In a state brimming over with pottery, figurative ceramicist Catherine Thornton stands out. Thornton’s whimsical clay and metal sculptures are presented in her first local one-person show, You Can’t Get There From Here, on view at the up-front gallery at Artspace in Raleigh. A dog pushes his pig-nose into the concave hair of a woman experiencing angst. His near-lurid red “tail” emerges in curious excitement. A piece like this would most likely be from a just-graduated 20-something art student, but it’s not. Thornton’s humorous–or even sexy–take definitely is not what you would expect from a middle-aged North Carolina ceramics artist.
“The angst piece has split up! They’re not talking to each other, but they got over it fast,” Thornton says. “Now it’s two pieces: ‘Angst’ and ‘Dog,’ and it looks like they’ll remain separated unless someone has the nerve to reunite them in their house.” It also resonates with the pop icon of RCA Victor’s old trademark dog and Victrola and the slogan “His Master’s Voice.”
Thornton is a self-described people watcher who loves to take risks, make people laugh and stand near enough to viewers to hear what they are saying about her inadvertently controversial clay and metal sculptures.
Her art has a youthful spirit, but she waited for her children to grow up before heading back to art school, and then waited another 10 years before presenting her work to the public.
“My philosophy is, the first person we need to laugh at is ourselves,” Thornton says. “They’ve done scientific testing and found that laughter is good for your heart, so I hope that once in a while people find humor in my art.”
Imagine a blue eyeball staring back at you from the bottom of a brushed metal funnel. Surrounding the eyeball is thin mesh, making a strainer that would catch the thicker parts of liquid as they pass the eye. Attached to the thin end of the funnel is a foot-long piece of bendable industrial metal tubing with a human figure corked-in opposite the funnel. Unusual, but not quite unusual enough for the creative mind of Thornton, so she supports this floating contraption with a thorny stick that pokes through the tube with a distressed head attached to the top. Now add a twist of thin copper tubing sprouting out the back of the human cork, and voila, “Utility Funnel with Strainer.”
“I majored in painting at Longwood College, but took mostly ceramics classes. I was able to fool around with clay as a child because my grandmother was a ceramicist. The challenge in three-dimensional work is that it has to look right from any direction,” Thornton says from behind her workbench in studio 107 at Artspace.
She says she moved an average of once every 18 months as the daughter of a troubleshooting Air Force colonel. She found that being the class clown was a quick way to make new friends, yet she was shy about presenting her artwork.
“Five years ago I went to the Penland School and took classes with Sergei Isupov. He was flamboyant, and his work was so good, you would figure he would be a bad teacher. Yet he always took the time to make sure students accomplished their goals,” Thornton says. “He was a confidence builder. I knew I was ready to be a full-time artist after being with him.”
Her magic is in the facial expressions contained in even the smallest human figures. Some of that is lost in “Too Little, Too Late,” an almost life-sized character with less stress, less humor and less personal intrigue than her smaller works.
In “Cubby Hole,” different body parts reach out of small holes, seeking escape (or salvation). A rear end with one leg out but the other still grappling with the smallness of the escape hole is funny. But in the same work, one head is content to stay under the wave of constriction, while another, wide-eyed, is desperate to get out. Three solo hands pointing in different directions seem to be making the sound of the Buddhist “one hand clapping.”
“People saw that piece right after the tsunami and were distraught over it. I saw it as a humor piece,” Thornton says.
Thornton’s extensive research has produced top-notch glazing and staining techniques that are evident in pieces like “Expert Analysts,” where three male pundits mock their real-life comrades by making decisions based on a game of rock, scissors, paper.
“New to this show are the metal pieces. I like to use scrap metal and look at it for days trying to find out what it is telling me to do,” Thornton says. “I love chrome. Remember all the chrome on the old cars? With metal there are always different shades being made depending on which angle you look at it from. The way metal plays with light makes one piece into many pieces. My next drive will be to do an entirely metal show.”
You have to work harder in her first few metal explorations to find the full-blown stories seen in the clay pieces, but there is merit in the effect she is getting by using soldering creatively.
“Don’t you think that artists on the craft side hang around junk yards, dig through dumpsters and traipse through the woods to find new material? I’ve been hanging out at Robert Starnes’ welding shop. He’s helped me pick pieces of scrap and taught me a few welding tricks,” Thornton says.
She is comfortable making human/ mechanical contraptions with heads for bows and wheels for feet. Her surreal flair is also seen when small bodies sprout out of the top of busts where heads should be.
The classic lines of “Pandora’s Box” show Thornton’s control of clay and ability as a drawer, with the free-form Japanese-dressed Pandora leaving rounded shadows on the wall. The small box built into the torso could be used to hide a special piece of jewelry. This dash of functional surrealism might remind you of the dressers Salvador Dali made.
The exhibit has elements of installation, Gertrude Stein blabber poetry, assemblage and functionality. Perhaps that is appropriate for an artist whose curiosity is matched by her complexity.
You Can’t Get There From Here runs through March 26 and then can be seen–at least in part–in studio 107 at Artspace, 201 E. Davie St., Raleigh. Call 821-2787 or visit www.catherinethornton.com for more information.