonated with me. We both tend to rely on found objects or their images (what we call “detritus”) to, in her words, enable our art to “embrace multiple associations at once” asking “the viewer to see the whole as something new.” Images out of context and misplaced juxtapositions—a rooster driving a tractor—throw us off balance and open our eyes.
Ginsburg has done this with the clay lumps, glazing them with the abstract imagery of electron paths, dot matrixes, and QR codes—icons of the “humming and buzzing” that are so much a part of modern life and have long been a part of her artistic vocabulary. Added are suggestions of nature, food, and mundane objects of our homes. And layered in are spontaneous, gestural expressions of this one artist’s moments in time and her equally contradictory fears, hopes, joys, and sadnesses. It is a congress of lived experience and media overload which, in Ginsburg’s words, “holds up a mirror to what it feels like to swim in it all.”
After our conversation, I knew I had to revisit Metabolic at SE Cooper. Conscious now of how Ginsburg had lived for months with the drying lumps as she grew to understand their expressive potential, I realized that the sculptures’ sheer charisma might be blocking a deeper grasp. It is like being introduced to a fashion model who is also a professor of linguistics. One meeting is not knowing. So back I went to the gallery.
On my first visit, the sculptures engaged me with their organic shapes and vivid patterns. It was a “wow” reaction. The view from every angle was a new surprise. I had immediately spotted the electrical engineering references and, less obviously, a couple of carrots, but it was the abstract compositions that held my attention. I imagined a room full of orphans from another planet dressed for carnival.
A few days after meeting with Ginsburg, I shared my photos of the sculptures with my wife, Barbara. Looking over my shoulder at my computer screen she saw much more, including one of her mother’s tablecloths, a woman’s figure, and a waterfall flowing off a mountainside. Where I had focused on shape, pattern and color, Barbara now opened my eyes to the surrealist elements, the dream-like juxtapositions. She saw what I had missed: how Ginsburg had used things that prompt memories of other things to transform scraps of clay into scraps of experience. I was reminded of Rene´ Magritte’s absurdly engaging apple-for-a-face self-portrait:
My second visit to the show was a very different experience. I was alone (Franklin kindly withdrew to his home next door), and I soon found I was on the floor, kneeling and crawling. Not just to view the work at eye level but also to reduce myself to its scale, to be more part of it than a viewer of it.
Now, I was more conscious of the out-of-place associations which, like dreams, can generate intense conflicting sensations in the same instant. And, indeed, on my second visit, I had a more emotional response—actually, opposed emotional responses. Part of me wanted to pick the lumps up and cuddle and comfort them, perhaps scratch their wiggling bellies, as if they were some sort of enchanted pet. Yet when I backed away and stood up, I sensed that I had entered the receiving room of a sausage factory that had been visited by a magic fairy. It was an image of death transmuted, which, of course, is a theme that the human mind is wired for.
Ginsburg aimed to “embrace multiple associations at once.” She’s pulled it off with art that engenders affection and arouses wonder. The “wow” is still there, but these crazy quilts of clay scraps are now layered with memories, experiences, and conflicting meanings.
View more in Ginsburg’s Thud Series.
Speaking of scraps
Like Ginsburg, I am drawn to scraps of discard and assemblies of absurd contradictions: ordinary objects so out of place as to defy us to experience shapes, colors, and patterns we routinely take for granted. In a recent painting, TIME/NOISE/COLOR, that includes a discarded clock face, two carpenter pencils, and thumbtacks. And words, always words:
Open every object while hidden instruments play:
Surrender then to the past tense
where wildernesses melt together
around the corner of being understood
An Aroma of Memory, which I have just finished, similarly unhinges visual assumptions with a painted image sharing the panel with a leather studio glove, a trash can lid, a glass fried egg, a rubber ball, and a shredded American flag. None were conceived as ideas before I found them . . . or they found me. The flag was dangling from a tree branch where it must have blown years before. Unlike Ginsburg, I have neither the self-awareness nor the vocabulary to articulate a deeper purpose. All I can say is that I think with my hands. I don’t tell them what to do, and they don’t tell me why they did it. That’s the only way we get along.
And again, words:
In a silence louder than night
an aroma of memory landed
over shadows glimmering with
overtones of a blue-black of nothing
twirling so perfectly that
gravity made a wrong turn