Art is always a reaction to/interpretation of the artist’s surroundings. Sometimes that’s their physical environment, sometimes political; sometimes (usually) emotional. Barbara Sorensen’s ceramics record her journeys through the world – quite literally. At Orlando Museum of Art’s retrospective of Sorensen’s work, a group of massive, undulating Ledges represents her climbing trip in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah; a tall field of attenuated-yet-bodacious Sirens was inspired by the caryatid columns Sorensen saw at the Acropolis; a series of slabby, encrusted Shields de Pyrenees reference the 15th-century Basque architecture Sorensen took in while hiking in Spain.
OMA’s installers have created a dramatic entry point for Topographies: a dark-gray cave populated by Sorensen’s minerally Speleothems, pulsing with a just-audible, brooding soundtrack. The stalactite- and stalagmite-like Speleothemsdepend from the ceiling and grow up from the floor, their bunched, scrunched, bumpy or pleated surfaces crafted from aluminum and resins. Entering the large gallery, the viewer is confronted with discrete groups of (mostly impressively huge) ceramics. The landform-inspired Chalice Forest and the Sirens, a group of headless goddesses raked with torquing parallel incisions, dominate the room, with a row of Shields de Pyreneesmarching grim-faced along the length of the far wall. (They display more humor and, paradoxically, lightness up close.) A group of resin-coated rope whirlpools on the floor is intriguing but seems slightly out of step with the surrounding work. The most successful piece is the multimedia Foothills, a bumpy topographical field of stone-like clay slabs over which a film by David Hiser is projected. Music by Stella Sung is audible throughout the gallery, but belongs to this piece.
Sorensen’s energetic approach to materials and technique is admirable; she’s clearly engaged and absorbed by process. This comprehensive show encompasses works in clay, powder-coated aluminum, rope, resin and paper, but ceramics are her métier, and her strongest medium. If there is a lack of emotional dynamism in some of the series, there’s no lack of skill or strength; Sorensen’s ceramics vibrate with self-assurance. The travelogue pieces, like the stratified geological forms of Chalice Forest and Ledges, display expertise without much emotion, but the vessels (the Pandoras, a group of rough ceramic casks; the three massive but airy suspended Boats) evince a bit more conceptual mystery, though even that enigmatic aura is literal: They literally have hidden depths.
The final room, displaying some works on paper and dominated by the drifting anemone shapes of Sorensen’s Dwellings, hints at evolution; the red-blue-yellow bursts of the hanging nets contrast poppily with the terra cotta, gray and ocher of the ceramics. Along with a series of monotype prints, there are three kinetic paper sculptures. At the invitation of UCF’s Flying Horse Editions print studio, Sorensen collaborated with paper engineer Bruce Foster to transform some of her sculptures into manipulable paper art. Pulling the tabs to make the tiny paper replica Dwellings blob out into jellyfish shapes is irresistible, and ends a somewhat somber show on a playful note.
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