“Breathing, biting, swallowing, tasting, smelling, listening, watching” might sound more like the name of a series by a performance artist, or the to-do list of a conceptualist, than the list of action words one might associate with a potter, like throwing, coiling and pinching. Of course, Andrew Lord isn't exactly a potter in the traditional sense, but he is an artist who is deeply committed to explorations of ceramic media among others, and who is plainly as aware, reverent — and familiar and comfortable enough to also be sweetly irreverent — of ceramic traditions, whether European or Asian, as he is of the trajectories of performance, body, process and conceptual art, and expanded-field sculptural practice that defined the epoch in which he came of age. Breathing, biting, swallowing, tasting, smelling, listening, watching is in fact the title of a major series produced between 1992 and 1998 — an oeuvre-defining body of work, and one among five series surveyed in this intimate and important exhibition of work by the artist who, born, raised and schooled in the U.K., now splits his time between New York and the Netherlands. Lord produced the series by using those parts of his own body aligned with the list of actions (chest, teeth, neck, nostrils, ears and eyes) as molds and tools for shaping clay formed into vessels that are scrappy and yet shockingly delicate and elegant. The sensitivity and curiosity with which Lord brings material and process into relation with the body are matched by those with which he brings it into relation with art history and biography. In a series from 2004, for example, he roughly re-creates the ceramics of Paul Gauguin, who, with his odd combination of bawdiness, brutishness, refinement and vulnerability, has been somewhat of a talisman for Lord. A similar approach comes through when Lord brings his interest in expressive, and what might be called the extrapolative, potential of material into relation with memory, as well as personal and social history. See the 2009 Whitworth series, in which Lord used clay to sculpt personal landmarks of his birthplace in Lancashire, or a new series titled “River Spodden at Healey Dell,” which converts isolated twists, turns and plunges of the river as it makes its way through Whitworth into beautiful, abstract and evocative sculptures in plaster and beeswax. A 2008 video with the same title translates the river into very different media. It would be rewarding as a work in and of itself, though here it seems almost like a bit of biography and documentary informing the rest of the show — a bit of babbling brook to ground and provide backdrop to the earthy, sometimes bumbling and stumbling, but consistently charming, smart, touched and touching work that fills this show.
ANDREW LORD: BETWEEN MY HANDS TO WATER FALLING, SELECTED WORKS FROM 1990 to 2010: Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2525 Michigan Ave. (Bergamot Station) G1, Santa Monica | Tues.-Sat., 11a.m.-6 p.m., through Aug. 21 | (310) 586-6488, smmoa.org