Anna Wallace
“When I Lose My Grip”

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The brilliant art theorist Anna Wallace has some of her ceramic work on display in the new Cameron Gallery in the new Scrap Exchange, now in the soon to be reviving Lakewood Shopping Center. I would say they are obtuse, hard to discern, but that is not so. It is more they are hard to accept. Hard to rationally put away and move on with the daily grind. The mirror they hold up reflects in a way that is simultaneously more and less real than glass.

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My reflection in Anna Wallace’s ceramic glaze

Wallace’s thinking belies her youth. From the artist statement for “When I Lose My Grip” at the Scrap Exchange through December 13th.

“These wallpaper tiles were all created using the same press molded and screen-printed process. After producing the physical objects I created a simple pattern for their installation. Each time I install this work I keep in mind only that simple pattern and I forsake the use of any tools of measurement. I hang each piece quickly and make no changes or adjustments, following my original set of rules with as few further decisions as possible. This allows me to loosen the tight grip I often have over my work and create something with its own movement and life. Losing my grip is a process of intentionally letting go, not a loss of control…”

Note the changes in the frame pressed around the glaze

Note the changes in the frame pressed around the glaze

How many of us don’t need to let go a bit?

Writing about Bill Powers reminded me again of American Karōshi. Wallace’s mimicry of mass production, stamping her tiles out in ever decaying molds and screenprints reverberates with that same message. It isn’t just capitalist mass production structures, factories and their machines that decay over time, it is all of us. Mortality rates to-date are 100%.[1]

But beyond her works’ statement about life and death and time, Wallace’s tiles dwell in a metaphysical space. Or in physics, they represent the wave-particle duality. They live in a state between patterned and non-patterned, in a profound emulation of real life. They can’t not, life is not binary. We can hardly represent with one’s and zeroes’ only. There is little to fear from the competition with machine intelligence yet, as Wallace so eloquently demonstrates. How can you instruct a machine to design something that’s a pattern, but only approximately so, not measured, estimated so as to parallel life with all of its granular human error? Turbulent flow equations try awfully hard. But Wallace has them beat without a tape measure.

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I asked Wallace about her childhood. Because the last time I wrote about her exhibit “Superfluous Fowl” in the Carrack [here], she said the entire construct of the gallery had been informed by the imagined bedroom of her youth, and when she wrote for the Clarion Content on Torry Bend’s show “If my Feet have Lost the Ground” at the Man Bites Dog Theater, she couched her theory in examples drawn from Children’s Literature.[2] When we spoke in Mercury Studio’s backroom in mid-November, Wallace said her Grandma lived in Hendersonville which exposed young Anna to Asheville. There she discovered a skate shop called, “Push” which had its own art gallery.

Young Anna Wallace bought art for her own self there. Specifically, a triptych of something of a pin-up girl with flowers on wood. It stayed in her bedroom through all the iterations of tween and teen years. Which if you, dear reader, are further removed from those days, please forget not how central your room was at that age. It was your oasis, your island, your refuge, the place where you could shut the door on the world and parental authority for a minute.

Not Wallace's room

This was not Anna Wallace’s bedroom

Don’t let me project my image on to hers. Wallace has good relationships with both her parents, a charming mother whose acquaintance I have made, and an author father, whom Anna credits with much of her literary influence.

This is what Wallace’s work does, it sends you into the mirror. Like Carroll’s Looking Glass, our reflection is distorted or maybe more real than ever. The answers aren’t as simple as , which is so obviously playing games with us. Wallace’s conceit is much more subtle, daring us to wonder about the messy real.

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The Director of the Carrack art gallery, Laura Ritchie, says she likes Anna Wallace’s work because it makes her laugh. I think this says more about Ritchie’s positive outlook on life than Wallace’s message. This is what Laura Ritchie sees when she looks in the mirror, joy and joie de vivre. Through my lens on modern society and our trajectory, when I look in Wallace’s glaze not quite mirrors on white walls in a room that could be padded, I don’t laugh, I want to shout and to scream and to break things.[3]

on the wall of the Cameron Gallery at the Scrap Exchange

on the wall of the Cameron Gallery at the Scrap Exchange

Fortunately, Wallace and the Scrap Exchange’s Black Friday Smashfest allow for that. Wallace sees creativity as embedded in destruction. She says all ceramicists and potters break. She remembers a dumpster at school that it felt most cathartic to hurl pieces into. She notes that the nomenclature of destructibility is facetious because, while ceramics smashes into bits and gets ground into dust, it doesn’t go away.

As I wrote about in my last piece about Wallace, she organized a performance as an artist in college that involved a number of her cohorts, including Wallace herself, blindfolded on-stage, while holding a dinner plate, and then upon a signal for the plates to dropped, shattering in sequence.

Again Wallace’s archetyping of life, the plates weren’t broken in a rhythm, but rather in a syncopated way, again think: turbulent flow or subatomic uncertainty about position and momentum or the way we walk the line. At Scrap Exchange’s fourth annual Smashfest, Wallace will be bringing back this general plan, except, the blindfolded participants will drop, rather than secondhand dinner plates, the ceramic pieces from Wallace’s show. Wallace’s artist statement says, “I do not view this breakage as the destruction of this body of work; rather it is the creation of a new work of art.”

