Marva Lee Pitchford Jolly

at Satori, through March 31

Mark Maher: Color Xerox Icons

at Aron Packer, through March 29

By Fred Camper

Since the industrial revolution, factory labor and advances in technology have increasingly disconnected culture from community and from the land. Modernist and postmodernist artists have responded by accepting the rift between art making and community, celebrating cultural disunity and individualism through abstraction and the improbable combinations of collage. But a smaller group of artists, expressing a yearning for community, make works that seem to arise from a traditional culture and have a use within that culture–even though they’re strictly aesthetic objects and the culture is largely invented. The ceramic pots Marva Lee Pitchford Jolly makes may have holes, but they evoke vessels intended to hold seeds; Mark Maher’s icons hang in no church, but at first glance it seems they could.

Jolly, a self-taught artist represented by 20 ceramic objects and 15 works on paper at Satori, is a Chicagoan with roots in the rural south. Born in 1937 in Crenshaw, Mississippi, she’s been making art since 1982; formative influences were farm life, her mother’s quilts, and “the spiritual energy of African-American women.” Jolly, who says her ceramics have roots in the mud pies she made as a child, also speaks of “the spirit and beauty of the countryside” and her “realization that the earth contained an abundance of all things that were somehow connected and thus could not be circumscribed by racial segregation.”

Jolly’s “story pots” are rough, imperfect vessels as much as two feet high, decorated with figurative designs and often filled with intentional cracks. The designs recall the directness and simplicity of children’s drawings and of some outsider art, while the pots’ irregularities at first suggest a beginning ceramist. But they also evoke the organic integrity of nature, and the figures proceeding around them have some of the dignity of a classical frieze. Borrowing from many sources, Jolly creates works whose peculiar mix of energy and charm, of gentleness and force is unlike anything I’ve seen before. Their surfaces reflect her hand; though their designs seem traditional, in fact she’s blended influences to create a “tradition” entirely her own.

The figures on Getting Ready for School, a near cylinder that gradually widens to an open top, are dressed in a variety of bright clothes, but their dark faces are almost featureless; individual identity here is subsumed by the group. In Graduation Day tall figures wear dark caps and gowns, which blend with their skin; smaller figures in bright outfits, presumably guests, make the graduates seem solemn, dignified, almost heroic. These are less depictions of individuals than of participants in the key communal ceremonies commemorated by these objects.

The cracks in Jolly’s pots, their rough edges, their often splotchy colors, and their frequently irregular designs–Graduation Day, for example, includes graffitilike lines that sometimes evoke buildings–startlingly integrate subject and form: it’s as if Jolly were equating the irregularities of handmade pots with those of the human figure. Her ceramic portrait heads, however, at first seem to celebrate individuality; the facial features in a piece like Jamesetta are precisely outlined, especially compared to the story-pot figures. These are not solid Western busts, however, but hollow ceramic faces, perhaps recalling tribal masks. And despite some differences in facial expression, individuals and their emotions are not the primary subject. Instead one notices the strange, long necks that act as bases and the flat clay surfaces that splay out from all sides of the head almost like the petals of a flower whose center is the face. Evoking both a tribal past and a connection to nature, Jolly reveals her view of human identity as tied to traditions, but traditions that she is herself inventing.

Mark Maher was born in Kalamazoo in 1960, but within a few weeks his family took him to the Philippines, where he lived for the first year of his life. Later, growing up in Michigan, he was surrounded by the Philippine and New Guinean masks and shields his anthropologist father had collected; he remembers these objects as having “mystery and magic….Before I could walk I could reach up and touch quite lovingly the vagina and erect penis on carved male and female figures.” Many items, made long after contact with the West, were cultural collages of sorts: Maher recalls flintlock rifles and kerosene lanterns carved into some of the shields. By college age Maher was spending much of his time hitchhiking around the United States; four years ago he met his Finnish wife on a solo bicycle trip through the former Soviet Union, and he now lives in Helsinki.

