Ceramics make a comeback at the Hand Workshop.

The ceramic arts have suffered their share of angst, but as they enjoy less of the limelight than painting, their growing pains have been less public and far less ugly. That’s why Hand Workshop’s current exhibition may pull the rug out from under its viewers, especially anyone apathetic towards ceramic sculpture. “North American Ceramic Sculpture Now” offers the most inspiring and engaging visual art in Richmond this season.

Matthew Kangas, a Seattle-based critic who has followed and written about Eastern and Western ceramic artists, acknowledges that the burden of history shows no mercy to those involved with clay, a medium that predates history. But in the exhibition he first curated for the Second World Ceramic Biennale Korea and that now temporarily resides at Hand Workshop, the burden is embraced, even celebrated, in amazingly conceived and executed works.

Here, 14 artists (among them Richmond artist Allan Rosenbaum) and one artist collaborative offer a clear, exceptionally strong comeback to the potentially daunting task of making art in the 21st century.

Hand Workshop visitors first find installations of Sadashi Inuzuka’s sensuous objects mounted on flanking entry walls. Combining elements of human, plant and animal anatomy with made-up forms suggesting tools or exotic instruments, Inuzuka creates highly detailed and polished matte-black forms. The artist scales the items for human holding and handling, but instead of fondling these objects the viewer may only look and marvel.

With the variety of mass, surface and color qualities it showcases, this exhibition certainly advocates clay as a medium with almost limitless possibility. In Inuzuka’s hands, clay is a fine-grained substance capable of becoming delicate and smooth. Similarly treated is Nancy Blum’s porcelain, which is shaped into oversized flowers. But Jim Leedy’s “Tree Vessel” is a rough, indefinable mass like volcanic rock, and in Annabeth Rosen’s “Cinctus I” earthenware is disguised as rubber tubing.

Allan Rosenbaum, a Virginia Commonwealth University ceramics professor, handles earthenware in a gestural manner. In his “Tale,” common household objects such as a flashlight, toaster, telephone and electric drill emerge from a human head that in turn comes out of an open book. Rosenbaum’s cartoonish objects (which look like Philip Guston’s paintings in three dimensions) appear to satirize the mental and material loads modern humans must bear.

While several artists here appropriate methods and/or styles of the past, none integrates them as movingly as Akio Takamori. Born in Japan and receiving part of his artistic training there, Takamori renders personal and collective memories in delicate stoneware figures. “Husband and Wife Tea Set” and “General and Emperor,” both decorated with black brushwork to resemble traditional Japanese woodblocks, honor his culture in subject matter and form in a truly modern way.

Humor runs rampant here, especially when it comes to borrowed ceramic traditions combined with political and social commentary. Charles Kraft’s grenades decorated as Dutch delftware and Leopold Foulem’s kitsch and risqué versions of Santa Claus exemplify a nothing-is-sacred attitude towards the past. The five-person collective called “group life in general” serves up the most irreverence with “ancient” milk containers and a snow shovel decorated with pictograms borrowed from primitive cultures. S

“North American Ceramic Sculpture Now” is on display at the Hand Workshop Arts Center, 1812 W. Main St., through April 18.

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