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Standing outside the gallery on the Friday of the show’s opening Wallace told me that she has long held such strong views on what art is. For a high school piece she once picked up cigarette butts for a year, friends and teachers “contributed” to this smelly bounty with which Wallace constructed a topographical map of the City of Durham.

For another she made a composite sculpture from ceramic molds of tree branches and filled it with a foam insulation called, ‘Great Stuff’ to which her perhaps less visionary high school art teacher responded with a plaintive, “It’s interesting, but I don’t think it’s art.” [4]

Wallace says she was befuddled. How could that be?

She thought, “I said, “It’s art.” It’s art. The end.

I concur. Intentionality is what separates art from advertising and interior decorating.[5]

Wallace takes it even a step further conceding in our Mercury Studio conversation that she does not consider anything where digital technology has gotten involved in the creative process to be art, for her that crosses the border to design. I wonder if she will always hold to this stance and how fiercely. It feels like an outlier for a theorist who is embraces the murkiness and instability of so many other rules and constructs.

However, even here, my personal ontology aligns with Wallace, if not in specifics, then in superstructure. I, too, believe that so much is ephemeral, perceptual, murky, in motion—not fixed, yet within that post-modernist construct, there have to be some rules, some basis, some truth. Everything is not absolutely equal. Otherwise mathematics would not be descriptive and hermeneutic, but super-normative and all-seeing.

Wallace shows us what we cannot see by showing us we cannot see it all. And just like they tell you not to look in a mirror when tripping, Wallace’s work will reflect your inner compass, not just the image you display on the surface.


Wallace work will be on display through Friday, 11/28, in its current state. The smashed ceramics will be on display through December 13th.

Smashfest will be held on Friday, November 28, from 4-9pm outside in the parking lot of The Scrap Exchange, now located at 2050 Chapel Hill Rd in Durham. Admission to the event is free for viewing or participating in non-smashing activities such as art-making. Attendees can purchase breakable items that the Scrap Exchange has collected throughout 2014 (such as discarded mirrors, plates, mugs, ceramics, pottery and other bric-a-brac) and either smash them to bits or rescue them from being smashed! Smashing techniques include hurling small objects against a dumpster (donated by Orange Recycling Services for the event) or applying a sledgehammer to larger objects.

Smashfest provides an alternative winter festival experience throughout the day and evening. Free Open Studio and art-making will be available all day from 10am-9pm in the reuse center’s Make-N-Take Room and Design Center. Once festivities begin outdoors at 4pm, firepits will be lit to provide warmth and light as day turns into night. Local metal bands will provide live music outside on the platform from 4-9pm, including performances by Heron, Squall, Count Bvnnies, Almost People and Horrible Idea. A Kokyu food truck will be on hand to provide a dinner option for hungry smashers. And in the Cameron Gallery, exhibiting artist Anna Wallace will lead a live performance piece at 7:30pm where audience members will be selected to ritually smash and destroy the ceramic tiles the artist has on display in her Cameron Gallery exhibit, “When I Lose My Grip”. Attendees will also be able to bring their own t-shirt and screen-print a Smashfest 2014 commemorative t-shirt from 4-9pm in the Design Center with a $5 suggested donation.


[1]Includes Noah, Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and all the biggies, not to mention the rest of us.

[2]One more way in which I appreciate Wallace’s thinking, Children’s Literature is the primordial soup.

[3]Maybe influenced by the dark fiction I am writing.

[4]Trees molds filled with Dow Chemical installation! Is there a more amusing way to look at the ironies of our modern world?

[5]Among a litany of other things.

Aaron Mandel

Aaron Mandel is a writer and an accomplished public speaker. He is the publisher of the Clarion Content. For more than a decade, the Clarion Content has covered Durham’s arts, politics, music, and cultural milieu. From breaking news stories to the hottest local acts, the Clarion Content is on the scene. The Clarion Content published more than twenty distinguished guest columnists and garnered nearly a million views. Mandel is a volunteer for the Durham Mighty Pen Literacy Project and serves as the President of the Board of Sustain-A-Bull Durham, a local small business collective with more than 200 members. He writes regularly on the Clarion Content and has been quietly writing fiction since the 4th grade. Mandel has been published in the Raleigh News and Observer. He has also produced numerous art shows, including, “Durham under Development”. He was a featured speaker at “The State of Publishing” conference. He has presented to Durham Chamber of Commerce, “Chamber U” on the “New Media”. He has also served as the play-by-play announcer for the D.B.L., a Durham youth basketball league. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Religious Studies from Indiana University in Bloomington. An avid policy debater at Indiana and a Nation Debate Tournament qualifier, Mandel was also a member of the New Jersey State Champion two-person Policy Debate Team. He has lived in North Carolina, New Jersey, California, Texas, Illinois, Colorado, Indiana, and Baja California, Mexico.

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