Last fall, two ceramics exhibitions were simultaneously on view at opposite ends of New York City. The first was at the gallery Sikkema Jenkins & Co. in Chelsea. Glazed pottery appeared to ooze out of hand-hewn hardwood and bright-green pedestals displayed vaguely primeval pink ceramic mounds. The second, which will remain open through April 2, 2017, was uptown at the hushed Frick Collection. Meissen porcelain—the so-called gift of kings—is laid out on tables, mounted on silk damask wallpaper, and arranged on small, delicate pedestals. Both shows, improbably, were the work of one woman: Arlene Shechet.
Shechet, a mid-career artist, has recently enjoyed a spate of accolades usually reserved for hot young artists or octogenarians in the twilight of their careers. In 2016 alone, Shechet was the subject of four solo shows, including exhibitions at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. This year, she has shows planned in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Paris. “Putting together an exhibition is an immensely powerful and important experience,” says Shechet. “And it’s not always positive! But it is a force of change.”
Shechet studied at the Rhode Island School of Design. Shortly after graduating, she began to teach while simultaneously maintaining a studio practice, which eventually became unsustainable. “I came to this moment where I felt like I was going to just go crazy if I didn’t share my art with the world more,” she says. “So I eventually left academia.” She has worked full-time on her art ever since.
Shechet’s sculptures are, at their essence, a formal interrogation of medium, process, and aesthetics. One sculpture might vary wildly from the next in shape, color, or method of creation, which is a deliberate strategy on Shechet’s part. “I think the art world perhaps likes to narrow things down,” she tells us. “But I have a large appetite for experiences, aesthetic information, and learning about materials, so I’m not going to be pinned down in the most typical way.”
That’s partly why she was able to mount concurrent shows comprised of two vastly different groups of objects that both felt, after some scrutiny, profoundly similar. The Chelsea show was a collection of recent work, while the Frick’s featured objects that she created during a residency at the Meissen factory placed alongside historic Meissen pieces. “Maybe my approach was sacrilegious,” Shechet says. “But that’s what I felt, and always feel, is my job—to penetrate boundaries, and to puncture any kind of wall for what is acceptable.”