Since last August, Atlanta Contemporary has invited artist-run spaces in the South to take over, for two months at a time, a small gallery near the front entryway. The current rotation, hosted by Tops Gallery in Memphis, features the sculptural work of Marja Vallila. Originally from Czechoslovakia, Vallila moved to Washington, D.C. at the age of fourteen and eventually taught art at the University of Albany, SUNY for twenty-five years while maintaining a successful art career in New York City. Vallila produced the sculptures in Tops Gallery between 2001 and 2004, a time of great production for the artist. She unfortunately succumbed to early onset dementia shortly afterward, and she currently resides in Memphis, where she continues to create despite her illness.
Eleven of Vallila’s bright and dynamic ceramic sculptures are arranged on a low plinth in the center of the Tops Gallery space. The forms are constructed from repeated series of slip-cast hoses, rings, gourds, and spheres that weave in and out of one another, interrupted and grounded by cones, pinched forms, and even an occasional tchotchke or figurine. The tangled compositions are at once at once playful and refined, unified by formal sophistication and a thoughtful consideration of composition, repetition, movement, and surface. The vantage point, offering an overhead view as well as in the round, was a strategic choice made by curators Matt Ducklo of Tops Gallery and Daniel Fuller of Atlanta Contemporary. While each ceramic piece singularly rhythmic, the low, grouped arrangement allows viewers to orbit the work and recognize recurring elements among each sculpture.
In the context of contemporary ceramics, Vallila’s sculptures are kindred to Ryan Labar’s mechanical jumbles and Virginia Scotchie’s bulbous forms. The compositions are coated in commercial glazes that range in texture from luscious and candy-like to matte and ashy, and the saturated colors coupled with pops of metallic recall Kathy Butterly’s stacked and slumped reimagined vessels, as well as Matt Wedel’s winding floral sculptures.
The vibrant, splotchy crystal glazes Vallila employs offer exciting and often psychedelic results when fired. These kitsch surfaces have ebbed and flowed in popularity throughout the years, and have been used primarily in decorative and hobby art contexts. Once reserved as crafty spectacle, these surfaces are presently trending, and are utilized by contemporary artists such as Bruce M. Sherman and Atlanta’s own Andy Sloan Jackson. In this manner, Vallila’s fresh and predictive aesthetic is notable. She constructed these ceramic forms between 2001 and 2004, but they are right at home in the effervescent contemporary art scene a decade and a half later.
Marja Vallila’s work, presented by Tops Gallery of Memphis, is on view at Atlanta Contemporary through February 26.
Michelle Laxalt is a graduate student at Georgia State University. She will graduate this spring with an MFA in ceramics.