The stuff of fairytales (and nightmares)

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Sweden-based Klara Kristalova combines naivety with dark undertones in her unsettling ceramics

Helping the medium of ceramics to emerge from the margins: Klara Kristalova’s The Sleepless, 2011

If you feel like a bull in a china shop as soon as you step into a museum, this exhibition may not be the best place for you. The Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach is showing the delicate works of Klara Kristalova, the Czech-born, Sweden-based artist known for her high-glazed ceramic figurines. At once childlike and sinister, Kristalova’s sculptures have helped the medium to slowly emerge from the margins of contemporary art practice.

The artist’s first museum solo show outside Sweden comprises 40 ceramics and 30 drawings that have rarely been exhibited. Described as “memory notes” by Kristalova, the artist’s works on paper are “critical to the process of making her sculpture”, says Cheryl Brutvan, the Norton’s director of cultural affairs and the curator of the show. “If you like her sculptures, you will love her drawings,” she says. All of the works in the exhibition have been lent by international collections, which proved a challenge for the curator, because private collectors, who “love their pieces”, own most of the artist’s output. “But they have been very generous,” she adds.

Kristalova studied painting at the Royal College of Fine Art in Stockholm, but the medium made her feel “very restricted and bored”, Brutvan says. When the artist turned to clay after graduating, she was aware that the fragile, relatively inexpensive material was taken less seriously than paint and stone, but she persisted because of its accessibility. “She wants her work to speak to lots of people, not only those who are familiar with the language of the art world,” Brutvan says. Her sculptures’ fairy-tale subjects—she names Hans Christian Andersen and comic books as inspirations—also conjure universal themes. But the seeming naivety of her characters is laced with darker motifs: bleeding eyes, broken necks and animal-human hybrids. For example, in a large sculpture of a young girl perched, legs dangling, on a square pedestal (And Still They Remain, 2009), the artist subverts the innocent scene with giant moths covering the figure’s hair.

Promoting women artists

The exhibition is the latest in the museum’s annual Recognition of Art by Women (Raw) series, which is devoted to promoting living women painters and sculptors. Funded by the Leonard and Sophie Davis Fund/M.L. Dauray Arts Initiative, the six-year programme is now in its fourth edition. Solo shows were previously given to the UK artists Jenny Saville and Phyllida Barlow, as well as the US artist Sylvia Plimack Mangold. Brutvan, who oversees the selection of artists for the series, says that women artists remain under-recognised. “It’s 2014 and we’re still talking about it,” she says. “Certain things have certainly changed for the better, but the reality is there in black and white. There is still a large gap between the value attributed to male and female artists.”

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