Home > Around Town > Planes and Forms: Karen McArdle Retrospective. (1946-2009)

Planes and Forms: Karen McArdle Retrospective. (1946-2009)

By Dan Swartz

Fort Wayne Reader


Karen McArdle was known primarily for her ceramic artist practice. As a longtime faculty member at the University of Saint Francis, she taught hundreds of students the elements of drawing forth forms from masses of inelegant clay. Sadly, in 2009, McArdle passed away as the result of a car accident. In her wake, McArdle left an impressive and diverse body of work, spanning multiple genre including ceramics (functional and sculptural), painting, metalcraft, and printmaking. This practice really began during her graduate studies at the University of Denver where she received her MFA in ceramics. Throughout all of the types of work McArdle created, there exists evidence of broad experimentation as well as conceptual foundation based in the classics, using amphorae, nymphs, limited depth picture planes, and other images referring to Greek culture throughout her work. All of this work can be seen in the current Lupke Gallery exhibition at the University of Saint Francis, "Karen McArdle: Retrospective."

McArdle's artwork was also clearly influenced by concepts of domesticity, the role of women, and the home. Having been raised in the 1950's and 60's, McArdle recounts in her artist statement that her mother never worked outside of the home, and that her role models and religious education further reinforced the idea that the woman was meant to stay in the home. However, leaving for college in the late 60's showed McArdle just how much change was happening, having witnessed the Vietnam War and its protests, the counter-culture of the Hippies, and Women's Liberation Movement. Having the cool-headed wisdom to see issues at both ends of the spectrum, McArdle references how even though the rules had changed, the role of the women was not so easily modified, as the idea of the "Supermom" was born. She candidly speaks about how she tried and failed to be "Supermom" to everyone in her life, and this became fodder for her work, using her own arms for cast ceramic hands which express many things, and her creation of scenes which express fragmentation.

Pieces like "Sanctuary" and "Frustration" are perfect examples of these domestic critiques. In both of these pieces, McArdle casts her forearms in bisque fired ceramic to create realistic, but colorless/lifeless replicas, ghost-like, which act as the protagonist in her pieces. In "Sanctuary," McArdle surrounds a basic, child-like representation of the home with six pairs of hands, which are nearly as tall as the home, creating a barrier. Interestingly though, the hands are all palms out, fingers reaching to the sky, giving them a bit more of an aggressive, "stand-off-ish" feeling than a healing, passive feeling that the title would lend itself to. "Sanctuary" then becomes a cool, non-romantic representation of the duality found in motherhood, being nurturing, but also aggressively protective of her children.

In "Frustration," McArdle uses similar iconography, but in a clearly aggressive manner with a single forearm balanced as it effortlessly crushes down on a smaller simplified house structure, cracking open its roof, and caving in its structure. These images would seem to represent the artists varying thoughts on her various roles as mother, home keeper, woman, etc.

Karen McArdle's ceramics based works also highlight the diversity of her work, spanning slabbed platters with abstracted glazes, functional cups, vases, and amphorae which are many times holding reliefs and glazed images, to sculptural pieces sometimes incorporating found objects. Pieces like "Perfect Figure Vase" which is a large, classical, somewhat bulbous, non-glazed hand turned vase is then adorned with a painted image of a women, wrapped around it giving the viewer multiple segmented views of the women's body, show McArdle's explorations of women's identity outside of herself and projected into more societal views of what a woman's body should look like. In the artist's statement about her, she goes on to say, "Each person will have their own ideas about the meaning of my work. A viewer's experiences are a filter through which they see these pieces. I welcome the variety of viewpoints the pieces allow and enjoy the fact that the view can participate in the artwork by coming to their own interpretation." In this way, McArdle allows her work to swing back and forth between personal and societal, depending on the viewer.

Outside of these sculptural and ceramic pieces, "Karen McArdle: Retrospective" also presents a large number of prints produced throughout her career, the majority of which seem to be silkscreens. The viewer is first presented in more recent pieces that contain abstract backgrounds and small arthropods represented in realistic silhouettes in the foreground like "Spider." Because of the recurrent Greek themes throughout much of the rest of the work presented, it is easy to see this image as a nod to the myth of Arachne at her loom. Other pieces referencing a Greek tradition include the small circular silkscreen "Penland Nymph", most likely referring to the renowned crafts school in Penland, North Carolina. These smaller pieces, woven together would seem to be creating some sort of contemporary mythology within McArdle's work. Other older silkscreen examples include "Daisy Bouquet," a colorful, vibrant, filled picture plane which is of a still-life scene, primarily focusing on a vase of daisies and fruit on a table in the foreground, and a very shallow, almost Matisse-like background with heavy patterning in the walls and floors. These older printed pieces feel almost like celebrations with their much less structured compositions and abandon to color, which although prominent, is always subdued in McArdle's other work.

"Karen McArdle: Retrospective" is a comprehensive, elegiac exhibition highlighting McArdle's skill and her evolving mise-en-scene present throughout all of her work. The University of Saint Francis and the City of Fort Wayne are lucky to have had her as both a teacher and a working artist. While she may be gone, her presence in the community shall continue through her memory, her students, and her commitment toward producing excellent work.

For more information:
"Karen McArdle: Retrospective"
University of Saint Francis
Lupke Galleries, North Campus

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