‘City’ of ceramic dreams

RISD installation depicts a heaving metropolis with such dizzying detail, the mind reels

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / December 11, 2009

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PROVIDENCE - Our needs may be finite, but the human drive to build - and build and build - is not. Take a look at any sizable city, from New York and Boston to Nairobi and Berlin, and the ceaseless cycle of demolition and construction comes to seem futile and even demented at its heart.

Beneath the great delight it engenders, “Inner City,’’ a vast and remarkable installation of ceramics by Arnie Zimmerman at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, taps into exactly this feeling of insanity.

The work itself, if not insane, is certainly tremendous - as befits the tremendous scale of the urban environments it conjures. Walk into the gallery at RISD, and what you see is a wall-to-wall grid of chunky square plinths of varying height supporting a dizzying array of buildings, bridges, smokestacks, stairways, girders, beams, and bricks, as well as hundreds of gangly little people, all laboring away like hapless minions. It’s a heaving metropolis, and it’s all made from glazed stoneware, modeled and fired by Zimmerman himself.

As installed by the Portuguese architect Tiago Montepegado, some parts of the piece extend diagonally from the plinths to the wall; others are mounted on the walls themselves. The structures get quite fanciful at times. They can put you in mind of the sinister, vertiginous power of Piranesi’s imaginary prisons.

But because of the medium, they have a haphazard, homemade feel, too. They are enlivened by irresolute angles, knobbly surfaces, and various other imperfections. Consequently, the impression is not of some gleaming new Abu Dhabi, all glass-sheathed and immaculate, but of a city besmirched and forlorn - hints, perhaps, of 1920s and ’30s Brooklyn, where Zimmerman grew up, or of Manhattan, where he lives now. There are also various indirect allusions to Bruegel, Bosch, Ensor, and Guston - all artists who captured something of the heavy lyricism of human toil.

But as I wandered among the wonders and ruins of “Inner City,’’ bending to peer more closely at Zimmerman’s gauche figures in improbable headgear carrying miscellaneous tools, working alone or in convict-like gangs, I came to think of “Inner City’’ as a metaphor for the mind, too. And especially I thought of Saul Bellow’s haunting passage in “The Adventures of Augie March’’ - so apt that I’m going to quote it in full:

“Hard, hard work, excavation and digging, mining, moling through tunnels, heaving, pushing, moving rock, working, working, working, working, working, panting, hauling, hoisting. And none of this work is seen from the outside. It’s internally done. It happens because you are powerless and unable to get anywhere, to obtain justice or have requital, and therefore in yourself you labor, you wage and combat, settle scores, remember insults, fight, reply, deny, blab, denounce, triumph, outwit, overcome, vindicate, cry, persist, absolve, die and rise again. All by yourself! Where is everybody? Inside your breast and skin, the entire cast.’’

Zimmerman’s entire cast may be the product of his head, but it has evidently escaped its confines, and is by now actually rather well traveled. “Inner City’’ has been installed previously at a former power station in Lisbon and at the Princessehof Museum in Leeuwarden, Holland. In each location, the installation has changed. The RISD display is the largest version to date.

Montepegado, Zimmerman’s collaborator, has known the ceramicist since the architect was a teenager and works on special projects with Zimmerman’s gallery in Lisbon. For each version of “Inner City’’ he has designed a different installation. In the power station in Lisbon, he set up concrete walls as backdrops to the ceramic components. In Holland, he placed the sculptures on scaffolding.

Here, in the much cleaner and potentially sterile environment at RISD, he has ingeniously painted a white grid on the floor, suggestive of Manhattan, and set up an elevated viewing platform, accessible by ramp, from which it’s possible to take in the entire installation.

There’s something awe-inspiring about the work as a whole. But “Inner City’’ is also full of things you want to get up close to: the two laborers whose heads have become one with the arch of bricks they are constructing; the men in crazy hats standing on cylindrical stilts and carrying an iron girder; the gang of dejected prisoners in striped uniforms - it’s never-ending.

A final note: This is an exhibition most kids will love. It’s full of brilliant detail, mysterious spaces, and humor. A world you can get genuinely lost in.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at

INNER CITY At: Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, Providence, through Jan. 3. 401-454-6400,

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