Remember that trip and that gift shop full of mementos, memory joggers, placeholders, and nostalgia baubles? “Souvenirs from the Future,” which was recently on view at the Lawrence Arts Center (lawrenceartscenter.org) in Lawrence, Kansas, took you back there through its mix of the iconic and the mall-kiosk kitch, with the Ken Price–like miniature-scale assemblages and the fast-food chain trinket. At the same time, the exhibition offered a bold prediction for the future, presenting itself, in effect, as a retrospective before its time.
In selecting work for the show, curator Ben Ahlvers, who is also the director of the Lawrence Arts Center, drew on his notebook, an inventory for future exhibitions packed with names of artists’ works that acted like souvenirs—placeholders for feelings, times, and spaces. His method for filling the gallery paralleled the function of the pieces that he chose. The ceramic objects evoked feelings of familiarity. The intimacy of memory was projected onto the clay. Thin lines of recognizable form and imagery wove themselves into a web around the room. Not all of the works beckoned overtly; some chose to keep their secrets under layers of glaze and abstraction.
The lack of many functional items in the show was perhaps appropriate when one considers the relative uselessness of souvenirs. Much of the work did, however, represent such functional objects as takeout containers, hammers, ice cream cones, yard tools, flowers, planes, bricks, soap, luggage, calipers, and traffic cones—to name only a few. These items, and the imagery they bore, could have been used by the audience, like a brightly illuminated welcome sign and a cashier’s smile, as entry points into the ideas behind the work.
The familiar objects seemed as closely tied to thoughts about culture as they were to the theme of the show. In her piece American Dream, Michaelene Walsh used variation in surfaces to draw attention while keeping the forms consistent.
In her installation, Alight Adrift Aloft, ceramic ice cream cones hung temptingly suspended in the air, their surfaces agitating and attracting the viewer’s eye and then repelling it. In these objects, Walsh employed a diversity of hues that was perhaps meant to evoke thoughts of a diverse population.
Carole Epp’s work, It Was Larger Than Life, sat like a cake just out of reach of hungry fingers. Embracing notions about kitsch present in ceramics, her figurine-group depicting children confronting a skull suggested the passing of a naïve world view through the knowledge that comes with age and contemplation of one’s own mortality. The mounting awareness of the children gazing upon death was, however, softened by the pleasing colors and intimate scale.
Jon McMillan’s Specimen IV and Scott Bennett’s Compact Hybrid seemed abstracted beyond the point of recognition. Both pieces appeared to be perfectly aware of the place they held as objects of clay only loosely tied to reality. Eric Mirabito’s untitled work positioned itself figuratively between these two sculptures, since it seemed almost recognizable yet offered no strong clues to assist in confirming any hypothesis as to its actual identity. It suggested a kind of a purgatory between what we think we know and what we see.
Brian Harper clearly commented on mass-production and the domestic in his Scaffolding Series (With Stack of Four JC Penney HomeTM Collection 10-inch Dinner Plates), not by recreating but rather by appropriating objects: quite literally other people’s plates. Trapped inside an earthenware cage, the plates became building blocks for a small-scale monument. The work paid homage to the architect’s scale model and suggested dreams of future usefulness. Though the pedestal was low, it served metaphorically to elevate the act of appropriation. In her work Tandem, Amanda Salov borrowed from a different source, the fields and gardens of the world, applying a thin layer of clay over Queen Anne’s lace plants to preserve form and remove the obvious. Composed on cracking wax, her still-life assemblies are delicate reminders of balance and that souvenirs don’t always come from a store.
Colleen Toledano’s work Smoke Screen created analogies between perforated paper, branches in the air, and bronchioles stemming from a set of lungs. The body was represented through extruded ropes of syrupy clay, geometric chunks, and smoothly carved passageways that converged and halted in a solitary growing organism that resided, brain-like, behind delicate walls of thin white paper. Indentions like oxygenated blood interrupted the barrier of the structure, rising, as if on steps to an attic, in segmented pathways of washed out color and pattern. Her work elicited metaphors for the body, layers of information to be picked apart from a treasure trove of material stratification.
Kyungmin Park’s Double Bubble Trouble provided a refreshing shift from the more serious content in the gallery. In this sculpture, two figures playfully twist and meld with one another in a dance of childlike ardor, creating a suggestively white mess of sticky gum. Exaggerated heads and hands directed the viewer around the smooth piece and connected visually to the similar, though richly dark matte, surface of the clay in Rain Harris’ fragile floral work nearby.
Sometimes souvenirs are internalized, parts of ourselves that are ingested from the events that both build and wear away our identity. Invoking a confederate-flag bearing man and lottery tickets, Roberto Lugo’s Confederate Billy Goat and I used the vessel as a site for poignant storytelling, a surface for anti-racism, the lens through which shone a pinpoint of colored light of dialog about experience and advocacy. Symbols, like those on an identification badge, were situated on the form. Lugo seemed to use the clay, like a school uniform, to fit in, but altered the seams and created a patchwork to represent many rather than a select few.
Overall, the quality of the work left nothing to be desired. Ahlvers described Souvenirs from the Future as a deviation from ceramics shows that he has curated in the past, in that he was able to maintain a higher level of control over its development, from the selection of the work to the arrangement of the space, and to fine tune its pitch and dynamic to create the kind of exhibition that he hoped to compose.
the author Sarah McNutt received her MFA from Kansas State University in Manhattan Kansas, and maintains a studio practice in San Diego, California. To learn more, visit www.sarahmcnutt.com.