Owen Marc Laurion’s front window display at Ellsworth Gallery isn’t full of flashy baubles. There’s nothing to entice you, like an expensive piece of jewelry or fashionable cashmere sweater. It’s a simple display with a rustic, clunky-looking ceramic table, a ceramic orb that vaguely resembles a deflated football sitting next to it, and a sad, misshapen ceramic sculpture that looks like it should serve some utilitarian purpose, but you’d be hard-pressed to define exactly what that purpose is. All of it rests on a bright green carpet of AstroTurf.
Laurion is playing with mainstays of patriotic American idylls — the football game and the summer season — and distilling their essences into a handful of seemingly disparate forms.
“For the color scheme of the sculpture, I was thinking about rocket pops: the classic red, white, and blue Popsicles,” he said. “That piece is called Picnic, Popsicle, Flag, Fallacy. The side-table piece is called May to September. The football is called Played Out.”
Laurion’s ceramic work is on view in the exhibition The Ratio of People to Cake, a two-person show that also features paintings by Jared Weiss. The show is on view through May 27.
While no one thinks of AstroTurf as being the height of American culture, there is something about the function and the ubiquitousness of the fake grass that makes it an undeniable part of a certain tradition, an ingrained part of our culture. In a way, Laurion seems to be pointing to the absurdity of that fact. But the ungainly nature of the display also suggests that, despite our nostalgia for the halcyon summers of our youth and the patriotic spirit of the game of football, some memories, like a melting Popsicle, can leave a sticky, unpleasant residue.
Most of the work Laurion made for the exhibit consists of ceramic vessel forms. Several of these, like a pot called It Reveals the Smudge, are bulky glazed earthenware pots. It Reveals the Smudge is close to 2 feet tall by 2 feet wide. Another piece, Punctuation of Aspiration, which is reminiscent of an ancient Greek amphora, is close to 3 feet tall. The pots are clunky and malformed. Caps over the mouths of the pots render them unusable as utilitarian objects. Laurion is using the language of functional pottery, but his grotesque, deliberate interventions — sloppy paint, malformed handles, lids that look like dented stove pipes — turn the idea of decorative, functional ceramics on its head. You want to call them pots, but that’s just a jumping-off point, because they don’t function as such. They are really sculptures. The viewer’s desire to interpret them in a particular way is frustrated.
“Clay is one of the oldest mediums,” the 31-year-old artist said. “But there’s always been this interesting split between the art object and functional object. And I’m just playing with that because, to me, it’s so arbitrary. Everything has a function. Art is also useful.”
Similarly, Weiss’ paintings pose a dilemma to the viewer because one is tempted to read them in a particular way and deduce meaning. In his work, figures in familiar suburban settings like a backyard — or gathered around dinner tables and picnic tables — engage with each other, but the nature of their interactions is always unclear. Something never seems quite right. Food on a plate might appear unidentifiable, a face is blurred or hidden from view, or the sky glows with an unnatural color such as vibrant turquoise or magenta.
Weiss deals with memory as a subject. He is not so concerned with specific memories, however, but with memory as an idea. Specifically, he’s inspired by the Freudian notion of screen memories, a phenomenon that occurs when a memory that’s too unpleasant for the mind to accept is masked by similar but more agreeable ones.
“That’s the overarching framework of the work,” he said.
Weiss said he was thinking a lot about football when he started working on the paintings in the show. He drew a parallel between players in the field, actors on the stage, and artists in the gallery.
“I started thinking about football because of the protests,” the 30-year-old artist said, referring to the controversy surrounding players kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racism. “A player embodies an ideal. They’re kind of these superhuman characters that the spectator can put their emotional baggage onto. So, in that way, they’re not themselves. The kneeling is when somebody claims themselves as a person again. ‘See me as a person, and not as this superhuman thing.’ ”
But, for Weiss, football is merely a metaphor. The artist is the player in a game. The gallery is the sports arena. There’s nothing in any of his compositions that reflect this in any overt way. The scenes he depicts are seemingly prosaic. But don’t pass off a painting like his It’s Nothing Permanent, in which two people sit at the dinner table with their backs to the viewer, as merely a depiction of an event of little consequence. The figures don’t appear to be interacting with one another. Instead, they’re looking across the table to where a place is set for a figure who isn’t there. The more you think about the story the work is telling, the more you lose yourself in its ambiguity.
“I like the work to be stranger every time you come back to it, so it should make less sense the more you look at it,” he said. “The more unanswered questions there are, the more time you’ll spend with it. I don’t want people to come in, necessarily, and if they see something in it, that gets shut down because I’m over here saying it’s about football.”
For both artists, the element of uncertainty is essential. Weiss’ work — because it has a narrative aspect — invites interpretation, but the stories are always open-ended. Neither artist plans out a piece in advance.
“Jared and I think about that and talk about it a lot,” Laurion said, kicking off a volley of conversation that only longtime friends can muster. “Once you hit the studio, it’s kind of like, OK, let’s quiet down the very rational, analytical thinking and let the work happen.”
“You feel quiet in the studio? I never feel quiet in the studio,” Weiss said.
“Sometimes. It can be pretty powerful.”
“The quiet can be powerful?” Weiss asked. “Do you listen to music? I always listen to music and it’s loud music. That’s why it isn’t quiet.”
The two met in grad school in 2013 at the San Francisco Art Institute. “The first day of school, I went with a friend to this taco place that was across the street from our studio,” Weiss said. “I sat down and Owen came in and said, ‘Can I sit with you guys?’ and then we were friends for the rest of our lives.”
That they met in such a manner — over food at a table — is fitting. Food and the dinner table, in part, serve as catalysts for The Ratio of People to Cake. For Weiss, the dinner table is a performative space, just like the gallery or the sports arena is a performative space. It’s a setting in which customs — like saying grace before eating or holding your fork in the left hand and your knife in the right — are ceremonially enacted.
For Laurion, who’s worked off and on as a professional cook since he was 16, parallels exist between the presentation of food in a restaurant setting and the presentation of art.
“The restaurant space is a place where people magically bring you food from out of nowhere,” he said. “But you never see it being made. You don’t see the people who make it. It’s just this moment of magic. You get to eat this thing. The servers take care of you and caress your ego and bring you more wine.”
“Art is like the food,” Weiss added. “It shows up like magic. There it is.”