By Tanner Kent
The Free Press
Mike Cimino and Joe Herke know how to make functional pottery.
In fact, it’s kind of required that the pair of Minnesota State University ceramics students can demonstrate at least proficient skill in creating vases and bowls and cups that are at once lovely and utilitarian. They’ve produced plenty of that kind of pottery. They’ve shown and sold such pottery, too.
But their exhibit that opens Friday at the Carnegie Art Center in Mankato isn’t that kind of pottery. In fact, this art is more in the realm of sculpture than ceramics; and the underlying narrative is focused far more on process than product.
“A lot of things we work with are found objects or secondhand objects,” said Herke, gesturing toward a set of elevator shaft braces procured from MSU’s library. “Sometimes we break our own work.”
Titled “Fragments,” Cimino and Herke’s exhibit explores the deconstruction of construction. To illustrate, the centerpiece of their exhibit is an installation comprised of a heaping crate of discarded pottery Ñ a “giant, monolithic pile of trash,” as Cimino characterized it.
Some of the pieces were rescued from the rubbish heap used by MSU ceramics students; some of them were created by Cimino and Herke themselves. A few were even shown in past exhibitions.
The artists say the installation is illustrative of their creative concept. By recycling, repurposing and reimagining processes and materials, they arrive at entirely different artistic conclusions than what is pre-supposed about ceramic art.
By freeing themselves from the constraints of making pottery, Cimino and Herke’s ceramic sculptures become twisting, scarred and ultimately flawed amalgamations of clay, metal and fire.
“We play with the idea of value in a lot of our art,” Cimino said. “We don’t make fun of value, but we play around with the idea of what is valuable.”
Herke added: “If you don’t make a pot correctly, you could hurt people or make them sick. Switching to sculpture allowed us to do things without limitations.”
A pair of Cimino’s sculptures that are part of his “Dinnerware” series are imbued with a sort of implied functionality through vaguely industrial shorthand and rusting, red-brown hues. But then he over-fired them, burning the pieces with deep cracks and fissures.
As Herke notes, such imperfections can seriously harm a potter’s reputation. But for Cimino, they add depth and shadow, and are heavy with cultural symbolism.
“Most people discredit the crack,” Cimino said. “But I value its aesthetic qualities. ... Because pottery is so grounded in function, it’s exciting to throw out the conventions.”
While Cimino’s work is marked by heavy, mechanical elements, Herke’s work is grounded more often in figural representations.
Utilizing clay and rebar, he created a series of figurines bent into impossible poses. After pummeling away the concrete and exposing the rebar, Herke wrapped the steel rods with multiple varieties of clay (again, a pottery no-no because each type of clay has its own properties).
The result are anthropomorphic sculptures that appear aged, tormented and inexorably rooted to the emotionless materials that created them.
“To us, art has to be visually exciting,” Herke said. “It doesn’t have to be visually or technically sound.”