Those who know Toni Ross as an artist are aware of her attention to detail. Through this article I intend to provide a close-up view of Toni Ross’s ceramic work referred to as Strata, and provide an opportunity for us to see the work and artist in a new perspective. Strata are made of joined pieces of cut ceramic slabs which began as cast-offs from other projects. I tend to think of this technique as Ross’s way of channeling her early experience as a pastry chef. There is a frugality in her studio where nothing goes to waste. Ceramic slab remnants are reincorporated into new work the way excess rolled-out pie dough is reclaimed for the next pie shell. Discussions about clay and food seem natural enough, especially since meals, in general, are served and eaten out of pottery of one type or another. Notions of warmth and sustenance are attached to both. However, the individual sculptural pieces which comprise Ross’s Strata serve an entirely different purpose, they serve the soul.
Strata represent one of Ross’s unique contributions to the art world. The pieces can be contextualized in relationship to other works in her oeuvre and as well as to ancient, modern, and contemporary art forms. From a chronological point of view, Strata came into being in 2016. Her previous and concurrent ceramic works include hand-formed sculptural vessels, archetypal cubes, and archaic stela which have been exhibited selectively at Ricco/Maresca Gallery in New York City and The Drawing Room in East Hampton, NY. While Ross’s artistic development is more organic than linear, and more open to accident and change than to premeditated moves, her work evolves incrementally over time. This results in inter-connectedness among all her pieces. This thread of visual continuity in her work forms the basis of a distinctive artistic language, which is simultaneously visceral and intuitive. As such, it was not surprising to learn that in 2016 Cindy Sherman selected Ross’s April 13 for the Artists Choose Artists exhibition at the Parrish Museum, based on a “gut reaction to the work”.
The piece reads a bit like a life line; a time line with highs and lows, beauty and parts torn asunder.
The emergence of Strata appears as a pivotal, watershed point in Ross’s artistic growth between singular or grouped objects, and that of site-specific sculptural installations. It is not so much that Ross leaves the small and intimate for the large scale, rather her interests continually find expression in new forms. Her process involves material exploration while creating variations in formal composition involving scale, arrangement, and placement relationships. However, these developments emerge from within familiar parameters of her extant visual vocabulary. Consistently throughout her oeuvre, Ross draws attention to formal considerations by means of minutia. She puts a high degree of thought and care into each visual element of her sculptural compositions. This is why her large-scale sculptural installation work, such as Permanent Transience and Sanctuary Entwined, as well as her works within the Strata series, retain their nuanced intimacy.
Strata, which includes Strata #1-#5, April 13, and Justified, are minimalist in nature. They exhibit a stark bareness. Adjoined clay scraps, marked, textured, covered with various slips using stiff brushes, and arranged ever so deliberately, but not quite, provide a simple canvas for form and surface to interact. Strata #1-#5 are arranged vertically on the wall. The vertically stacked horizontal slabs reveal the physical pressure of the making process; segments arc and curve among the straight and narrow. It is intriguing how they are, in some ways, similar to work by Richard Serra. For example, Ross’s act of erasure which creates a central line that cuts through Strata #4 eerily echoes Richard Serra’s Two Cuts, 1971, (unadorned cut steel).