Los Angeles

View of “Bari Ziperstein,” 2018. From left: Be a man!, 2017; No, we didn’t reap or plough—we just had a picnic in the field, 2017; The price of glasses of wine, 2017. Photo: Lee Tyler Thompson.

View of “Bari Ziperstein,” 2018. From left: Be a man!, 2017; No, we didn’t reap or plough—we just had a picnic in the field, 2017; The price of glasses of wine, 2017. Photo: Lee Tyler Thompson.

Bari Ziperstein

View of “Bari Ziperstein,” 2018. From left: Be a man!, 2017; No, we didn’t reap or plough—we just had a picnic in the field, 2017; The price of glasses of wine, 2017. Photo: Lee Tyler Thompson.

Bari Ziperstein has a knack for turning the seemingly abstract geometry of ceramic sculptures into a framework for rich historical narratives. As a resident artist at the Wende Museum (which specializes in “Cold War art, culture, and history from the Soviet Bloc countries”) in Culver City, California, Ziperstein came into direct contact with artifacts of Soviet visual and material culture. That research underpins the visual language of her slab-built works for “Propaganda Pots.” Installed primarily on a long, chest-high U-shaped table, the twenty pots twisted and pressurized, obscured and revealed the artist’s Cold War references.

The historical material that supports Ziperstein’s show was first introduced via reproductions of propaganda posters and vintage photographs in the anteroom of the gallery. In one poster, a worker looks up at her raised hand, her green coveralls and red kerchief in tonal harmony with the rising city that frames her. This figure is redrawn wrapping around Female Worker, 2017, a Brancusi-like stack topped with an ovoid form, in the next room. The other posters were quirkier, less stereotypical. One featured a perturbed child, holding his mother and father in his right and left arms, at the foot of a courthouse. The Cyrillic text reads RECONCILE!, making clear the cultural and political Soviet imperative that parents should stay together for the sake of their children. The five photographs were more quixotic. Each showed a topless woman posing with a fully dressed soldier, their activities variously comical and unsettling: He writes in a book while she looks to the horizon with binoculars, or she lounges on a rock while he gazes at her from a distance with the same pair of binoculars. From these reproductions, one could intuit Ziperstein’s gendered critique of the Soviet gaze—one that implicates social structures of kinship and sex.

The morality and conviviality of drinking were other dominant themes, most evident in Unite All People!, 2018, Ziperstein’s largest work in the show. The four-tiered vessel sat directly on the ground and was decorated with images of men and women marching together, some holding bouquets of flowers over their heads. In the bottom register, the artist has eliminated nearly all figures, leaving only a riot of pattern and color. On opening night, the piece lived up to its title by functioning as a keg tap, bringing together alcohol-swilling gallerygoers and infusing Ziperstein’s finely honed conceptual conceit with haptic utility. Elsewhere, such geniality was shown to be more complicated. Be a man!, 2017, presents a narrative in which a dapper father pours a drink for his wide-eyed wisp of a son. Around the corner of the pot, the father’s beefy hand appears menacingly placed on the young boy’s shoulder, indicating, perhaps, that participation is not voluntary. On the back of the pot, the boy’s redheaded mother looks on with smiling approval. Yet close by on the table, in With the mother’s milk. Alcohol and children is a terrifying mix, 2017, another mother tossed back a shot while nursing her baby, as her older child pulled at her dress for attention. The overt messaging of these appropriated images belies (to steal one of Ziperstein’s most inspired titles) “rich inner content,” pointing to a perceived social deterioration while representing a futile attempt to turn it back into some mythical, coherent whole. The resonance of this ideological strategy should not be lost on audiences in the United States, whose phantasmic past is the foundation of present-day xenophobia and racist retrenchment.

Still, there is hope. Hello Youth!, 2018, presents a triumphant woman emerging out of a geometric white pedestal. Her arms are raised above her head and her face is turned upward. She holds a fabric banner that reads YOU ARE NOT POWERLESS. Aside from the checklist and the press release, this statement was the only English text in the show. The affirmation stands in contrast to the language of recovery (in which alcoholics and addicts must admit their powerlessness) and signifies a reclamation. As with other sculptures on display here, the back of the pot adds weight: Floating in the center of a glazed field of bright, deep blue are a pair of eyes. This woman is watching, waiting, and ready to speak truth to power.

Andy Campbell