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Ceramic artist breaks boundaries in Mint Museum commission

By Barbara Schreiber
Correspondent
CAJA
The Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance is a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.

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  • Cristina Córdova

    Inspirations: Include the imagery of Catholicism as practiced in Puerto Rico, commedia dell’arte and Butoh.

    On “Preludios y Partidas”: “I wanted there to be a sense of movement and a duality between these heavy things and a sense of anti-gravity. … The fact that these are random, disassociated elements and these figures seem at peace with that is something important to me emotionally.”

    More info: www.mintmuseum.org; www.cristinacordova.com.


Cristina Córdova’s ethereal figures seem to exist in a world of introspection, sadness or indifference. But they are not repelling or confounding; instead, they move the viewer to understand them and the mysterious realms they inhabit.

Two large ceramic figures are at the heart of her “Preludios y Partidas (Preludes and Games)” at Charlotte’s Mint Museum Uptown: a crouching man who gazes into the distance and a standing woman with eyes downcast. Their hands are gnarled but posed gracefully; their feet seem wrapped in rags.

Each is perched on a boulder or island; there are five of these islands in the work, all made using the ferrocement technique, which combines concrete and welding. All of the elements are mounted on a wall, so the islands are like stages and the figures like performers.

With its eerie ceramic figures, ferrocement forms, and dramatic lighting and placement, “Preludios y Partidas” is an impressive piece of art and engineering.

Córdova, 37, a ceramic sculptor based in Penland, installed “Preludios y Partidas” in November 2012. “This is probably the largest composition I’ve ever made,” she says. “I’ve made pieces that are comparable, with figures that are 9 feet tall, but this is the largest grouping that is considered one piece.”

The Mint was the first museum to commission a work by Córdova.

“I first saw Cristina’s work at the prestigious Santa Fe Clay annual invitational in 2005 or 2006,” says Annie Carlano, director of Craft + Design at the Mint. “Her style, her way of working, the psychological content, was unlike any contemporary work I had ever seen. I thought immediately of the Florentine mannerist painter Pontormo.

“I love that her work is outside of any trends. In terms of figurative ceramics, it has a depth of expression and soul not easy to find in contemporary work.”

“Preludios y Partidas” is part of Project Ten Ten Ten, launched by Craft + Design to honor the Oct. 10, 2010, opening of the museum. Works by 10 craft artists were commissioned. Carlano stresses that Project Ten Ten Ten is all about innovation, experimentation and artists taking their work to a higher level.

For Córdova, this involved her pioneering use of ferrocement, as well as confronting technical challenges to mount “Preludios y Partidas’s” heavy, massive elements on a wall.

Córdova had been experimenting with ferrocement, but was inspired by the Mint commission to expand on her efforts and refine her technique. She also furthered her experimentation with patinas.

“She communicates emotion and sense of place,” says Carlano, “with unprecedented use of patina and technical wizardry.”

Varied influences

Córdova’s work, filled with complexity and ambiguity, is a product of rich, varied experiences.

These myriad influences are “almost like my language ... I recombine these and compound them with things that might be more contemporary or completely new to my life and my awareness.”

Born in Boston when her parents were students at Harvard Medical School, Córdova arrived in her family’s native Puerto Rico when she was 6 months old. She grew up in the suburbs of San Juan. Puerto Rico exerts a deep influence on her – in the contrasts of its beauty and its ubiquitous ugly concrete walls, its corruption and crime. Growing up in a territory that is not perceived as part of the U.S. by many Americans contributes to her sense of otherness.

Córdova describes her theatrical, choreographed figures as “a confluence of dance and my experience within the Catholic religion in the context of Puerto Rico.”

A former ballet dancer, she is also inspired by commedia dell’arte and Butoh.

Córdova didn’t comprehend the uniqueness of Catholicism as practiced in Puerto Rico until she left the island. She now sees that “there is a heaviness in the use of imagery ... the use of figures as intermediaries between yourself and some higher force.”

Calling Penland home

After receiving her MFA New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, she did a three-year residency at the Penland School of Crafts in Western North Carolina.

Córdova never intended to remain at Penland as long as she has. But near the end of her residency, as she and her husband, glassblower Pablo Soto (who, well-versed in metals and welding, also serves as her technical adviser), began considering their next step, a private property within the 400-acre Penland community came up for sale.

By then, they had a child in school and had developed a network. “It became clear that this could be the place for us. ... That’s when it clicked and we decided to stay. It took a while for me to get used it.”

In the time Córdova, Soto and their two children have been there, Penland has turned into something of a hub for artists who are devoted to work and family.

“Cristina is one intense and engaging young artist paying attention simultaneously to the people in her life and to the ideas and images she brings to life through her work,” says Jean McLaughlin, director of Penland School of Crafts.

Penland has been instrumental in Córdova’s development as an artist. Although she at first found its remoteness intimidating, “I can’t imagine getting the support that I’ve gotten any other place. ... I can’t imagine leaving.”

“Cristina’s serious focus and professionalism, her insights shared as an instructor, her openness to students and visitors, her inquisitive nature, and the strength of her work all contribute to the person whose voice and leadership is so admired in the community,” says McLaughlin.

Córdova balances rigor and research with instinct and spirituality.

Many of her choices, from her ghostly palette to the states of mind she depicts, are intuitive. Her figures’ pale, otherworldly colors are part of her effort to maintain a sense of neutrality, “a state of suspension, where everything starts.”

In earlier work, the figures seem in crisis or tormented. In “Preludios y Partidas” they seem more resolved and calm.

Córdova sees them as being in a place of “neutrality and possibilities – ‘preludios’... the prelude to something that’s going to restructure itself. So this is that amorphous space where everything has been accounted for, everything has been settled.”

It represents a consolidation and openness to a new phase.

Mysterious and emotional

Córdova gravitates to female or androgynous figures.

The female figure’s clothing in “Preludios y Partidas” is exquisitely articulated, the skirt a mass of ruffles and ruching. Beyond the deep beauty and technical achievement, it is also the result of her desire to have a figure that is clearly feminine without being naked and vulnerable.

With “Preludios y Partidas,” Cristina Córdova has created a mysterious setting with complex, possibly unknowable, characters.

It is the viewer’s job to make that into a narrative?

“Not necessarily,” she says.

Córdova wants viewers to “imagine emotionally the space. And hopefully, that reality, if you achieve it ... will be something of value and something that might bring light into this thing we call existence.”

This article is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance.

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