Opposites attract

Working 'In Contention,' two artists combine very different mediums

'Roma' "Roma" utilizes ceramic, blue glazes, mirrors, a cardboard tube, and more. (Clements/Howcroft, Boston)
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / March 3, 2009
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CAMBRIDGE - At first glance, sculptors Taylor Davis and Nicole Cherubini couldn't be more different. Davis works primarily in wood, Cherubini in clay. Davis makes lean, minimalist objects. Cherubini makes florid, baroque vessels, dripping with glaze and festooned with decoration. Seemingly against all reason, they decided to collaborate.

"Davis, Cherubini, in Contention," a provocative and problematic exhibit at the MIT List Visual Arts Center, revolves around singular objects made by the pair. Davis lives and works in Boston. Cherubini grew up here and has a studio in Brooklyn. Each has an established, thriving solo career.

As if eavesdropping on a marital discussion, a viewer approaches each piece weighing what each artist offers up. Sometimes they make sense together. Sometimes you wonder what they could possibly have been thinking. The work is most intriguing when the lines blur and it is unclear who made what formal decision. That's rare.

Yet there's something undeniably juicy about the artists' working relationship, and the resulting tensions in the sculptures they create. Sculptors are generally thought to work alone. We romanticize sole authorship and associate it with artistic genius. To bring together two artists with such rigorous formal intelligence is a daring conceptual gambit. It's when the concept has more spark than the artistic product that you run into trouble.

Cherubini and Davis actually have more in common than you might think. Both work with vessels. Davis's trademark is her beautifully crafted, spare boxes, and Cherubini makes pots that have holes in odd places. Indeed, both take off from forms that seem to have function and vault into fine art. They share a fascination with maverick American potters George Ohr and the Brothers Kirkpatrick, whose sly, subversive, abstract pots shook up the ceramics world in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Like the Brothers Kirkpatrick, Cherubini and Davis each make erotically charged work.

Their process is simple. In his catalog essay, curator Bill Arning terms it "call and response." Cherubini or Davis will begin a piece, and when she reaches an impasse, she sends it to the other to finish and title.

I laughed out loud, surprised and delighted at "Downstairs," the first sculpture I encountered when I stepped in the gallery's door. Davis started it, with a low wooden box. Cherubini plopped into it another box, terra cotta with a knobby, protuberant base, so the ceramic piece appears to hover over the wooden one. A torn pair of denim jeans snakes its way from the bottom of the clay piece and spills over the top. Davis favors denim; did she add the jeans, like a cherry on an ice-cream sundae? Likely not, since Cherubini reports in the catalog that she named the piece. "Downstairs," like works by each individual artist, bawdily considers interior and exterior, containment and escape.

Across the gallery stands "Miss Kitty," which looks like a completed Taylor Davis sculpture disappointingly garnished by Nicole Cherubini. I'm guessing Davis started it, because her contribution dwarfs Cherubini's in scale. Davis paired a luscious, unfinished plank of white pine with a carefully cut section of black walnut plywood. The plywood looks like half of a swinging saloon door (shades of the TV western "Gunsmoke," which featured a character named Miss Kitty), jutting gracefully from the long, knotty plank. The two lengths of wood set up a gritty nature/culture tension. At their juncture, Cherubini attached a diamond-shaped clay structure with a smaller, similarly shaped addendum, like a spigot. Here, the clay and wood portions seem disjointed, unrelated, acrimonious.

In "Grey #2," however, the push and pull between the two artists results in a unified, sweetly coy whole. Davis has constructed a fence of sorts out of narrow planks and perched it on top of a cube. Someone coated the planks in glossy, drippy gray paint. (Who? We don't know - the utilitarian gray might be Davis; the drips and gleam look more like Cherubini.) Cherubini inserted a length of rutted clay glazed with brilliant turquoise in one of the fence's interstices like grout in a crack, and it glows there, at once ugly and gorgeous, the color and texture fugitive in an otherwise assiduously plain work.

"Roma" began, I'm guessing, with Cherubini's plump vessel, striped with gushing blue glazes and ornamented with hieroglyphs and meaty divots. It has been turned on its head on a mirror base, and the bottom has been cut off. Davis inserted there a phallic cardboard tube, imprinted in gothic red letters with the work's title. Like the Brothers Kirkpatrick's snake pots, this piece glories in frank sexual metaphors. The pleasing shock, though, doesn't lie in the content, which is satisfying enough, but in the undeniable difference in the material, form, and sensibility each artist contributes.

"Davis, Cherubini, in Contention" has been aptly named, because the two artists clearly do contend with each other, and so produce works laden with formal argument. While it's fun to see the struggle fleshed out in the art - identifying who made what element in a piece can be a game - ultimately the exhibition is more about the artists than it is about the sculptures. And that's why, I'd venture, this relationship won't last.

DAVIS, CHERUBINI, IN CONTENTION At: MIT List Visual Arts Center, 20 Ames St., Cambridge, through April 5. 617-253-4680,

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