When looking at Betty Woodman’s ceramics, something magical happens. Of Botticelli (2013), for instance, is a mural made of flat, glazed pieces, which at first seem to form a line of boldly painted Corinthian columns wrapped in vines and topped by urns. But, look again, and figures of goddesses appear to be daintily forming a dance line, recalling early-Renaissance painting as well as modernist set design. The earthenware fragments also loosely resemble characters that might have jumped straight from a Carlo Collodi tale (the Florentine author of The Adventures of Pinocchio, 1883).
Curated by Vincenzo de Bellis, the exhibition at Museo Marino Marini, which travels to London’s ICA in February, focuses on the last ten years or so of Woodman’s extraordinary, multifaceted practice. Since the 1950s, Woodman, who lives between New York and Antella, a village in the countryside near Florence, has created a unique formal language that allows her to move freely between styles, references and genres, while remaining true to her first love, ceramics: a material that she has reinvented for herself many times over. The vase is Woodman’s favourite subject. She modulates its function and shape, often adding flat, wing-like pieces to extend the decorative surface.
The vase is both sculpture and support for the artist’s vibrant painted forms and colours. Inspired by Aztec arts and crafts, Aztec Vase and Carpet 1 (2012) is made of glazed earthenware, lacquer and acrylic paint, adorned with loosely painted geometric patterns, floral motifs and Greek vase designs. It rests on a canvas bearing geometric motifs which, placed on the floor, becomes a ‘rug’.
In a classic modernist vein, Woodman sees no difference between a domestic object such as a carpet and an art object. Posing with Vases at the Beach (2008) consists of two vases – made of glazed earthenware, epoxy resin, lacquer and paint – but their ‘wings’ are wide enough that, placed side by side, they become a kind of free-standing diptych tableau, depicting two female nudes posing with vases at the beach, evoking the colours and compositions of Pierre Bonnard.
In another series, the artist, inspired by Roman frescos, plays on the relation between inside and outside space. Nina’s Room (2011) is a collage of sorts made of a large canvas depicting multiple views of an interior space, onto the surface of which the artist applied ceramic fragments and a vase.
Overall, the exhibition gives you the sense that things are always more than they seem. The main exhibition space, a basement crypt, does not easily accommodate the exuberance of the work. But the Museo Marino Marini – which is amongst those privately funded institutions with relatively limited budgets trying to make up for the lack of publically funded art spaces in Italy – and its director, Alberto Salvadori, should be commended for giving a platform to Woodman’s engaging, brilliant work.
What is so refreshing about Woodman’s practice – and what makes it feel so relevant today – is not just the uncontestable fact that it defies boundaries and genres, but its unique ability to reinvent and challenge the grammar of art and craft, as well as its own physical surroundings.