Termini—A Conversation on Death at Cross MacKenzie Gallery, Washington, DC

This show was curious not only in its subject—death is not a common theme in contemporary art—but also in its process of coming into being. I might have been skeptical, but it works. The show is coherent and even moving. It all began with gallery owner Rebecca Cross’s own drawings of medieval weapons, which were presented in the exhibition as a grid of 16 graphite-on-watercolor-paper works on one wall of the small gallery. She chose clubs, knives, flails and more, all implicitly painful forms. Although their brutality is moderated by the serenity of monochrome and by the sensuousness of the rendering, the message is one of effective punishment that would not be nearly so clean in practice as these drawings are in execution. They hang on the wall like bad dreams, disturbingly seductive.

Cross was introduced to the work of English ceramist Julian Stair by Abraham Thomas, the new curator-in-charge of the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, who was formerly based in London. Stair is the rare ceramist who has long given attention to cinerary jars, so in a sense his thrown-and-constructed works are the heart, or the pivot-point, of the show. These jars have a stoic sobriety with an emphasis on the wall face that evokes deliberation and construction and gives them the eternality of a mastaba. One might almost think of them as impassive, except that each retains a tiny curl of clay at the seam where the parts were joined horizontally. It is tender and vulnerable. It speaks of process but not in a technical way, suggesting merely that the parts have been touched. And protected.

They hang on the wall like bad dreams, disturbingly seductive.