Enter the exhibition space for Roberto Lugo: The Village Potter, on view at Grounds For Sculpture through January 8, 2023, and you feel like you’ve entered the artist’s studio. There are metal shelves with pots in various stages of completion, a row of potter’s wheels await, and there’s a shiny new kiln. This is, in fact, a Maker Space, where museum-goers can actively participate in the process. (More on that later.)
Kudos to the Hamilton-based sculpture park for getting Lugo, a hot phenom who has been featured at Hyperallergic no fewer than three times in the past few years. His work has been described as “bursting with wit and formal mastery, even as [it sports] the drips and brush marks of graffiti” exuding “a forceful sense of patriotic bling.”
Roberto Lugo, Image courtesy of Wexler Gallery
CBS News featured Lugo just before his work was installed in the newly designed Afro-Futurist period room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Before Yesterday We Could Fly. The 40-year-old Lugo’s work has been seen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Art and Design in New York (where he won the Burke Prize), Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the High Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Walters Museum of Art in Baltimore. According to the CBS segment, actor Seth Rogan collects Lugo.
Grounds For Sculpture describes his work as a reimagining of traditional European and Asian porcelain forms and techniques with a 21st-century street sensibility, creating multicultural mash-ups.
Lugo was an artist-in-residence at Grounds while creating the works on view here. “I first took an interest in Roberto Lugo’s work when I saw an exhibition called Graffiti & Ornament in Philadelphia,” says Director of Exhibitions and Collections Faith McClellan, who co-curated the exhibition with GFS Executive Director Gary Schneider. “Rather than borrowing existing works, we hit upon the idea to have him make new work on site. The formal residency was planned from mid-February through the end of March, but ultimately he worked up until the opening (in mid-May), using the time and space to explore other techniques.”
“I feel like a kid in a playground,” Lugo said during the press preview, about creating at Grounds For Sculpture. “They’ve taken away the obstacles to my doing all the large projects I’ve wanted to do.” And, he added, “it’s the first time I’ve ever seen a real live peacock.” The brilliantly plumed birds are a common sight at Grounds, wandering freely, unabashedly belting out their mating song. It was inevitable that peacock feathers would become a motif for one of Lugo’s pots.
Roberto Lugo, Old Dirty Vase, 2022, glazed ceramic, 38 x 20 x 20 inches, Courtesy of the Artist, photo: Ken Ek
The pots almost always include portraits. One way of interacting with the art, he says, is seeing yourself in it. Putting a portrait on a pot is one way to do that.
He describes his process as beginning with a wheel to form the base, and then building up with coil, “an improvisation… because I’m not really thinking about it.” It’s a nod to his early work as a graffiti artist, responding to the site. Lugo wants to acknowledge the community he’s from. For a long time, he felt ashamed of being from an impoverished community, he says. “Now it’s so important for me to represent that.”
“It’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to make something at a large scale,” Lugo says. Put Yourself in the Picture is a monumental sculpture in milled foam, fabricated at the Digital Atelier, and then painted by Lugo at the Seward Johnson Atelier – both ateliers are partner institutions on the former fairgrounds campus. Visitors are invited to walk in and through the vessel via the viewing platform, which will also be activated as a performative stage and DJ booth at set times during the run of the exhibition. Inside, the viewer can feel like a real live portrait, “providing a moment to celebrate our individual uniqueness in a monumental way,” says the artist.
Born in Kensington, Philadelphia, a neighborhood he describes as being associated with drugs, sex crimes, and poverty, Lugo is grateful to his hard-working Puerto Rican parents who kept him from going down the wrong path. His success, he says, is his family’s success. His earliest creative outlet was as a graffiti artist, something that fit with his culture; there were no art classes available to him in high school. He credits Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program as providing his education in art history – the works were especially meaningful because they included people of color.
While at community college, he took a pottery class and learned wheel throwing. Looking around at all the teapots and cups being made by fellow potters, he wondered, “how much tea are white people drinking?” In his family, he says, they made coffee through a sock-like filter.
Lugo went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kansas City Art Institute and a Master of Fine Arts from Penn State. Inspired by the self-portraits of Frida Kahlo, he decided to stake his place in the art world by putting his own self-portrait on fine pottery.
As an educator -- he is an assistant professor at Tyler School of Art and Architecture in Philadelphia -- he likes to set up a potter’s wheel on the streets of Philadelphia to make the craft accessible. Believing we’re all born with creative impulses, Lugo wants to give that opportunity to those who don’t ordinarily get the chance.
