Late sculptor Ruth Duckworth’s solo exhibition, “Life as a Unity,” on view at the Smart Museum of Art, chronicles Duckworth’s prolific practice and dedication to pushing the ceramic envelope. The exhibition title is obtained from her quote, “I think of life as a unity. This includes mountains, mice, rocks, trees, women, and men. It’s all a big lump of clay.” Through this perspective, the viewer is able to step out of their role as created and into their role as creator alongside the artist. “Life as a Unity” finds its success by demonstrating how an artistic practice can serve as a capsule of a worldview; shareable, digestible and contagious, Duckworth’s body of work celebrates the natural world with all its glory.
The gallery is packed with sculptures stemming from the earth and peeling from the walls. The range of Duckworth’s tenacity and interest is revealed as each sculpture depicts a new investigation. The perimeter is filled with porcelain, ceramic and stone wall hangings, most remaining untitled, that look like topographic reliefs from other planets or ocean floors. A textural phenomenon tickles the senses, as jagged, cheese-grater surfaces are paired alongside creamy, polished porcelain.
One of these untitled wall hangings from 2006 is a lustrous ivory puzzle of eight rectangles made from thin planes of porcelain carefully overlaid to let their delicate curves cast gradient shadows. Bulbous orbs protrude themselves against the folds of the porcelain, like pearls nuzzled in the drapery of an oyster’s walls. These bulbs keep a watchful eye on the viewer as they pace around the exhibition. Another wall hanging from 1970 is a vertical rectangle, rippling like a softly disturbed pond with flat oval slates across these premature waves, replicating stones from the shore resting idle on top of the water’s surface. These sculptures, thirty-six years apart and made similar in material and scale, show the pipeline of motivation that kept Duckworth creating. The curiosity she must have felt in her bones, with enough fervor to generate this prolifically over the course of many decades, is contagious. Suddenly, the tiny mushrooms that populate the grass and the silver pigeons that occupy the Midwestern sky turn from a white noise to a wonder.
Displayed together are sublime pieces from the “Cups and Blades” series, with contributions spanning from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s. Each piece introduces a functional dishware thoughtfully interrogated by a thin slice of porcelain. Her piece from 2002 is the purest representation, as its palm-sized cup is pierced by a smooth, scalloped wedge. Another from 1990 plays with the head of a chalice as an orb with a thin slice of porcelain peacock featuring out from itself fills the mouth of the cup. The spherical center to this piece brings the viewer back to the wall hangings as mentioned earlier, and reminds us how invested Duckworth was in studying the expression of porcelain and treating her curiosities as spiritual guides.
“Life as a Unity” offers an environment of playful inquisition and a moment to relish in our natural world. Devoid of pretense or intimidation, Duckworth’s body of work allows viewers to experience creation for creation’s sake and be reminded of the powerful shoestring tied around all who pepper this earth.
“Ruth Duckworth: Life as a Unity” is on view at the Smart Museum of Art on the University of Chicago campus, 5550 South Greenwood through February 4, 2024.