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Creative Research Lab

SHADE- August 2005

ceramic installation by Marianne McGrath

Marianne McGrath
Stack (detail), 2005
42" w x 108" h

Catalog Essay by Alex Codlin:

Marianne McGrath's ceramics are based on a set of contradictions: turning liquid slip into a solid, working with a material often used in the manufacture of toilets and sinks to create fragile and delicate ceramics, individually creating unique forms that look like cast multiples, repeating the same process with different results each time, using cheesecloth to create structures despite it ultimately burning out during the firing process. All of these contradictions highlight the importance of both materials and process in McGrath's latest work.

McGrath approaches ceramics through a series of formal problems What forms can she make with different types of clays? How will they dry? How will they fire? Her recent works began with the question of how to make objects using porcelain slip as the primary material. Slip, a difficult substance, requires an additional structure to hold the form or else the slip just slides away into nothing. To keep her work from dissolving, McGrath dips a layer of cheesecloth into slip and then wraps it around a balloon, crumpled up newspaper, or any object whose shape she finds interesting. The cheesecloth acts as a skeleton and it retains the shape of the object that it is wrapped around as the porcelain sits to harden. Once dried, the ceramic goes into the kiln, where blazing temperatures burn the cheesecloth out from the piece, leaving only a ghostly impression of its former presence in the surface of the porcelain. The form could not exist without the cheesecloth, but in the final fired product, it no longer exists at all.

McGrath's entire process takes around a week to create a series of pieces, from a day spent making the slip out of powdered porcelain and water to creating the forms, letting them dry, and finally firing each of them. Different external elements affect every step of the process. Too humid outside? The slip takes a long time to dry. Wind blowing too hard while the ceramics are in the kiln? The fire becomes smoky and affects the finish of the fired piece. Each of these changes in the process leaves a permanent trace on the final product. To the uninformed eye, these differences are too subtle to discern, but for McGrath, she can relive each individual ceramic's experience through her studio with just one glance; this one was made on a humid day and this one was fired with too hot a kiln. For her, these porcelain pieces are the final product and effort of her physically making each one of them; they can not be separated from their creation.

Making becomes a physical part of McGrath's everyday life. She often makes hundreds of the same porcelain form, methodically and repetitively creating shapes that look almost identical, but differ based on the variables in their making and the touch of her hand. After the physical process of creating the ceramics occurs in her studio, an accumulative process begins with the hundreds of forms now becoming part of her studio environment. Different shapes are stacked all around her space a graveyard of bone white delicate forms, brittle to the touch, tucked into every nook and cranny.

It is from this strange collection that McGrath begins to arrange the porcelain pieces in order to exhibit the products of her labor. From the shelves of her studio, she organizes porcelain pods that hang from the wall or ceiling to create a form that mimics the individual shape of each piece, blurring the lines between part and whole, unique and multiple. She stacks other pieces on top of each other, a precarious pile of balls that look ready to fall if you get too close. Some installations include the artist's hand writing on each individual ceramic in black ink which draws the viewer in for closer inspection. The writing itself is unintelligible, a stream of consciousness exercise by McGrath destined to be a secret that only she can decipher. Despite not being able to read her thoughts, such viewing opens up a much more introspective interaction and experience with McGrath's work. Up close, the viewer can begin to distinguish differences between the porcelain shapes and to discern the implied labor and process of each piece. Each work becomes a record of its making, a personal recollection of McGrath's everyday experience that forces the viewer to slow down and contemplate these physical representations of the passage of time.