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Dark Horse 

Artwork mixes the divine and the grotesque

Twenty-seven-year-old Cristina Cordova toted her wild beasts into town last Friday. This ceramic artist is showing in Charlotte through June 5 at the WDO gallery in the Hearst Tower Plaza. Like the gallery that represents her, Ms. Cordova seems to have slipped into town quietly, under the cover of night, with little forewarning or fanfare.

Cordova's ceramic figures are old souls arriving in Charlotte at a time our town appears fatigued by the expectation of the relentlessly new. But her quiet arrival has not gone unnoticed -- her work seems to beckon passers-by, and most of her provocative and melancholic pieces were sold before her show opened. Why? Well, Cordova made a splash at last year's Penland auction; she sold a piece for $5,500 at the prestigious SOFA exhibit in Chicago; and she's a recent recipient of an American Craft Council Emerging Artist Grant.

But these aren't the reasons her work sells as fast as she can make it. Very little artwork speaks so poignantly to so many viewers, or beckons viewers to "take me home, care for me, covet me." These nine pieces do that. When I walked out without one under my arm, I felt I had forgotten something, left a piece of me inside the gallery. I checked for my car keys and was disappointed to find them. Cordova leaves you with a longing.

"Huida" is a two-piece wall-mounted sculpture. A man rides on the thick neck of a rough beast boasting a head spawned from the happy union of an anteater and a horse. Man and beast share sympathetic eyes. Each of Cordova's figures in this show shares these sadly expressive eyes.

The man who rides the beast is a harlequin wearing skin-tight black tights and a long sleeved, painted on, leotard. Vanity does not explain the tight clothes; his body is the consistency of congealed grease, bloated and sagging, with marshmallow pecs, lumpy arms and a distended belly. Below the bloated torso are withered and scourged legs, skinless, tendons and muscles exposed from hip to knee. His atrophied limbs wobble within the cavity of his bloated torso and are fastened with steel wires.

The big man wears a matador's cap sprouting with wormy brown sprigs. The surface of cap, the torso, the legs, even the homely beast, are all a muted matte finish, acid etched after the kiln firing. In places, the acid has pocked his body with small erupted boils.

So where's the attraction? What makes this character appealing?

Appealing is the wrong way to put it: None of these pieces is easy to look at, but they're all hard to walk away from. And the attraction is more than your run-of-the-mill fascination with squalor. There's light shining up through that pit; there's someone hiding inside that dank and craggy cavern. You can see it in the eyes and the face and the hands.

His face and his hands imply the divine within the grotesque. His face and hands are indications of transcendence -- fine and pale, translucent, ethereal and fragile. His supplicant eyes draw us in, and beg our sympathy -- and just maybe our empathy -- for his station. The eyes are both apologetic and plaintive, they ask forgiveness for, and simultaneously request release from, his clumsy earthly vessel.

"Arana" (Spider) is a bald androgynous head with a painted-on matador's cap punctuated, again, with wormy protrusions. Her body is wide and puffy like the horseman's; her ill-defined breasts and bellybutton are the only dimensional embellishments on her fluffy mass of flesh. Her skin is dull and mottled, stained with acid.

Arana's hips tumble and splay into a skirt that sprouts seven willowy legs, three touching the ground, four high-stepping forward. Legs are clad in black leotard and white stockings laced with degenerative pinholes. She holds a serpent's head in one hand. Legs and torso bear faint silver letters and symbols. This face, like the other eight faces capping desultory bodies here, will reappear in your head later.

"Barquero," or The Boatman, sits in a red patina canoe. He sits up straight with his humble, pallid, dumpy body, a form reminiscent of the Wimpy character of Popeye fame. His legs extend in front of him, muscular but skinless -- each tendril of sinew and tendon articulated by surrounding dark cavities. The decomposition of his body begins from below, a withering process beginning with the body parts farthest from the head and heart.

His pale Chaplinesque face looks outward from his lumpy vessels (the canoe and his body), expressing vast lassitude with his thousand-yard stare. He wears a silly, undersized safari hat and he ignores the black fanged serpent emerging from the hull of his boat. His stare neither longs for, nor searches out, a distant horizon: He already knows where his promised land lies -- it's all interior. He knows his body is only a temporary vessel, one to be tolerated. His eyes make visible the promise of a higher, internal destination. Cordova's faces shine with both suffering and hope, and with an unspoken stoic longing common to every man's earthly journey.

A final note on WDO (Well Designed Objects), the gallery. There's a font of artwork here ranging from $40 to about $4,000: steel, concrete, wood, a little fabric and a lot of ceramic work. Owner Rob Williams has been at it for 10 years in Charlotte and he knows his client is "someone who understands what the object is about -- physically, spiritually and financially." He says passion is not a prerequisite for collecting, but it is a likely mixed blessing once someone gets started. The essence of this gallery is -- and I know this sounds trite, cliched and overused -- quality. WDO is so one-of-a-kind good, I'm stunned it still has its head above water.

Cristina Cordova's exhibit is on display through June 5. WDO gallery is at 214 N. Tryon Street. For more info, call 704-333-9123 or visit info@gallerywdo.com

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