One could hardly ask for a better exhibit title than the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild’s Pageant of Inconceivables, a collection of ceramic works “that operate/act as inner portraits rather than solely functional objects” according to curators Portia Munson and Katherine Umsted, opening at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts on Saturday, June 9.
Then again, one could hardly think of a better way to celebrate the legacy of one of this fine exhibition’s key artists, the late Stella Chasteen, who passed away at 80 this past winter.
“Exploring themes of empathy and humanity, Pageant of Inconceivables unites subtle evocations of the figurative, transforming the gallery into a procession of unpredictable beauty,” note Munson and Umsted of the exhibition’s focus on clay and anthropomorphized imagery in the works of top artists working with the medium including Bill Adams, Ann Agee, Joan Bankemper, Mary Carlson, Alice Mackler, Dan McCarthy, Eva Melas, Rebecca Morgan, Kathy Ruttenberg, Sally Saul, Arlene Shechet, Elise Siegel, Jessica Stoller, Arnie Zimmerman, and Chasteen. “Through the materials and traditions of ceramics, Pageant of Inconceivables demonstrates the depth to which personal narrative and expression can be taken.”
Stella Chasteen, who moved to Woodstock from L.A. decades ago, and maintained a private life that included special invitations to a Wellfleet getaway for close friends, was a former board member of the Guild, and major supporter of all the arts in the area. According to her longtime buddy Michael Perkins, who once wrote in these pages about visiting her one year in Mexico, she felt influence from Bosch and Brueghel, and was “a Scot who studied with Lucian Freud at the Slade School in London.”
“We should not forget that every artist’s career begins as play — the primal encounter with the material world that is so tactilely satisfying that it must be pursued, often by default, into the realms of ‘art.’ Meaning is secondary to this excitement of getting one’s hands in clay, or the contents of a paintbox, and fashioning Something from Nothing,” Perkins wrote of Chasteen. “Something in Stella Chasteen’s case is a series of ceramic sculptures that offer a moral vision of the world that is playful, profoundly witty, and many shades darker than we are used to seeing in fired clay. There is no need to look for hidden meanings here: her work is what it seems, the artist asserts. It is up to us to decide if we will confront it, or turn away.”
Like so many in this show, the late Stella started in other mediums and shifted later in life.
“It was so wonderful to make art that is actual,” she said of her discovery of clay. “Instead of painting the illusion of three dimensions on canvas, I could create three dimensional figures.”
The company this one-time curator of sterling Kleinert/James shows is now surrounded by stretches and complements all that Chasteen accomplished over her life. Among the blockbusters here, which are many, are Shechet’s organic abstractions, Ruttenberg’s wildly accomplished fantasias, Agee’s meditative takes on Delft histories, and Melas’ wildly specific witticisms. Everything has a tinge of dark play to it, but also the utmost professionalism that demonstrates this medium’s rise into the most astute and contemporary of art forms.
It’s an inconceivably fine exhibit, as well as a fine pageant for one of our great artists, both local and national, that’s properly beyond the elegiac.
Pageant of Inconceivables, which will run through August 5, opens with an artist’s reception 4 p.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, June 9 at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts, 36 Tinker Street in the center of Woodstock. Call 679-2079 or see woodstockguild.org for further information.