In a new solo exhibition, artist Annabeth Rosen sculpts beauty from messy, heavy and broken things
Sacramento, CA 95814
Clay is the crudest of artistic materials, and one of the most ancient.
Pulled directly from the earth, it’s formed over eons by the gradual chemical weathering of rocks and has been mined and used by humans for functional and decorative purposes since around 10,000 B.C.
Clay is heavy, it’s messy, it’s wet. It’s difficult to work with: It bubbles and it breaks and, if fired incorrectly, may even explode.
Yet UC Davis professor and artist Annabeth Rosen is in love with this material. In her hands, it is sculpted into shapes which are assembled into structures that appear light and buoyant. Her studio on the UC Davis campus is heaped with festive, colorful clay objects that almost seem to bobble and jostle like balloons; one can imagine them floating up into the air.
Rosen’s exhibited widely and regularly in her career, from Taipei, China, to Tucson, Arizona, and has work featured in the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Crocker Art Museum, among other locations. She’s also been featured in The New York Times, Art in America and American Ceramics (the latter in a piece written by esteemed New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl, no less) and has held the Robert Arneson Endowed Chair in Ceramic Sculpture at UC Davis since 1997. She hasn’t, however, exhibited in a Sacramento group show since 2005, and her last area solo show dates back to 1999.
But Rosen finally returns to the local scene with her solo exhibition Common Bond, October 2 through October 21, at the Center for Contemporary Art, Sacramento.
A petite woman with a warm and dynamic demeanor, Rosen sits curled up on a stool in her hot, cluttered studio and speaks eloquently about her art, her speech tinged with the New York accent she’s retained from her East Coast upbringing.
When asked why clay’s been her chosen medium since she took a childhood ceramics class, Rosen responds by plucking a ceramic piece from a pile of like objects. The piece is lumpy; small, yet surprisingly heavy, and resembles a wilted bowling pin, glazed in drippy candy stripes of cobalt blue and white.
“Look at that!” she exclaims while cradling the object. “You can’t beat that. That’s beautiful, right? Frozen in time—this thing that was this soft, mushy lump of shit … all of the sudden, it’s this hard, shiny beautiful thing.”
Rosen then quickly corrects her own assertion to note that this “sudden” occurrence is actually a process that took weeks to complete, due to its time-consuming nature of shaping, firing and glazing clay.
Another lengthy aspect of said process is Rosen’s inclusion of broken pieces of already-fired ceramic in her sculptures.
Why break the pieces?
For Rosen, it’s part of the journey: finding a piece of broken dish or shell on the beach and turning it into treasure. Once, she says, she visited a museum in Korea that was filled only with ancient pottery shards.
When she breaks something, Rosen explains, “I just think I could make it better.”
Rosen’s studio is very warm—she notes that when she first started at Davis in 1997, the space wasn’t even air-conditioned. Rosen offers a visitor a drink, but fails to locate a cup and, instead, resorts to offering up a room-temperature ginger ale.
When the comic juxtaposition of a ceramicist surrounded by thousands of pounds of her work who can’t find a drinking cup is pointed out, Rosen protests that she does occasionally make functional pieces, and that she has great admiration for those who specialize in such art.
But, instead of an exquisite cup or a perfect bowl, Rosen creates sculptures out of small ceramic objects, pressed into cubes or lashed together with wire, or constrained within wheeled frames or perched on metal platforms, “like circus cats.”
The word probably most often associated with Rosen’s work in press is “exuberant,” and biological images such as snakes, gourds or even intestines are often evoked in her twisted, tubal shapes. When she’s making art, however, Rosen says she doesn’t work with such images in mind.
“Like a lot of artists, I think I abstract from the world around me,” Rosen says. “But it’s not really a particular language; it’s not a narrative or illustrative discussion.”
A more direct association between outside influence and her art formed in the aftermath of September 11 when, Rosen says, she acutely felt the separation from friends and family on the East Coast. In the months following the attack, her work became drained of all color as Rosen poured white over everything, echoing the ghostly, ash-covered figures and buildings in those haunting images from lower Manhattan. As time passed, Rosen resumed the ebb and flow of her experimentation with color, using her signature acid greens and yellows, now sometimes intermixed with deep blues and incendiary reds.
Youngsuk Suh, a UC Davis professor of photography, curated Rosen’s CCAS show, which consists of ceramic sculptures and large-scale acrylic, gouache and ink drawings.
“[I] was very moved by the liveliness of the work, and also at the same time, the sense of weight … that goes with this light liveliness of her sculpture,” says Suh.
“Ceramic sculpture has always been associated with something that’s very static and more stationary, but her work is very much about movement, and she kind of defies gravity.”
The predominance of drawing in the show is unusual for Rosen, although she’s always drawn. At some point, Rosen says, she realized that the ideas reflected in her drawings tend to presage her ceramic works by two or three years.
Musing, somewhat wearily on the future of her art after a long and fulfilling career, Rosen is clearly attracted to the idea of someday leaving the difficulties of ceramics behind and, in flight of fancy, contemplates a different life studying languages, gardening or even becoming a baker.
Still, it’s hard to take her seriously when Rosen immediately switches subjects and begins again to rhapsodize about working with clay:
“It still holds my interest,” she says. “It’s still the thing I want to do when I wake up in the morning. I’m not really sure why. It’s kind of unfathomable and infinite, and I just love it. “