“How are you able to form these vessels so that they possess such convincing beauty?’

“Oh,” answers the potter, “you are looking at the mere outward shape. What I am forming lies within. I am interested only in what remains after the pot has been broken.” Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person – Mary Caroline Richards. 

What lies within the large-scale ceramic work of Metro area artist Deborah Masuoka is a palpable sense of aliveness. Deborah Masuoka: New Work, Gallery 72’s exhibition on view through April 27, 2013 in the venue’s new location at 1806 Vinton Street, is a snapshot of contemporary ceramic sculpture, and a show to see.

The exhibition includes Rabbit Heads, Bird Heads, Cat Heads, a Fox Head, and a Horse Bust, all presented in specific relationships to the viewer, as well as one another. Rich color and texture characterize this menagerie of animal reference within formal consideration.

“There’s a lot of analytical thinking and measurement involved in figuring out the spatial relationships – any little change can make it look like something else,” Masuoka said before her opening. “I’m shaping it as a hollow form, moving the wall of clay. They’re thicker at the bottom, gradually becoming thinner at the top.”

All of Masuoka’s work speaks to the immediacy of the body and engagement in process. The overall shape of each animal head anchors the forms, providing a mirroring effect of anchoring the viewer.  The pinched handling of the clay, her signature technique, leaves tactile impressions of her thumbprints. The pastel color softens the impact of large scale.  “Rabbit Head (large, lavender nose)” uses its cutout curvilinear eye shape on the left side to counter balance the small circle and spiral on the right side.

“’Large Rabbit Head’ with lavender nose has one side depicting the spiral going down the rabbit hole,” Masuoka said. “It’s about the duality of growing up with fairy tale idealism, and the reality of life experience. I want to hang on to positive hope through my work. I want to give back so there’s beauty in the world.

“Ancient Japanese haniwa figures implied a spiritual interior on the inside, which makes the viewer more aware of the space inside,” the artist said. “The eyes create a depth of spirit and make the pieces come alive.”

The eyes of the Cat Heads, symmetrically situated, communicate a singular focus with an unwavering gaze. “Cat Head (large, orange)” appears alive and regal. Sitting above a group of three bird heads positioned below, it becomes a comment on predator and prey.

“Fox head (wall hanging)” is a variation on symmetry almost appearing to wink at the viewer. ”Some of these images, like the fox, go back as far as 25 years ago,” said Masuoka. “The years of learning how to build something on the outside enhance the ability to see what the form is. It’s pretty intuitive.”

In formal terms “Fox Head” is an orchestration of point, plane, and void. This contrasts with the large Bird Heads whose beaks become a differentiating zone of smooth surface. The punch in this body of work is the rigor of geometry contrasted with the subtlety of texture and color.

The dynamic tension between “Bird Head (small, white beak)” and “Cat head (small, orange)” steals the show, especially as their standoff occurs under the gaze of “Fox Head.” From one side the dynamic duo appear equally matched. “Bird Head’s” round eye and curved beak balance the diagonal slant and curved eye of “Cat Head,” two beings in stasis. On the opposite side, “Bird Head’s” blue eye signals alert attention to the presence of something not seen before.

Each Head in the exhibition embodies a unique character. “Rabbit Head (large, all black)” is particularly compelling. The minimizing of texture and maximizing of surface treatment, with one side closed and the other open, culminates in a meditation on sleeping and waking.

“The idea comes to you through process,” said Masuoka. “I had a black and white Dutch rabbit my brother had given me. I’m the oldest of nine kids. I had the rabbit in the classroom where I was teaching Head Start in inner city Detroit. This was while getting my undergrad degree at Wayne State. In many ways the rabbit became a metaphor for survival. The rabbit was just an ordinary part of my environment. One day I was making a whole clay rabbit and the head broke off. At that moment I saw what the work could be.”

20 years later, Masuoka has developed into a significant contemporary ceramicist, particularly under the mentoring of renowned sculptor Jun Kaneko, creating over 360 Rabbit Heads and more in private and public collections including the Sheldon Art Museum and the Iowa West Public Art Display in Council Bluffs.

 “Having Jun Kaneko as a teacher was a great influence,” said Deborah Masuoka. “Watching how he worked, moving from piece to piece, with a thread of connection. He was making plates when I first met him. I watched him evolve as an artist. It was good to have a teacher who became an artist’s artist, and took the risk.”

“Horse,” placed in Gallery 72’s window, uses drawing and color to move the eye. The implied movement within the form invites the public into the gallery. Walk in, and discover the life affirming work of another risk taker, Deborah Masuoka.

Deborah Masuoka: New Work continues through April 27, 2013, Gallery 72, 1806 Vinton Street, 402.496.4797 Gallery hours Wed – Sat, 10am – 6pm. www.gallery72.com

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