Like Jolly an untrained artist, Maher recalls being troubled in college by art historians who “were just looking at pictures,” he told me. “It seemed that they weren’t thinking nearly enough about the cultural context.” The “icons” he makes today reflect his own individual cultural blend, as an American residing in Finland who remembers the Asian art of his childhood. Orthodox icon painting is a major influence. He collages photocopies of images from books and magazines, then heat-transfers a color laser copy of the collage to a bent wood base, intending to imitate the warping of traditional panel paintings over centuries. “In Helsinki there are a lot of icon antique stores–Russian girls come across the border bringing in ‘family heirlooms’ under their skirts to sell. But there isn’t just one style of icon. It’s weird how many styles there are” –among them “goofy provincial attempts at copying a dominant style, which other works try to copy in turn.”

Covered with varnish, which mimics a centuries-old patina of wax and soot, and often centering around the Virgin, Maher’s 13 icons at Aron Packer look at first like the genuine item: the wood is often cracked, and the image seems cracked. While Maher speaks critically of religion, he also writes in his statement of his “hunger…to imagine the icon tradition into our times.” And rather than convey the proud assertiveness of a fresh or newly cleaned icon, his pieces have the inwardness of images half-concealed by the effects of time. Though Maher’s collages are often provocative, they don’t have the bright, cartoony colors of much pop-inspired pomo art; their false aging makes them seem provisional, qualified. These are not so much advertisements for a religion, even an invented one, as they are objects of contemplation.

The images Maher collects and combines evoke the diversity and disconnectedness of our age: two pinup girls flank a Virgin-like figure in How Much Truth Can a Man Stand? but one has an unusual masculine-looking head, and the floral pattern on the Virgin’s ornate jeweled dress somehow blends in with a row of Chinese ideograms to her left. The Virgin’s face is featureless, pink, recalling for me the rocky landscapes of Italian Renaissance panel paintings, though actually it’s an illustration of a heart from an anatomical text. Calling his works “fictional icons” for “fictional religions,” Maher describes them as “artifacts of a culture that only exists in my head.” But like so many of his collages, this one seems to have faith at its core despite its pomo mannerisms. The Virgin is surrounded by a traditional gold halo, and once one realizes that her somewhat grotesque blank face is in fact a heart, the idea of an icon as an image that transcends its physical being is plain.

Similarly, while Maher describes Quik-Dip ™ in the Answer-Bath in part as “a harsh critique of how religion is…peddled,” it also implies a certain faith. A Virgin with a grotesque face holds Christ pieta-like over the “answer bath,” a disk of concentric red and tan rings. Echoing Christ’s wounds are typewritten questions on his body (“Do boys like to play?” “Are railroad tickets free?”), and two red lines, seemingly beams of light, lead from the eyes of a “tragedy” mask at the upper right to the red center of the answer bath. These beams resemble the thin lines leading from the dove to the Virgin in traditional paintings of the Annunciation, suggesting a spirituality at odds with the picture’s parodistic elements.

Maher also approaches blasphemy, however. Two floating scissors seem to attack the Virgin’s face/heart in How Much Truth Can a Man Stand? and a figure below her wields a missilelike weapon. “The ambiguous…power of woman,” Maher writes, is the subject of The Marshalling of Devils. The woman filling the length of the icon wears a long coat with an upside-down Christ at its center; the area between his legs is colored red, making a bright slit that hints at a vagina beneath the woman’s coat, suggesting an entryway. This “vagina” tells us something about how to read Maher’s icons: his dense surfaces are meant to suggest other possibilities besides traditional depth effects–one is able to peer through objects to a world beyond. A spiritual figure reveals genitals, a face becomes an anatomical heart, and the heart can evoke the idea of the soul.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Jamesetta” by Marva Lee Pitchford Jolly/ “Quick Dip (TM) in the Answer-Bath” by Mark Mahera.