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Monday, October 21, 2013

Edmund de Waal's Atemwende

Atemwende (“breathturn”), Edmund de Waal's show at the Gagosian gallery, which takes its title from Paul Celan’s 1967 collection of poetry, is "the moment when words transcend literal meaning."

The author of The Hare with the Amber Eyes, de Waal has established himself as a gifted writer. I only realized he was a visual artist after coming across a reference to his artwork while reading the book and then Googling him. Aside from being impressed with his work, I was also struck by, though markedly different, how similar it was to the family collection of netsuke that forms the basis of his extraordinary family memoir.

For the Gagosian show, de Waal has produced a series of vitrines in which porcelain vessels in various groupings are placed. Painted white or black, the vitrines are either narrow rectangles, squares or large bookshelf-like pieces. The vessels are cylindrical, mostly the size of a shell cartridge, though some are wider and shorter. Their surfaces ranges from lustrous to matte and colors from white to pale celadon, to pale wheat to a gunmetal black. They are mostly smooth, but some are pitted. Having worked for Eva Zeisel back in the '80s, I know a thing or two about porcelain and I had to admire the quality of de Waal's—its thinness, its color and its lovely glazes.

My favorite pieces featured a deep rectangular vitrine with two "rows" of randomly arranged cylinders, one set up behind a translucent material that blurred them so that they appeared like shadows. There were also actual shadows, so in fact three different versions of the cylinders were visible. They made me ponder notions of presence and absence.

I also was drawn to some of the squares, especially the black ones, which had beautiful, subtly metallic backdrops against which the vessels were placed.

de Waal's work is austerely beautiful, as calming to look at as it must have been to make. All these individual hand thrown pieces...one imagines de Waal toiling in this endlessly repetitive fashion and reaching a kind of Nirvana in the process.

Though manmade, there is something organic about the vessels; they seem to have much more in common with bones, seashells and eggshells than vases and tea sets. And while the vitrines made me think of Donald Judd, de Waal's rough, handmade quality was very different from Judd's sleek hermeticism. de Waal embraces craft and his work represents a wonderfully recondite marriage between it and high art.

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