A spoken-word poet as well as a husband and a father, Lugo chooses to tell stories on pots because they stay around for a long time. He says, “A lot of what we know about the past, such as the culture of ancient Greece, we know from pots.”
He likes to use classical patterns, such blue and white pottery designs, Greek design, and African kente cloth, blending it with graffiti and contemporary patterns. “Orange and black is often used on Greek pottery, but for others it might remind them of prison uniforms,” he says. Tigers, pandas, dragons, Chinese dogs, butterflies, and bees add an element of the wild. Some of the faces that appear on his pots have included newly elected Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, Sojourner Truth, Dr. Cornel West, Stacy Abrams, the Notorious B.I.G., Lugo’s family members, and the artist himself.
In addition to the works created by Lugo is a smaller exhibition on the mezzanine level that he curated. It is worth a visit on its own. “Roberto suggested the idea to include a small exhibition within his exhibition of work by his mentors/mentees, which became the perfect way to expand on the ‘village’ theme of the exhibition by honoring some of the people who have supported him in his career,” says McClellan. From colorful cityscapes and fanciful forms (clay painted in pastel-colored acrylics) to twisted tormented figures and a large pink princess telephone, there’s lots to take in. With abstracted and functional forms as well as the occasional narrative, such as a ceramic fox with a cape whose pockets are filled with pomegranates and a teeny tiny Planet Earth, the more you look the more you see.
April D. Felipe, Yet, I am still here to see you, 2021, glazed ceramic, wallpaper, textile, dimensions variable, Courtesy of the Artist, photo: Ken Ek
As if all that isn’t enough, a concurrent exhibition of contemporary works in ceramic, Fragile Earth, can be seen in the Domestic Arts Building. It is curated by the Color Network, a group whose mission is to advance people of color in ceramics. The exhibition “investigates the power of vulnerability, the frailty of a strong facade, and the precarity of entities such as the climate, government, and life itself amid ongoing global health, social, and environmental crises,” according to the intro text.
The New York Times’ Style section has heralded post-apocalyptic fashions for years. Many of the Fragile Earth ceramic artists appear to be examining post-apocalyptic times as well. Salvador Jiménez-Flores’s “The Cosmic Life of a New World That is Yet to Come” takes center stage, an enormous installation with bronze-gold cacti paddles that have gladiator heads wearing sunglasses. A piece by Syd Carpenter fuses ceramic and steel, as if a tsunami has come through and toppled this world. Magdalena Dykstra’s “Babel” looks like the entrails of our civilization hanging from a wooden armature.
There’s light-hearted work, as well. Little blue and white ceramic tiles on the walls throughout the gallery might easily be mistaken for some kind of labeling system with QR codes, but they turn out to be the work of ceramicist Adam Chau. To engage the viewer, the artist mimics the shape and scale of smartphones, an object most have close relationships with. The piece is titled “To: Mom”, because the work is made up of text messages Chau sent to his mother during the first year of the pandemic. On opposite coasts, texts were their way of being together. There’s beauty in the mundane. “ugh. like a second vacation” says one. “we’re just going to bed now” says another.
The three exhibitions have a long run; each offers reasons for contemplation and return visits.
About the Maker Space: The kiln, as well as the separate studio space where Lugo had been working, will remain available to him any time during the exhibition. Upcoming classes will use the kiln for firing student works as well.
A 5-sessions workshop, The World of Wheel Throwing, will be offered twice in the summer lead by Danish-American ceramic artist Josephine Mette Larsen and include hand building and slab building workshops. Fall wheel throwing workshops will be led by Hawaiian artist Akiko Jackson.
Artists will be activating the Maker Space throughout the year, beginning with Philadelphia artist Jihan Thomas in late July.
All of the labels for all three exhibitions are in Spanish and English.
PHOTO: (IMAGES AT THE TOP) Left: Roberto Lugo, Put Yourself in the Picture, 2022, mixed media, 240 x 144 x 324 inches, Courtesy of the Artist; Photo: Ken Ek. Right: Salvador Jiménez-Flores, La vida cósmica de un nuevo mundo que está por venir / The Cosmic Life of a New World That Is Yet To Come, 2022, brass, cast iron, rose gold plating, brass hose, and clay slip, 180 x 180 inches, Courtesy of the Artist, photo: Ken Ek