Dana Major Kanovitz: On Transformation and Wings

Article excerpt

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DANA MAJOR KANOVITZ'S WINGED FIGURES WERE first shown at the Lillstreet Art Center in 2006 and more recently through Ferrin Gallery at SOFA Chicago 2007. Slab-built from porcelain, and embellished with encaustic and oil paints, hand-painted silk and stone, the pieces in this series explore the lines between what makes a sculpture narrative and what makes it decorative. Merging the anthropomorphic with the animal, the work also references myth. One might think of Icarus rising above the labyrinth, or the untutored ones who, turned from the sun, sit chained in Plato's shadowy cave.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, and currently based out of Chicago, Major Kanovitz--now in her late 30s--was not always interested in the figure. She began working with clay as an adolescent, teaching pottery at a summer camp. Pursuing her attraction to "the firings, the studio aesthetic, the mess," she spent more time during her undergraduate years at the Lillstreet Art Center, where she worked as an assistant, than at the nearby DePaul University, where she was also completing a degree in philosophy.

In 1991, she was inspired by a poster for the first post-perestroika exhibition of Eastern European ceramics, curated by the Clay Studio's Jimmy Clark. "Bold in my youth," she explains, "I called Jimmy and asked for the contact information of the artists in the city I was most interested in--Leningrad." Several letters and interviews later, Major Kanovitz embarked on an 18-month apprenticeship with Alexander Zadorin of the Muhkinskaya Institute of Art--the ceramist, who, as she explains, changed her "from a potter into a sculptor."

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Before meeting Zadorin (who Major Kanovitz refers to as Sasha), she had been influenced by the Bernard-Leach-inspired genre of functional pottery and by the work of Japanese potter Shoji Hamada. "What was new to me in Sasha's work," she explains, "was the focus on representational ceramics, an aesthetic based in Italian figural traditions, Greek sculpture and in German Meissen work. This was a completely different way to reference the human experience through clay. Sasha taught me the slab-forming technique I still use. He taught me that my next good idea would come from one interesting moment in my present work. And more than that, he taught me how to live like an artist by working every day."

Zadorin also taught Major Kanovitz how to drink room-temperature vodka and put garlic in her ear to alleviate congestion. He introduced her to his companion, Katia Omenina, also a ceramist, and with whom Major Kanovitz created the first ceramics exchange program to be sanctioned by the Union of Artists of St. Petersburg. It was an exciting time to be in Russia: 1992, three years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and months into the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Besides being a single woman able to move about the newly-renamed St. Petersburg without government supervision, able to work with artists no longer creating under Soviet censorship, Major Kanovitz was grounding her life and career: learning Russian, exploring a new aesthetic, and eventually traveling with Zadorin to a residential arts symposium where she met her first husband, fellow ceramist Sergei Isupov.

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Major Kanovitz and Isupov--a Russian-born artist well-known for his masterly 'painted' sculpture--moved to Louisville, Kentucky, after a 16-month courtship. They maintained their studios on nine acres of rural countryside and were married for four years, a time that proved fruitful for both. "Of course Sergei influenced my aesthetic sensibility," Major Kanovitz says. "He is a marvelous figure painter, which only added to my fascination with the figure begun in my work with Sasha. …