Phillip Ahnen: Martin Gallery Baylor University Waco, Texas 18 January-26 February, 2011

Article excerpt

AS HOMAGE TO THE raw slab of clay, Phillip Ahnen returns to the origins of his medium. In this series of work, he infers a freedom of shape and form that touches on the basic tenets of Abstract Expressionism. While in this exhibition Ahnen explores his love of industrial mechanised objects, he also addresses a 'form follows function' mantra that guides his work.

Out of the studio, the artist himself relinquishes a part of the dialogue, allowing it to become a discussion between curator and observer. Ahnen, however, establishes the ground rules based in his intimate knowledge of the materials.

This work combines both pragmatism with what Peter Voulkos called "non-utilitarian" art. Functionality and beauty sometimes battle with one another but the results of Ahnens' work are serene, coy and lasting.

Not all of these pieces are in the Abstract class. Both Greywater Can and Clearwater Can convey unfiltered delight in their craftsmanship through Rube Goldberg-style mechanics.

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These watering cans are large and heavy monolithic structures that appear to be functional on first impression but they actually parody the perceived intent. In the roots of these pieces, you observe a delicate geometry and you ask, "Will it topple?" or "How cautious should I be in observing it?" Henry Takemoto's, Flag, shows us the same sense of inverted balance that Ahnen's work exhibits here, while still speaking to the enduring characteristics of a functional vessel.

What ideas does he address in his forms? There are humorous antecedents that speak to a trend in practicality. The sheer joy of its existence seems to have been removed from the equation of modern manufacturing. Pleasure and pride of ownership are sacrificed for performance. Colours and shapes, in cheapened or overpriced design, are present in modern day household items. Look back at Norman Bel Geddes, the American industrial designer whose futuristic designs during the 1930s had a significant effect on household culture. Ahnens' humorous renditions contemplate a sheer enjoyment for the beholder, practicality notwithstanding. Some pieces, however, do bear an implied usefulness, such as Petit Server. Having worked in clay for nearly 20 years, Ahnen refers to the advent of Bel Geddes purity of design intelligence along with its decline and the ideology of 'planned obsolescence' that currently permeates our culture.

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One can see the trade-off from levity to deep thinking in Self-Portrait, one of the few pieces found on a wall. From this introspective position you feel its reflective influences gazing back at you.

Sushi Platter and Dessert Plate #1, both present the results of gestures that seem anonymous or noncommittal. You could believe what these pieces represent or opt out of it entirely. Either way, one allows his work to take on the freedom from lineage that so strongly represents Abstract Expressionisms' formative ideas. …