by Marty Demarest

Artists don't need to talk. I don't want to know about their childhoods, or how their art relates to their travels and experiences. It's hard enough coming to terms with how art interacts with our -- the viewer's -- life. Anything else you really need to know can usually be found right there, in the work of art itself. If the artist couldn't communicate that way, it's sometimes best if they stay silent.

Ceramics are a particularly silent art form. The objects that are traditionally made from clay -- plates, cups, figurines and vases -- are designed to be an unobtrusive background in our lives. They may be decorated, or even eye-catching. But most ceramic pieces, even though they come into intimate contact with our hands, mouths and bodies, are designed to serve us dutifully and invisibly.

But the first time I saw Beth Cavener Stichter's work, I was told a complete story in a single glance. Walking around a corner in the Archie Bray Institute's Warehouse Gallery in Helena, Mont., I was confronted with a man-sized rabbit huddled in the corner of the room. My initial instinct was to stop. The rabbit was clearly threatened by my presence, backed into a corner, its legs halfway pulled under it, its hooded eyes avoiding my gaze. It was an animal trying to escape; and I had cornered it.

A similar thing happened when I first encountered a group of Chris Antemann's small porcelain figures. At the Art Spirit Gallery (where both Antemann's and Stichter's work is on display starting this week), I approached her pieces and noticed immediately that, even though the show had only been open for a few hours, most of them had sold. Looking at them, I understood why. In each tiny figure, some surreal scene was taking place. Animals perched on the backs of people, covered in decorative painting. Nude women set tea parties on their arms. In every piece, an aspect of someone's personality was liberated. The buyers milling around me had found a small object that unlocked and expressed something that was normally kept silent.

The pieces worked because both Antemann and Stichter are working in the ceramics tradition of figurative art, and they stay true to that tradition even as they help push it forward. Stichter's animals, as expressive and haunting as they might be, are all recognizable. Even a wild boar, encrusted with sugar crystals until it glows, can be identified in a single glance. And Antemann, though she takes a more delicate approach, creates decorative objects that, with their flowery decals and glossy surfaces, could easily be considered knick-knacks if it wasn't for the imaginative and surprising subject matter.

Yet both artists break boldly with tradition, discovering new ways to communicate with these old forms. When animals are depicted in most ceramic art, they tend to resemble real animals in greatly simplified form -- vacant, innocent and pure. (Think of the small porcelain figures that used to be packaged with tea.) If they suggested human qualities at all, they did it by becoming clich & eacute;d totems: the innocent lamb, the savage bear, the loyal dog.

But Stichter, with her potent psychological touch, gives us the self-victimizing bunny and the apathetic goat. Their bodies roughly carve the light into planes and angles, while their heads are draped in folds of expressive detail. Some of her figures are small -- the size of real rabbits, for instance; others are so large that they hang over shelves the size of freight pallets. These are not figures that you observe placidly. Stichter captures the viewer by making them a witness -- or possibly the cause -- of the animal's captivity. The helpless figures recoil from us and hang suspended, caught in the headlights of our gaze. They are human expressive sculptures in the guise of semi-domesticated animals.

Antemann's figures are much more intimate. With their familiar scrollwork of flowers and leaves, they invite us to let our guard down. Their shiny surfaces call to mind delicately painted teacups and plates -- things we've handled our entire lives. But we're unprepared to see the daily tasks of civilized people turned into the miniature dramas that Antemann presents. Her female figures, instead of dutifully undertaking housework, or resting tranquilly with a menial task, do surprising things. They play the bull in a bullfight. They strip off their clothes. Instead of having tea parties, they deck their arms with the accoutrements of domesticity like so many porcelain feathers. In each piece, Antemann puts lavish, complex lives on a shelf, and decorates them with the glossy patterns of civilization.

Both of these artists have told stories that don't require words or further interpretation. Gone are the moral lessons of "The Tortoise and the Hare." Instead, we have the story told by the wide, frightened eyes of a scrawny creature in distress. The intimacy that exists between a rider and horse is amplified to hilarious levels as they both undress and climb into a bath together. With works like the ones on display in Coeur d'Alene, Antemann and Stichter show that they are two artists on the vanguard of searching everyday life for the mythical.

Publication date: 04/08/04

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