A feminist vision of medieval statuary

For his first show at PPOW since 2015, Madonnas and hand warmers, Ann Agee has produced an abundance of polychrome ceramics that vividly illustrate her wit and inventiveness. In the front porch, on a platform the size of a room, are 66 Madonna sculptures, most with an infant or child, varying in size from just under eight inches to three feet tall, all made within the past two years; in the front window, at four feet, sits the taller Madonna, clad in cheerful patterned pants and a tank top, with the fitting title “Exquisitely Dressed Madonna” (2021). In the back room of the gallery are dozens of shoe-shaped sculptures that make up an ongoing series that Agee calls it. Hand warmers. Each Madonna or shoe is stamped with the artist’s mark, AGEE MFG, referencing her multi-year business of creating works in a variety of media – from wallpaper to clothing, books, room tiles. baths and even marmalade – which blur the lines between domestic life, artistic production and social connectivity.

The impetus of Agee’s Madonna series is the fairly simple idea she had years ago of creating an alternative world to that of medieval statuary, which favors the male child. What if the child was a girl? Agee’s mother was an artist, as was her daughter, and the show is kind of a generational tribute, as her daughter recently left home and her mother has passed away. Therefore, all the children in the show are girls, with their gender discreetly marked. They sleep, fidget and breastfeed their mothers, reclining women who transmit barely contained energy and ballet balance.

Ann Agee, “Full-On Striped Madonna” (2021) 27.5 x 10.75 x 10.25 inches

However, their dynamism is as much the result of the chroma as of the underlying form. Agee has deployed a multitude of sometimes unconventional techniques to color his characters, uniformly incorporating pigments into the raw clay; patches of marbling which she unrolls and slices; screen printing, taping, spraying and other stencil glazes; and, of course, straight from porcelain paint, to create the brilliant array of patterns and hues that give these sculptures such unique life. Long influenced by German and Italian porcelain of the 18th century commedia dell’arte performers, she never shied away from polychromy which was anathema to modernist sculptural aesthetics. Here she has stepped up her game, infusing the work with a degree of gravity that one obtains in medieval devotional figures. Indeed, some Madonnas are perched on plinths with tiny drawers, in reference to the reliquary function that a large part of medieval statuary fulfilled.

The material ingenuity of these sculptures is one of the many pleasures they offer to an attentive viewer, as is so often the case with large ceramics. Agee’s irreverence is one of her gifts. “Full-On Striped Madonna” (2021), with its red, white and yellow stripes, which abstracted it like a Machine Age Lightweight, is made to look like painted cardboard. (Cardboard is actually one medium Agee adores; she used it to make the iconic turquoise and orange torches that many New York women wore during protests after Trump’s election.) The “Moira” Orfei Madonna ”(2020), named after an Italian circus impresario, is a streaked piece of lustrous and black-tinted porcelain with a red glaze formed of dried spaghetti molded in clay. The mix of high and low is everywhere. “Madonna Colander” (2021), with its tiny holes that seem to sprinkle with green glaze, refers to the Italian ceramic colanders, which Agee first admired in the Italian home of her close friend, the late Betty Woodman, whose the love of raw Agee folk ceramics shared.

Ann Agee, “Cult of the Penis Madonna” (2021), 33.75 x 12 x 9.75 inches

Expressive details hide structural stains. The seams can be tightened in beaded lines which also serve as an ornament. Cast bronze necklaces or copper belts which apparently embellish the figures conceal a function of strengthening the joints between the pieces. The larger figures had to be fired in two sections and often incorporated stoneware at the bottom, a support half and porcelain at the top. Suddenly, the same color can modulate slightly, as in the pink of “Madonna exquisitely dressed”; she solves the difference with a unifying stenciled surface pattern. The smallest pieces, Agee says, were often the most difficult to perform: their shapes are more open, the bodies more kinetic, and the possibilities for failure seem endless. Many of these little pieces are one color.

Some Madonnas, without children, instead offer a large open hole, as in “The Madonna with the raised curtain” (2020); porcelain with a matte blue glaze, she leans forward while opening her skirt. The hole revealed suggests the space of a missing relic, or perhaps the missing child, but it is as sturdy as Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein in 1906. Indeed, Picasso is a constant presence in the show. , in her pure playing and ingenuity – whether in the quirky, smiling faces of “Veiled Madonna” and “Folk Pietà with Drip” (both in 2020), which are reminiscent of her ceramics, or the crisp folded joints, in those here and elsewhere, which evoke his carved metal sculptures, which Agee admires. There is macho bravado in one of the most serene and beautiful parts of the show, the monumental sky-blue “Madonna of the Penis” (2021), which wears a talismanic necklace with a phallus ball, a form based on fertility objects from ancient Rome that Agee produced and hung on the walls of an earlier exhibition.

Installation view, Ann Agee: madonnas and hand warmers at P P O W, New York, 2021

Agee first showed him in class Hand warmers series on a large table at Frieze New York a few years ago; she has continued to produce these works to the present day. They are based – like the Madonnas in the “salt cellar” in the other room, which carry curved plates – on objects she first saw at the Davanzati Palace, a house museum in Florence.

In the museum were exhibited a number of hollow ceramics in the form of original shoes and of vague function; they may have been wedding memorabilia that originally contained wine. Agee imagines them differently, however. She imagines aristocratic women confined in their spacious palace, freezing in winter; the shoes, she believes, were filled with hot water and carried in pockets or bags. Why not, she asks? So she nicknames them Hand warmers, and it offers them an inexhaustible multiplicity of shapes, enamels and styles, from old-fashioned slippers with pompoms to stylish moccasins, and even an all-over “branded” slip-on shoe, like a Louis Vuitton bag, with AGEE MFG. Sometimes they hardly constitute a shoe, as in an arabesque form that Agee borrowed from a painting by Thomas Nozkowski. Roughly organizing them in groups by pallet, she offers the shoes as singles, as if their comrades were waiting in the wings of a store. Alternately funky and elegant, they testify to an unbridled imagination; although clay, they are as free as sketches.

Ann Agee: madonnas and hand warmers continues at the PPOW Gallery (392 Broadway, Manhattan) through July 23.

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