Young Sook Park and Lee Ufan: Untitled, 2005, terra-cotta, 161⁄2 by 21 inches; at RH Gallery.

Young Sook Park and Lee Ufan: Untitled, 2005, terra-cotta, 161⁄2 by 21 inches; at RH Gallery.

Pure Clay

NEW YORK, at RH Gallery

November 2011

The eminent ceramist Young Sook Park has often turned to the past for inspiration, in particular the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910), when pottery in her native Korea had a brilliant efflorescence. A pair of Park’s large, gleaming white porcelain “moon jars” placed in the front windows of this Tribeca gallery drew visitors into an exhibition of ceramics by Park and her compatriot and frequent collaborator Lee Ufan, and, in the back room, a group show of 13 contemporary artists.

The moon jar was invented in the late 17th to mid-18th century; it is a large porcelain vessel used for a variety of purposes, in its round shape and milky white coloration evoking the celestial body. Only a few moon jars survive from that period, for they are fragile and vexingly difficult to make, shaped in two parts and fired at high temperatures; frequent irregularities around the middle were esteemed. Park’s looked fairly perfect, gleaming away. The moon jar was one of the few points of congruity with the group show in the back, where Arlene Shechet contributed two funkier versions of the type, one of them with a silvery green ceramic coil stuck in its mouth, the other marked all over its surface with splattered white glaze.

On view in the front gallery were many other exquisite vessels by Park from the past dozen years or so—dinnerware, teapots and cups in white porcelain with delicate cobalt touches, and clay bowls, plates and small pots fired with fern glazes to give them a pale green coloration, then embellished with iron oxide and copper. Lee executed the surface decorations in a number of additional works, sometimes marks depicting fruits, other times quite abstract, as in one giant, stormy platter from 1988, over 36 inches in diameter, with swirling, emphatic gestures. There were also two wall-hung, unglazed terra-cotta reliefs from 2005, around 16½ by 21 inches each, in which Lee pressed his thumb into tablets shaped by Park to create gouges that function both as image and material.

Among the offerings in the group show, in addition to Shechet’s moon jars, were a couple of whimsical little cups by Kathy Butterly—one of them, the fierce Mask 2 (2009), with a tiny pink gash lined with what look like minute teeth; a Janus-headed, blearily smiling girl by Klara Kristalova (Twice as Happy, 2009); the cartoonish wall-hung sculpture Tree (Pine), 2010, by Naoki Koide; a jar of 1,000 hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds by Ai Weiwei (2009); a white clay chain by Julia Chiang (Keeping It Together, 2011); and a small white porcelain sculpture of a sleeping fawn (2011), almost frighteningly vulnerable, by John O’Reilly. It was a nice selection, modest in size, which nonetheless allowed viewers to sample the striking range of formal and iconographic possibilities being explored in clay today. 

Faye Hirsch