This past week marked the 50th anniversary of Maine contemporary art doyenne June Fitzpatrick’s emigration from England. Fitzpatrick’s space is the leading contemporary gallery in Portland.

What defines the gallery is spare and sophisticated work by artists with mature vision and a penchant for abstraction. And, however familiar it feels, the flavor of the gallery comprises an unusual blend of mid-century modernism and contemporary sensibilities. On one hand, it feels a bit retro, and yet the most cutting-edge contemporary art in Maine has been pushing toward this aesthetic with its eye to concept-driven process and craftsmanship.

So, at this point, it’s not surprising to see ceramics at the Fitzpatrick. Not only because, at 14 years running, the December clay show is the gallery’s most settled annual fixture, but because of the aesthetic: Whether you want to see it as modernist, contemporary, cutting-edge or craft, the organic, hand-formed, well-finished objects fit the visual style of the gallery.

The new craft-as-art conversation is not the same as the post-war American Craft Movement’s focus on raw self-expression. Modernism’s elitism is gone. And the dissolving of the distinction between art and craft is now led by the contemporary art movement rather than by the craft artists.

While I preferred the warmly organic feel of Fitzpatrick’s previous clay shows featuring Warren Mackenzie, Paul Heroux and Sequoia Miller, the 2014 show features two excellent clay artists: Susan Dewsnap and Autumn Cipala. The third element this year is Gary Rattigan, whose oil paintings make for an unfortunate and overly busy addition.

Rattigan’s cloisonné style (thick lines and compartmentalized colors), symmetrical structures and reductively over-saturated palette of black, yellow, white and red reach for the richness of beadwork, enamels or even the scaling patterns of snakes. But the work comes across as too raw (unmediated, unfinished) next to the well-integrated aesthetic program of Dewsnap’s clay vessels. While the combination of the two artists works against Rattigan, four paintings by Dewsnap, a Bates professor who started as a painter, complement the clay. Dewsnap’s paintings first seem to be driven by the decorative line work that defines her clay, but the painterly effort within them lies with the negative space of the work. Rather than painting the background and then putting the swirling linear elements over them, we see the negative space was painted in afterwards, which generally takes far more effort.

This technique also incites a push-pull dialogue that reaches toward the American modernism of greats like Hans Hofmann. More important is how it reflects on Dewsnap’s accompanying clay work.

Her vessels are generally small and highly energized by their vaguely Art Nouveau and Celtic linear elements. Her paintings reveal the technical truth behind their making insofar as linear designs of her high-fire (cone 8, soda-fire) thrown vessels are made by a wax resist method – any part of the vessel not painted with the wax will be covered with a layer of colored slip. This can be repeated for multiple color layers, like batik, except that the potter can specifically apply different colors at the same time. This follows Dewsnap’s paintings, because a resist is a negative-space method.

At its best, Dewsnap’s work reaches past pottery and painting into sculpture. Painting tends to emphasize the surface of objects (which makes it act like decoration) and ceramics have the propensity to be seen as complete objects because of their legibility as set forms (pot, vase, teapot, platter, etc). It’s a particular challenge to achieve satisfying sculpture with common modes of clay. But Dewsnap’s sensitivity to negative space serves her well and her linear elements will often articulate not only the shape of the object, but the relationship between the surface and its 3-D form.

This quality is particularly strong in some of Dewsnap’s low, lidded vessels in the shape of an oblate spheroid (a slightly squashed sphere – like the Earth). Rather than pulling our eyes around them as though reading a map, the forms pull us both over and around at the same time in way that only can be described as sculptural.

The individual strength of Dewsnap’s ceramics, however, makes it harder to see the show. Her vessels are each so visually intense that they don’t play well with each other (and look busy in groups). But this is precisely because they stand so strongly by themselves.

Cipala’s functional glazed porcelain works are an excellent bookend to Dewsnap’s complex sculptural vessels. Subtle, elegant and sophisticated, they take traditional clay forms: plates, bowls, teapots, mugs and so on.

Cipala’s palette leans on monochromatic celadon but stays with very light colors that convey the translucency of the white kaolin clay of porcelain. Her works’ glowing lightness gives them a fine, ethereal and ageless feel.

At times, Cipala relies on crazing (calculated crackling within the glaze) but her physical interactions, as quiet as they are, also offer stunning (though very subtle), hand-sculpted details such as swirling decorative drawing or raised bits that offer both texture and visual punctuation in the glassy surfaces. Most intriguing, however, are the pieces in which she drills holes which are then filled with the clear, vitrified finishing glaze so that the forms remain airtight. And she keeps some of the drilled holes open in the outer lips of platters.

Together, Cipala’s and Dewsnap’s work raises interesting points within the ongoing art-versus-craft conversation. Much recent contemporary art has been consciously – and humbly – pushing itself to the level of craft. And with Dewsnap, we have an artist who has integrated her painterly chops into ceramics instead of using the clay as a backdrop for her painting. In the end, however, it matters less what the artists are trying to do than what the public actually sees: And the public has no problem seeing this work.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland.

Contact him at:

[email protected]