New York

Betty Woodman, Aztec Vase #7, 2007, glazed earthenware, epoxy resin, lacquer, paint, 38 x 32 x 24". From the series “Aztec Vase,” 2004–.

Betty Woodman, Aztec Vase #7, 2007, glazed earthenware, epoxy resin, lacquer, paint, 38 x 32 x 24". From the series “Aztec Vase,” 2004–.

Betty Woodman

Salon 94 | Bowery

Betty Woodman, Aztec Vase #7, 2007, glazed earthenware, epoxy resin, lacquer, paint, 38 x 32 x 24". From the series “Aztec Vase,” 2004–.

Installations of Betty Woodman’s works often have an element of theatricality, and in this exhibition, “Front/Back,” her ceramic vase sculptures sang together like characters in an opera. Brilliantly united by their chromatic relationships, they evoked a coloratura worthy of Rossini.

Though Woodman’s ceramic vases always maintain their function as containers, she positions them on the edge between painting and sculpture, challenging categories of utility, craft, and art. Most sport two planes or fins, which jut out from the vessels’ sides; on these surfaces, Woodman paints images inspired by a variety of sources, from Eastern painting to modernist masters. Female nudes—stretched out like Cézannesque bathers—alternate with vividly colored geometric shapes, naturalistic elements, and bright abstract surfaces. The two sides of these sculptures are oftentimes completely different, which is customary for this artist, but in many cases here one side was white, monochrome, or bare ceramic, almost as if to belie the coloristic energy of the opposite face. Though this wide-ranging eclecticism may suggest a lack of formal discipline, Woodman orchestrates the fusion of these disparate styles and art historical references with deep aesthetic intelligence.

In three large-scale sculptures from her series “Aztec Vase,” 2004–, Woodman adds two additional planes: The painted images thereby proliferate on four different sides. Vibrant shapes, dissonant and audacious colors, diagonal lines, and austere monochrome backgrounds flow from one surface to the other—a repertory of Woodman’s preferred figures, themes, and hues, presented in close contact. As the singers of a concertato separately execute their arias and the individual motifs flow together in a single harmony, these vases modulate different pictorial themes that make up a complex whole. In her incessant investigation of the relationship between two and three dimensions, positive and negative space, Woodman here achieved a new synthesis.

The exhibition’s installation resembled a theater. The vases were all oriented in the same direction; depending on your perspective, they could seem like the audience in seats or performers on a stage. They faced a painted wall installation, Sunset, 2010, which depicts the silhouette of a ceramic flower vase supported by a gray grid next to a sort of Japanese screen—a yellow frame that encloses a cascade of vivid rose petals. The flower vase, however, remains unpainted, the ceramic left bare, as if the vase were a shadow of itself, removed from its leading role onstage. Woodman thereby succeeds in shifting our attention to the relationship between illusion and reality: In fact, nothing “happens” where the viewer’s glance focuses. And perhaps this is precisely where the irony of Woodman’s work resides—in an approach that allows us to enter her personal theater, where an idiosyncratic shifting of roles and viewpoints confounds our expectations.

Ida Panicelli