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The Clay Menagerie 

March is Ceramics Month in New Orleans — or at least it is in the galleries that staged shows in conjunction with the NOLA Fired Up organization's activities on behalf of clay sculpture earlier this month. The resulting bumper crop of ceramics can be an eye-opening experience for anyone who has ever questioned the evolution of clay as an artform. The diversity of vision and virtuosity in these works by outstanding sculptors from all over the country can be startling. A casual perusal reveals that clay can mimic all sorts of substances and surfaces, as we see in some remarkable works by Eva Hild and Jeremy Jernegan at Gallery Bienvenu (518 Julia St.,). Animals are also a pervasive subtheme, and nowhere is this more obvious than at Taylor-Bercier, where Joe Bova's totemic clay beasts are literally climbing the walls. The ones that aren't climbing — or slithering, in the case of the realistic clay serpents in Futility of Snakes — are holding forth. For instance, Snake Master, a winged monkey contemplating a python held gingerly with three limbs, conveys a mysterious narrative sensibility, as if the animal kingdom had its own equivalents to Homer's myths. Some are a little risqué, so, no, don't bring your little niece who loves zoos. She might not know what to make of Cochon d'Amor, a wall-mounted sculpture of an anatomically correct wild boar that appears oddly aroused. But all is not mere novelty here. There is a kind of furious, often ribald, life force that animates these large, strange and passionate pieces like the fallen angels of the animal kingdom. Really something, as Diane Arbus used to say.

Really something as well, albeit in a very different way, are the assembled clay sculptures in the Material show at Jonathan Ferrara Gallery. One of those unusual group shows that functions as a fairly coherent installation in its own right, Material highlights clay's versatility in effectively evoking flesh, bone, cloth, paper, even atoms and, of course, animals, in the crosshatched arrangement of horse or pony skulls in Blake William's Oct. Nov. Dec. Williams is fascinated by the way the rituals of domestic life coexist with the untamed world that appears in our dreams, and this piece may mark a kind of intersection of the two. More horses appear, along with a variety of other animals and humans, in former New Orleanian Cara Moczygemba's collection of exotic oddities at d.o.c.s. (709 Camp St.). There is an aura of antiquity and fallen empire surrounding these works as well as hints of her Romanian ancestry expressed as a sort of surreal psychic intensity, Romania being a place where Slavic and Roman interests historically collided. All that assumes a life of its own in pieces like Buck, a fawn with a balding human head, or Self Portrait With Ermine, a quietly unsettling study of feral and domestic sensibilities.

Speaking of the feral, there's no end of beasts in Clay Under the Big Top at the Big Top Gallery (1638 Clio St.). Among the more provocative is Morgana King's Bush Dynasty Vessel, Circa 1989-2008, a modern adaptation of Ming dynasty ceramics in the form of a realistic clay replica of a plastic gas can with a Chinese dragon painted on it. Beyond the contrast of a cheap plastic container carefully replicated in clay, the sense of American power being siphoned away by nascent Asian economies in league with entrenched domestic oil cartels is palpable. But the most elaborate display of beastly beatitudes appears in Maria Lovullo's collection of vastly oversized malefic insects and Pandra Williams' beautifully chilling hybrid species on the far walls. This sort of artful blending of animal, mineral and human sensibilities appears in a number of impressive clay shows about town in a new breed of ceramic sculpture that often seems to mirror the polymorphous propensities of modern science.

click to enlarge Joe Bova's Snake Master suggests a mysterious narrative, as if the animal kingdom had its own equivalent to Homer's myths.
  • Joe Bova's Snake Master suggests a mysterious narrative, as if the animal kingdom had its own equivalent to Homer's myths.
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