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Alice Hohenberg Federico: The Liberation of Clay

By Vered Lieb

Excerpted from exhibition catalogue, Sarah Moody Gallery, University of Alabama 2018

In America in the late 60’s and early 70’s there was a movement initiated mostly by sculptors of what has since been called “Process Art.” Artist like Richard Serra, Alan Saret and Linda Benglis made work that depended upon a process that included unpredictability. The idea in its purest sense was to have the artist get out of the way of the material and let the material “do its thing.” The idea was that the artist was there to just nudge the medium, but that the medium would be the message. Therefore it is fascinating to hear Alice say, “ One day… all of a sudden I made a pot and twisted it… and it became an abstracted figurative object…that was the day I started doing my own work.”


One of the themes of Alice Hohenberg Federico’s work is the development of forms: forms that echo the past but move into the present as her own. There are several works in this show that exemplify the classical Greek forms mentioned earlier, in particular the form of the amphora. Alice certainly makes reference to these forms throughout her career but in the works on display in this exhibition she is obviously become a master of them. She can reproduce these classical forms with great dexterity and seriousness, but she can also tilt them and dress them up like a humorous tower of Pisa decked out in calypso colors and ruffles. These forms are but a starting point for her journey to liberate the clay. 


Alice similarly acknowledges influence from the work of Dame Lucie Rie, an Austrian-born British ceramicist, best known for her modernist bottles and bowls. But here again, the shapes explored by Rie are not just reproduced here; they function as a starting point for further exploration of how a pot is made and how it functions as a form. There are three of these perfectly wonderful bottle vases in this exhibition where Alice shows us that she can throw the most symmetrical and beautiful (possibly functional) vase in the world. And that would be enough for most of us. For Alice, I am glad to say, it is not enough. And it is the moment that she decides to take the form to the next step, which may not be pretty or symmetrical that she crosses the line from functionality and into the world of sculpture, fine art, and the spiritual.


Alice came to her own way of making ceramics by taking the path of learning to master conventional forms and then allowing them to relax into graceful chaos with a slump or a twist, and finish them off with a perfect rim. Alice spent a lot of years, developing these ideas/forms/shapes and methods of how to build what she had designed. She says, “ I explored many forms over the years and I can draw on the time that I have spent with each shape… They are shapes thrown in parts, and I build the forms to make the whole. As a mature artist I have these forms that I have put time into learning and then making the shapes a part of me … I enjoy doing it. That’s the point!”


I recommend to the viewer a close examination of the handles on her pots. There is something traditional about a pot with handles, but then Alice changes the rules. Sometimes they crunch up and flatten, or they appear to be trying to detach themselves from the body of the pot like arms waving and undulating. Alice has said, “ Its very hard to get big handles on pots.” The form of the amphora demands handles, yet hers are a crumpled ruin or too fragile because, as she states (about the handles,) “ (They are) a declaration that this piece is not primarily functional.” 


Alice Hohenberg Federico has succeeded in her work to traverse the line that separates traditional ceramic craft and fine art. When the potter, Peter Voulkis took his earthenware plates and using his thumbs pressed from behind and made holes in the plates, he was declaring that the work was not functional--but art. It takes great mastery of the medium and clear focus for any artist to make contributions to the history of their craft. In Alice Hohenberg Federico’s work I find all my questions answered about the dialectic leap from clay to spirit, and from pottery to sculpture. In looking at any one of her pieces we are confronted with the entire history of pottery, and by her dynamic usage of the materials we breathlessly enter the modern world on Alice’s strong yet genteel Southern shoulders.

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