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Untitled, 2002
© Ruth Duckworth 2002

Ruth Duckworth: Modernist Sculptor

April 30 - July 10, 2005

Chicago Cultural Center
78 E. Washington
Chicago, IL 60602
tel.: 312-744-6630
hours: Mon-Wed 10a-7p, Thu 10a-7p,
Fri 10a-6p, Sat 10a-5p, Sun 11a-5p

This is a modest retrospective -- only eighty-five pieces from a career spanning over six decades -- but the vigor, grace and consummate skill of Duckworth's unique sculptural work make it well worth seeing. The Chicago-based artist who brought ceramic work into its own as a legitimate medium for sculpture, particularly in the realm of organic modernism, is celebrated in Ruth Duckworth: Modernist Sculptor, a touring exhibition on display at the Chicago Cultural Center through July 10, 2005. These are sleek and wonderful pieces, striking in both concept, and in the mastery of their making.

The works display Duckworth's virtuoso handling of two very differing branches of ceramic medium, stoneware and porcelain, in evoking a minimalist and often abstract aesthetic. From stoneware's earthy roughness the artist draws statements of solidity, a stable, massed beauty, as in the artist's signature "mama pots", two smaller examples of which are on exhibition. From porcelain, demanding and fine, she creates shapes of luminous elegance, at times a thorough commingling of the impeccably modern and overtones of a primordial, alien grace. Untitled (porcelain: 2002) has the remoteness and power of a propritiatory figure, a sense of spiritual distance evoked by the bird's posture and the smooth porcelain surface. The perfection of finish on which light revels, luminous, glancing off, is counterbalanced by massive, anchoring thighs. With sources of inspiration as diverse as natural seed forms and Bronze Age fertility figures, Duckworth creates an art that is abstract and compelling: one knows the shapes have come from somewhere, guided by the artist's inner clarity and imaginative sense; at times the source is tantalizingly just beyond cognizance.

Selections from the artist's "cup and blade" series present the modest elegance of a Japanese teacup shape, pared to its essence, minimal, rounded and contained, bisected with the thinnest, fragile knife-edged wafer of porcelain. The accompanying exhibition catalogue notes this body of work as a dialogue between spirit and matter; one might also see it as a contrast between attributes male and female. But the pieces are, arguably, deep pleasures simply in themselves, free of any textual context, simply for their deft handling of the delicate porcelain medium and their contrasting themes of lightness, of the rounded, incurved restraint of the 'cup' balanced by the sharp, almost two-dimensional tautness of the thin-edged 'blade'.

The exhibition pamphlet describes the work as presented chronologically, but the actual groupings seem based more on shaping and affinity rather than time period, with comminglings of works from a variety of decades. It is no less well-presented for all that: the work is coherent in force and vigor across the years, with a satisfying variety of experimentation and the presentation of a number of themes and forms. In addition to the free-standing sculptures, several of the artist's ceramic wall hangings are included, built outward from the wall in laminate layers, curves and crevices, the suggestion of hidden, inner volumes. (At times the shapes and composition are reminiscent of some of the 1960s wall constructions of Lee Bontecou.) Maquettes for several of the artist's public mural commissions are also featured, including Duckworth's monumental ceramic mural Clouds Over Lake Michigan (1974), in which Chicago, visualized as a pre-Colombian city, is seen from the unique perspective of an aerial vantage point, with concentric ridges of porcelain appearing as floating clouds over the distant aggregation of buildings. Ambitious in both size and conception, Clouds Over Lake Michigan is one of several public Duckworth sculptures in the Chicago area, located in the lobby of the 400 South LaSalle Street building in downtown Chicago.

A thirty-minute video presentation, on display in a small theatre at the far end of the exhibition hall, features an extended interview with Ms. Duckworth, held in her studio and elsewhere, and interspersed with photographs of a variety of her projects and pieces. In addition to artistic insights and biographical information, a few scenes show her working with her chosen medium: strong fingers, smoothing with a scraper some porcelain fineness to a perfection of finish, or kneading the dense clay of stoneware, give a glimpse into just how physical the demands of ceramics are. In the interview, Duckworth describes some of her working method. "When I'm working I try not to think," she states. "I want it to flow out by itself... My unconscious is controlling it. I spent years learning how to let that happen, just let it come up." In a time when so much of modern art wishes to simply discard the academic tradition and simply go with the unconscious promptings, Duckworth's work is a superb example of the disciplines of training, kept honed and sharp, and entrained with that innate intuition the artist possesses.

Though modest in size, this important exhibition is an excellent introduction to the landmark ceramic and sculptural work of the 86-year-old artist, who lives and works in Chicago. This is modern art as it should be, from a skilled and dedicated artist. It is a distinct pleasure. The touring exhibition of Ruth Duckworth - Modernist Sculptor will be at the Chicago Cultural Center through July 10, 2005.

Accompanying the exhibition is a 162-page catalogue entitled Ruth Duckworth - Modernist Sculptor. Available in the Cultural Center's gift shop ($60) it includes color and black-and-white images of items in the exhibition as well as an extensive discussion of the artist's work. Videotapes of the thirty-minute interview, Ruth Duckworth: A Life In Clay are also available for purchase ($14.95) at the gift shop. The exhibition Ruth Duckworth: Modernist Sculptor is on a two-year tour of the United States, scheduled to end January 2007 at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

--Katherine Rook Lieber

Katherine Rook Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual Arts reviews since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Editor and Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.

Editorial Note: Ruth Duckworth - Modernist Sculptor, and other books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews, may be purchased through this site's Amazon.com link or by clicking on the link above.

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