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Emma Luna: Using Clay to Explore Gender Issues

By Paul Dorn
Enterprise art critic

Artist Emma Luna takes a handful of clay from a plastic bag and places it on the workbench surface in her West Davis garage-studio. With a rolling pin, she flattens the lump with firm even motions, flipping it over every few seconds, pausing occasionally to mist water over the gray earthy material with a spray bottle. "The secret to success with clay is to keep it moist," Luna says.

When the clay has been rolled to a thin, even flatness, she takes a thickly piled facecloth from a nearby jumble of fabric materials, and places it over the clay. With smooth strokes of her rolling pin and more spritzed water, she presses the cloth into the clay surface. Then Luna uses a thin knife to crop the clay around the edges, followed by more rolling. At last, satisfied that the cloth has been thoroughly impressed into the clay, she peels it back to reveal the replicated clay surface of the cloth. "For a finished piece, I'd do both sides," Luna tells her visitor. "Then I'd maybe roll it, fold it, arrange it casually, stack it with other pieces; it all depends on how I'm thinking or feeling that day."

A native of the Dominican Republic, Luna began her work in clay while studying art education at the University of Minnesota. There, under the influence of the leading local ceramic artist and educator Warren MacKenzie, Luna made traditional pottery-type objects. She continued to create highly regarded clay vessels after relocating to Boston, where she received a BFA in painting from the Massachusetts College of Art. Three years ago Luna moved to Davis, and her work started to evolve in a more experimental direction away from the vessel and toward sculpture.

"I want to give importance to things that aren't generally considered important, kind of like the Pop Artists of the 1960s," says Luna of her current body of ceramic art, which she admits has been inspired by the funky well-humored Northern California clay scene. "I started by creating panties with clay and high-gloss glaze, sexy Victoria's Secret style things that you'd eat your heart out for. More recently I started looking at more mundane objects: socks, towels, napkins."

This latest body of work, on view at the Natsoulas Gallery in Davis, examines issues of gender, domesticity and convention. "My work suggests the tedious housework that women deal with everyday," says Luna. "I want to present these objects-the routine things that just accumulate and must be maintained and cared for-in a different context, to present their inherent beauty. I use pastel colors, because I want these objects to look faded, as if they've been repeatedly laundered."

Tapping into the metaphorical symbolism of these cloth objects, Luna's work suggests the heavy burden of domestic chores. Stacking individual objects to resemble, say, a pile of laundry poised to pitch over, Luna suggests the fragility of the social relations, how the delicate balance and hard work of household "tranquility" is principally borne by women. All of us are acquainted with mothers and other women, which makes her work immediately accessible.

Gallery owner John Natsoulas is among the enthusiasts of Luna's work, comparing her recent exploration of gender themes to that of acclaimed young Los Angeles artist Liza Lou. "Emma is an old-style master of the craft, but she's also not afraid of taking chances," says Natsoulas, who cites her prestigious Pollock-Krasner Award in 1999 as evidence of the growing appreciation of her recent ceramics. "With this body of work she's taking the whole question of women's roles, motherhood and domesticity, and making a comment about it. Pushing it to an extreme, and creating wonderful, amazing works."

Why does Luna, who also creates paintings, lithographs and mixed media works, choose clay for this topical work? "Clay is a fantastic medium for expression," says Luna. "It responds to your emotions and moods. It doesn't fight back. I also like its tactility, how it appeals to many different senses, not just the eyes. When people see my work they want to touch it. They may have a visual association of 'soft' with cloth objects. But my pieces are hard. A ceramic sculpture also has a great presence, a dimensionality that allows shadows and light to vary the image."


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Last modified May 1, 2001

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