Animal / Vegetal / Mineral:
The Ceramic Sculpture and Drawings of Matt Wedel
Animal / Vegetal / Mineral: it is conceivable that one could recreate much of the material world as we know it from these three classic categories.
Matt Wedel is in his mid 20s but has completed his formal education and has, in a very short time, created a formidable body of work totaling perhaps 100 life- and over life-size figures, plants and animals in ceramics. The development of Wedel's early figural work was, among other things, informed by studying the select histories of both European figural painting and sculpture. He has chosen minimally rendered children as his primary subject matter, making them curiously adult in scale and preoccupation.
While his botanical forms are related to what we know about plants and flowers, they, like the figural works, are large and fluid with simple but powerfully saturated ceramic color, some as though soaked and dripping with a surreal nectar. But unlike the figuration, many of these floral forms are intensely detailed and suggest that they come from places that we do not know. They are in many respects otherworldly, the powerful products of imagination and desire. Wedel's animal forms are varied: cows, dogs, cats and horses that are tenderly real and from life. Wedel has also created an assortment of mythical beasts.
The human, animal and botanical forms, at times placed in tandem, are typically built atop a dynamic crystalline structure. This places them on an extraordinary bedrock. The crystalline Giotto-esque rock forms are anything but mundane structural devices used to stabilize what rests above. These pediments are frequently over-scaled, dramatic and symbolic. They lend an air of the supernatural and heroic to the forms that grace them.
Clay or mud is an art-making material notable for its overt connections to stories, mythologies and scientific accounts from around the world related to the creation of life. At times, this places some who make from clay in the distant but oddly connected position of being "creators". Artists like Wedel seem intent on recreating the world: Animal / Vegetal / Mineral.
Every once in a while there is a potent coming together of artist, materials & process. As is evident in his work, Wedel is interested in remarkable ceramic outcomes. Although he holds two university degrees in art, there are ways in which he is, to his credit, innately autodidactic.
One factor that truly separates ceramic materials from most other art-making materials is its transformation by extreme heat. There are constant shifts in the work throughout the process of making: in scale, color, hardness and form. This has a tendency of derailing the best of artistic intentions. (As if making art weren't already hard enough!)
This is all to say that in order to create with ceramic materials one needs to be in solid possession of a curious set of impulses, directives and tactics for success, not to mention great reserves of physical energy. It requires that one be, in varying degrees, alchemist and scientist with a trace of shaman. In other words, both an empirical and intuitive being.
For those who create with clay, compromise is necessary if not fundamental to the process of successfully completing anything. Occasionally, artists come along in our field who never got that message or who want to make the unimaginable and are willing to fight the fight of constantly negotiating concessions. Wedel welcomes the problems that come naturally with the phenomenology of ceramic materials. What is unknowable or uncontrollable in the process presents unforeseen opportunities. In his hands, the inevitability of technical failure - and in fact all of the problem-solving that one must do to complete large-scale works of ceramic art - is followed by invention. It is evident that Wedel finds problem-solving very energizing.
Perhaps the largest single difference between ceramic sculpture and drawing, beyond the obvious 2D / 3D split, is gravity. It is an ever present force in the world of a ceramic sculptor and a frequent game-changer when one thinks about what one can make, fire and move on a large scale. Drawing can release a sculptor from the surly bonds of gravity and make it possible to quickly test and play with different sets of ideas in the way that forms relate to one another in space. Additionally, drawing for Matt allows him to work with less forethought and planning and to adopt an invent-as-you-go art-making strategy. Intense ceramic color is of great interest to the artist but painting color on paper and applying glaze on a ceramic surface and then firing it are worlds apart. Drawing and painting allow Matt to study how colors behave and influence the perception of form. Firing ceramic glazes is alchemical, flirtatious and risky. It allows for unexpected outcomes. It casts the artist as collaborator with the forces of nature.
Matt takes liberties with form relationships in his drawing that clay does not encourage and this has begun to change his ceramic sculpture.
There is clearly a shift in the figural work presented in this exhibition. It is in part an indication of the maturation of a young artist but also, I think, a move away from the overt influence of art historical models that he had relayed on in the earlier work. The figural work in this exhibition is more like the early floral sculptures, a product of a risk-taker with a dreamy, ambitious imagination. The new floral works are likewise more radical and dynamic There is not, to my knowledge, a great deal of precedent in the history of contemporary ceramic art for Matt's work. He is essentially competing with his past work as he moves forward.
The practice of ceramics encourages compromise and is punishing for risk-takers. Matt has in fact become less cautious and continues to push boundaries with urgency as a prolific creator.