There are bears and then there are bears. Similarly, there is ceramics and then there is the work of Erik Scollon. The Urge, Scollon's solo show at Ping Pong Gallery, exploits every last available tension between craft and art, not to mention high culture and low, original and multiple, vessel and anti-vessel. The Urge turns on so many of these puns and oppositions that it's a little dizzying, but the end results are coherent and playful, ultimately challenging our concept of where the erotic and the everyday intersect.
The Urge contains fifty or so works in porcelain, handpainted with cobalt and luster in a manner reminiscent of Delftware, a style of Dutch ceramics whose blue-on-white aesthetics should be familiar even if you consider yourself ceramics-illiterate. The forms on display should also be familiar: wide, blank-faced male figures with bulbous feet and bulging crotches, collared gimp masks, and forearms that rise into clenched fists. Peppered by upright bears and straight-edged vases, it's impossible to miss the references to a specific subset of gay, male culture, but the questions that came up for me as I walked through were a lot more universal.
The figurines are installed on shelves, creating a series of vignettes. At the moment, I'm keen on "Golden Ornament Bear" (2010), who shares the shelf with "Hairy Gimp" (2010) and "Bear Gimp Hood" (2010). The pieces are interactive; you can actually place the hood on the gimp, creating a 3-dimensional diptych that pairs man-bear with bear-bear. Or you could remove "Golden Ornament Bear" and transform it by placing it in another context, like your grandmother's collection of kitsch.
This is the show's strength: showcasing how easily and naturally such slippages in meaning occur. Suggestively shaped figurines look like upside-down vases, used to fill space instead of provide it. Tight, realistic detail is paired with looser, more generic detail, as with "Collected Cleaned and Displayed in Ostentatious Palaces" (2010) -- a clenched fist covered with flower decals and gold-stenciled jewelery -- or "The Cursed Princess" (2010), a gimp figure wearing a flowered-pattern dress.
There's another conversation on display here, as well. Modernism, to which so much contemporary art owes a debt, had a complicated relationship with ornamentation. At its peak, the preference was for transparency, which was aligned with purity and intellectualism, sometimes in frighteningly racist and sexist ways. Scollon deserves hefty props for continuing to intelligently confront these conventions in such a light-hearted and evocative way.
The Urge is on display at Ping Pong Gallery in San Francisco until August 14, 2010. For more information visit pingponggallery.com.