Markus Karstieß, Solaris II, 2012, raku-glazed ceramic, plywood, 19 7/8 x 15 1/8 x 1 1/8".

Markus Karstieß, Solaris II, 2012, raku-glazed ceramic, plywood, 19 7/8 x 15 1/8 x 1 1/8".

Markus Karstieß

Bruce Haines Mayfair

Markus Karstieß, Solaris II, 2012, raku-glazed ceramic, plywood, 19 7/8 x 15 1/8 x 1 1/8".

Although Markus Karstieß plays within the language and possibilities of his chosen medium—clay—the resulting artworks are far from what we typically expect of the material. The works are handmade, with ample signs of squeezing, kneading, prodding, cutting, pressing, and scraping. In their rough-hewn way, they recall the ceramic sculptures of Californians such as Peter Voulkos and the Otis Group of the 1950s, but the objects Karstieß makes are smaller and invoke ideas that are closer to the traditions of sculpture and painting than to those of craft.

For the works in this exhibition, “Mirror Fall Down Mirror Gone Down,” Karstieß used a raku technique to fire his ceramics. The process creates unpredictable results and can leave a fine craquelure on the glaze; in this case, additional metal in the form of platinum has been mixed in with the glaze, giving some pieces a dark pearlescent veneer that conveys a subtle sense of depth and surface simultaneously. The show included both three-dimensional sculptures—a standing object that looks like a stack of animal skulls and a vase replete with dead flowers—and flat wall reliefs that mimic nonrepresentational painting. The former, made by squeezing and pinching pieces of clay, have an organic, lumpy quality, while the reliefs, collectively titled “Mirrors,” have one-point perspective or starburst compositions akin to Jay DeFeo’s The Rose, 1958–66, or Mark Grotjahn’s “Butterfly” paintings. Unlike these works, however, Karstieß’s reliefs were created by rejoining the pieces of a cut rectangle: Hence their linear structure is made by actual edges butting together. Over this structure, indentations, marks, or gouges create a Rorschach-like pattern. For example, the blue-black metallic Solaris II, 2012, is a rectangular relief divided into six triangular segments; the top and bottom halves of this shape mirror each other, while a constellation of holes is distributed across its surface. Lucio Fontana comes easily to mind here. The idea of real, as opposed to depicted, space is something that Karstieß, like Fontana before him, seems to be working toward, though some of Karstieß’s titles also suggest the virtual spaces of science fiction, as with this piece or Dark Star, 2011.

For this show, the narrow space of Ancient & Modern was made to feel even more claustrophobic, the newly dark gray walls lending the gallery a goth or mausoleum-like atmosphere, which was apt for the memento mori overtones of the works on view. Isenheim-Soil-Being, 2012, a stack of horned skulls, recalls pagan altars, while fresh rhododendrons placed in the vessel The Doe Family, Darrin Doe, 2008, at the opening were allowed to dry out over the run of the show. Is Karstieß trying to remind us of the transitory nature of life? Or does the dead matter of the flowers become just another piece of organic sculptural material? And despite their reified appearance, the reliefs seem to be paintings without paint. They do not appear to be simulacral or inauthentic despite the hard, shiny glaze of the “Mirrors” in particular, which recalls tiles—that is, a functional surface rather than the expressive one of painting. Therein seems to reside the contradictory nature of Karstieß’s endeavor: His objects, not quite traditional ceramics, sculpture, or painting, also appear to be far too haptic and personal to be conceptual objects. If the forms had not been so familiar, one might have wanted to suggest that Karstieß is exploring uncharted territory. But maybe touching on the commonplace is a way to figure out what we don’t know yet.

Sherman Sam