There are funny shapes and objects all over Clay Odyssey: A Retrospective, a survey of work at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center by ceramicist Marie Woo, spanning a 60-year career that has always aspired to push ceramics past function and into experimental realms. There is not a symmetrical form among the 50+ works on display. There are stacks of thin, rigid forms, peaked like high hats from drum kits, rendered in matte clay and punctuated with little nubbins. There are collections of forms that look like hot stones under dilapidated and rusting wire enclosures—like the contents of a charcoal pit, or the steam-producing unit in a sauna. A delicate branch suspends a collection of azure clay beads on lengths of wire in a static, freeform arrangement that resembles a frozen rainstorm. Inside a rectangle of glass sits a loose pyramid of lumpen white balls. Irregular wall pieces suggest nests containing clutches of dinosaur eggs. The majority of pieces are finished in chalky, matte glazes that give the room a sense of antiquity. Everywhere are shapes of prehistory, primordial roots.
There is great intentionality in the way that Woo has slashed and broken her forms – even those resembling traditional vessels have scarred-over cuts along their exterior surfaces, strategic tears and gouges, or oddly pinched handles on the lids of pots. Based on Woo’s background, studying under famed ceramic artist Maja Grotell, founder of the ceramics program Cranbrook Academy of Arts—as well as her subsequent involvement in the experimental ceramics collective, the Clay Ten, and her fervid dedication to researching and preserving the traditions of Chinese folk pottery, that Woo understands how to make a flawless form. The question then becomes, why does she so categorically refuse to do so?