Bari Ziperstein at Charles Moffett
Bari Ziperstein’s ornately patterned ceramics are glossy meditations on ideology and visual culture inspired by Soviet architecture and textiles. Or maybe, with their concentrated, expressively handcrafted, and talismanic character, her alluring works are more like charms against the tragic quixotism embedded in the more totalitarian strains of modernist aesthetics. (The artist, a descendant of Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish Jewish immigrants and refugees, has a familial connection to her fraught source material.)
The fascinations at the heart of Set Patterns, the artist’s exhibition here, were sparked by her research at the Wende Museum in Los Angeles during a 2015–16 residency. She was struck by the dramatic dystopian incongruities in vintage postcards from the Wende’s collection featuring scenes of happy Eastern Bloc citizens and vacationers before austere raw-concrete buildings and public works—proud examples of the Brutalist style dominating the region beginning in the 1970s. Ziperstein was also taken with the museum’s array of Soviet textiles: those derived from traditional Slavic floral motifs as well as the designs that supplanted them in the late 1920s and early ’30s, when images chock-full of propagandistic themes, including those of agricultural abundance, were officially in favor. During a period that coincided with several years of devastating Ukrainian famine, depictions of field workers, tractors, and sheaves of wheat appeared alongside brightly busy, Constructivist-inflected symbols of industrial production and the new Communist government.
Drawing from sources across various disciplines and decades, Ziperstein makes her own dramatic incongruities seem like natural complements, merging them in exquisitely decorated Brutalist mini monuments. Banned Flower Power (all works 2023), a domed piece, references the Stalin-era prohibition of purely floral designs, rebelling against the edict with a fierce surface of abstracted leaves and blossoms rendered in bold inlay lines. It was one of the eight stoneware sculptures—scalloped or serrated cylinders and tiered, geometric volumes placed on intricately glazed plinths or burnished walnut pedestals—in the gallery’s front room. Roughly the height of small children or side tables with lamps, they set a tone of warm opulence, their effusive decoration camouflaging the severity of their underlying architecture, whose cold charisma turns famously sinister under conditions of repression and neglect.
By repurposing Soviet Brutalism’s compositional principles to different, lovelier ends, Ziperstein exposes the style’s reliance on its characteristically massive scale and its unfinished, unadorned surfaces to give its deconstructed ziggurats and cantilevered forms their futuristic, cinematic power. The jagged silhouette of her sardonically titled, abstracted little edifice Big Sharp Building, for example, was softened by teal and cream flowers. A mirror-finish, metallic-glaze plane tops the sculpture, and a concave shape rests at the center of its glistening roof—evoking an ashtray, a birdbath, or a candy dish.
The artist’s interest in domesticity and decor—in women’s work and a traditionally feminine sphere—was underscored by a set of curtains, which divided the space’s two rooms, separating the sculptures in the round from the wall-mounted, shadow-box-like works in the back. Ziperstein made the lavender-and-taupe fabric for this exhibition in collaboration with artist Jill Spector, hand-printing it with a gestural floral pattern using broccoli and artichoke hearts. Half-hidden in its grass green– and navy-flecked folds were embroidered figures—headscarf-wearing laborers with scythes.
The bent, simplified forms in the curtains were echoed in the carved and glazed relief Sweeping Russia, which was—in its deceptive, colorful gaiety—the show’s most explicit comment on the grim ideological undercurrents of Ziperstein’s source materials. Bodies lie helter-skelter in the wake of a broom held by a uniformed worker, soldier, or prisoner. They fall outside the bounds of the square picture into its decorative frame, which is checkered and ringed with red flowers. Present emergencies—Putin’s war, disinformation campaigns, and the aim to reestablish the territory of a “historical Russia”—loom large in Ziperstein’s exploration of past styles. A craftsperson of rare skill and an artist of conceptual precision, she amplifies the visual appeal, while undermining the instrumentalization, of Brutalist force and sunny delusion alike.
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