In 1973 ceramicist Paula Winokur traveled for the first time to the American West. The trip by air literally changed her point of view—toward the landscape and human actions that alter the face of nature. During the 1980s, she became increasingly fascinated by the remains of past civilizations, either as artifacts, or as marks on the face of the earth.
Mantel for Three Bowls [1993.54.22] is one of a series of porcelain wall pieces incorporating ledgelike forms affixed to vertical planes. These works strongly suggest the geology of Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado, a rock-ribbed, desert landscape that deeply moved the artist. In this vast and austere setting, Winokur experienced a physical immensity and sense of timelessness that strongly influenced her subsequent work. On the mesa, she felt, as an almost palpable presence, the spirit of the Anasazi—the ancient Pueblo culture that once thrived in the region. She was fascinated and awed by the appearance of window openings and niches in the sheer cliffs, and long-abandoned, lean-made forms balanced precariously on canyon ledges.
The rough-edged ledge and canyon-like wall of Mantel for Three Bowls evoke the vast scale and appearance of the stark Mesa Verde landscape. The various drawings and incisions on the porcelain surfaces, on the other hand, are suggestive generally of the ways in which past civilizations have imprinted their presence on the earth’s surface, either through pictographs, pathways, irrigation canals, or agriculture. Often, this material evidence can be seen only from high above, and the long incisions on Winokur’s porcelain surfaces evoke the immensity experienced only from an aerial viewpoint.
Yet, the appearance of the three decorated vessels on the mantel-like shelf suddenly introduces an entirely different set of dimensions. The intimate scale of the cups contrasts sharply with the vastness suggested by the landscape-like ledge and wall. There is a startling, surreal quality to the juxtaposition. On one hand, the cups can be read as monumental forms in a landscape setting, but on another, they can be understood as archeological artifacts, domestic utensils scaled for the human hand. Read simply as ceramic vessels, they collapse the apparent immensity of their geological environment into a miniature setting. What was read as a sandstone ledge becomes, in fact, the shelf of a mantelpiece. But restore the ledge to its imaginary, landscape scale, and the cups suddenly expand into immense forms. It is this shift between the monumental and the diminutive which gives Paula Winokur’s work a special appeal.
Jeremy Adamson KPMG Peat Marwick Collection of American Craft: A Gift to the Renwick Gallery (Washington, D.C.: Renwick Gallery, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1994)