Though Alice Mackler has been making art since the 1950s, she only started gaining recognition in the last couple of years, when her work appeared in a series of well-received exhibitions. A full life including both struggle and success, however, can make for rich art, and indeed the new ceramic figures in the 84-year-old artist’s recent show at Kerry Schuss demonstrate formal ingenuity and sharp wit.
Entering the narrow main gallery, visitors were greeted by an assortment of wide-eyed humanoid sculptures placed on plinths of varied heights. The group resembled a parade or a troupe of clowns with expressions ranging from coy to manic, their mouths and eyes formed by circular indentations about the size of a fingertip. The first sculpture one encountered (all works untitled and 2014 or 2015) is roughly 5 inches tall and is either a pair of figures clutching each other or a two-headed figure attempting to cleave itself. The most naturalistic sculpture on view consists of a long, hammerhead-like head. Atop the head is a red sculpted tuft (a motif that reappears elsewhere), which is draped with a black ribbon of clay. A slanted mouth and kind eyes give the face a sweet, pensive quality. While most of Mackler’s sculptures present solitary figures, some incorporate pairs. One work, for example, shows a tall, curvaceous female with a squat, triangular figure who appears male. The duo is shown walking together on a bed of grass, seemingly indifferent to each other, their unglazed bellies protruding.
Mackler’s sculptural characters may be lumpy and imperfect, but they owe as much to classical figuration (their bodies are posed in variations of contrapposto, for instance) as they do to more casual methodologies. One figure is roughly 11 inches tall, with a slender, conical shape. The slight tilt of her yellow body and the green smear extending from her eye suggest she is a tragic heroine, recalling an opera character mid-aria.
Perhaps the figures’ expressive poses arise from Mackler’s practice of sketching live models. They might also be tied to her interest in fashion magazines. In the small rear gallery, a selection of 14-by-11-inch collages hung alongside two additional sculptures. For the collages, Mackler cut images of models and celebrities from glossy magazines and adhered them to canvas board. She painted over the surfaces with energetic marks in primary colors similar to the hues she favors for her ceramic glazes. The pulsating rhythm of the paint in the collages mirrors the pocked surfaces of the sculptures. The most impressive collage shows Kiernan Shipka (aka Sally Draper from “Mad Men”) in a fan-shaped pink satin bonnet. Her large, sad and heavily made-up eyes peer out from the slick page through a haze of rainbow brushstrokes.
Mackler’s sculptures show a material intelligence gained from five decades of working in the studio. The unself-conscious, subtly bawdy figures convey the sense that the aging body is not only beautiful, but also sexual. The figures radiate an air of jouissance, a surplus of erotic energy, in their trembling plasticity.