Marie Woo Clay Odyssey: A Retrospective at Birmingham Bloomfield Art Centre

Janet Koplos Ceramics Art + Perception 109 2018 Art + Perception Home

This retrospective exhibition was, in an unexpected way, a glimpse of another time and a different mindset. Marie Woo (b. 1928), active in ceramics since the 1950s and a noted teacher and curator in addition to being an active creative artist, is not the career-oriented, technically masterful potter of today.

In this show, the 52 works were untitled and, more shocking, undated – other than a few labeled with a decade. Woo didn’t keep records but just enjoyed the engagement with the material and experimentation with form. And she still does. New works in the show were unfired because her kiln isn’t working; she treated that not as a limitation but as an opportunity to be playful. Small nodules of bright blue clay were adhered to wires hanging from a bamboo rod, like some odd spring buds; a chicken-wire cylinder was stuffed with ceramic rejects and topped with a bouquet of fine bamboo branches from her yard (both examples of clean-up and repurposing); a dome-shaped piece that stood out for near-fluorescent coloring was, in fact, painted.

To look over the entire selection gave a sense of Woo’s successive interests. It was possible to approach the whole by mapping out a chronology from those few that were dated, loose as it was – more reliable as a sequence of styles than as precise dates, but confused by her return to certain forms. Possibly the earliest work in the show, dating from the ‘50s, was a classic weed-pot shape: so full it was nearly spherical, then constricted by a narrow neck. It was among the sleekest, most conventionally finished works. Woo was one of the early postwar travelers to Japan and, with the aid of Kaneshige Toyo, a Living National Treasure, she spent time working at Bizen. A dark, paddled, triangular bottle and a small round covered box, dated ‘60s, came out of that experience.

Woo was one of the early postwar travelers to Japan, and with the aid of Kaneshige Toyo, a Living National Treasure, she spent time working at Bizen. A dark, paddled, triangular bottle and a small round covered box, dated ‘60s, came out of that experience.

There were two tall white bottles from the ‘70s with ears that might be better characterized as fledgling wings. A gracefully formed shape with shoulders and a cylindrical attached neck – a conventional vase shape – had a warm tone. The taller of the two was a cooler white and tapered slightly from base to rim; it was made in three parts with an almost insouciant disinclination to smooth the joins. Both vessels were thick and had a muscular quality. They were certain in their stance. The ears/wings were pinched, raggedy, disproportionate and feisty.

The largest vessel in the show, assigned to the ‘80s by the checklist but possibly as early as 1975, recorded an impressive feat of energy, since Woo is not a large woman. Stoneware and 22 inches tall, it rose from an inelegant pancake of a base to a modest shoulder bulge and then an inward slope that was extended by an attached neck tall enough to seem chimney-like. The massive whole recalled some works of Voulkos, whom Woo identifies as an important influence. The vessel was horizontally scarred with powerful free gestures, although the dominant movement was up (with that stretching neck) and down (dense rivulets of dark green ash glaze on the paler-green body). Also identified as being from the ‘80s was a square tile treated as a painting, with pebbly dark patches that evoked the abstract paintings of Adolph Gottlieb.

It was frustrating, for this viewer at least, to see such a range of work and barely be able to mentally organize it because of the lack of dates. The Art Center, not staffed to do museum-type research, took what information Woo was willing to provide, and that was not much. No materials, no firing methods, no glazes, no locations were specified on the checklist. This is a project crying out for a graduate student with the time and inclination to diligence. Woo may be the low-key type not interested in promoting her work nor in recording data, but someone should be thinking about the historical record, and it would be far easier to document the work with Woo still available. An attractive catalog accompanied the show. It included an artist’s statement, a brief biography (also completely lacking dates!), a poetic essay (by Elizabeth L. Orear), and photos of works as well as candids from Woo’s life, which were artfully arranged but as lacking in identification as a home photo album. (I remember seeing a whole book about Toshiko Takaezu’s work that was frustrating in exactly the same way.)

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