Born Royal Oak, MI, 1980 / BFA, College for Creative Studies, Detroit, MI; MFA, Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bloomfield Hills, MI / Lives in Bloomfield Hills, MI
Unpacking the practice of ceramist Laith Karmo is perhaps best expedited by focusing on the polar goals of his aesthetic evolution over the last decade and a half. First up are the brash, jazzy, chromatically shiny abstract sculptures presented in his first solo show in 2008, and then, post-2009, the gradual embrace over the next several years of the proverbial, evergreen forms (pots, bowls, ewers) and muted tonalities of his “objects of utility and contemplation.”
A key example of the former, from Karmo’s first one-person outing, is Towers of Svaneti. This sleek, sharp-edged, architectonic form, glazed ultra-red and snow white, fairly dazzles the eye. Resting atop a tall, look-at-me pedestal veneered with faux wood Formica, its shaft angled diagonally to avoid the usual static vertical support, this compound of eccentric shape and quirky pedestal trumpets, per Karmo, the “new.” As well, Karmo’s artist statement boasts that “contemporary design and architectural trends” inspired this inaugural display. Svaneti, along with other works from the show, including Faith in Bling, and Old Age/ Young Blood, were billed as “The Newest Work of Laith Karmo,” as if currency were the Holy Grail.
Seven years later, Karmo’s sharp left aesthetic swerve inspired Modern Foundation (2016). Here, a ravishing, yellow-gold vessel floats on a capacious pedestal hewn from raw wood by Karmo himself. The title alerts us to the shapely, boat-like form of a mid-century creamer, or even a banal, jumbo-size gravy boat. Elegantly glamorized by its golden luster, this precious, one-of-a-kind pouring utensil holds sway over the low-slung, roughly carved mount. As an ensemble, it exists at a decided remove from the high-flying pedestals and flashy bling of 2008’s “newest works”; Foundation, and pieces like it, feel grounded, while allowing the beatified object (quasi-receptacle/quasi-objet d’art) to glow softly on a broad perch.
Yet commonalities between old (relatively) and recent Karmos persist: the proclivity for uncommon shapes, whether abstract or vessel derived; the congenial interlocking of object and support; and the push-pull of the ongoing, inherited tussle between fine art and craft over the last 75 years (think Peter Voulkos and John Glick, for starters).
The harbingers of Modern Foundation debuted in 2009, and accelerated therefrom. The first embodiment, titled Cultivating Civility, unveiled a cluster of utilitarian containers in battleship gray hues. As staged by the artist, cache pot and planter are garnished with several varieties of ferns, among the oldest flora on the planet, to underscore his turn to the elemental forms of this core cluster of vessels. Converging interests prompted this re-direction: a renewed interest in the quotidian forms that had originally lured him, as an undergrad, to clay as a medium; impactful as well was the confluence of marriage, a young family, and a dawning appreciation of artifacts intrinsic to age-old communal/global gatherings and the “spirituality of people who made them.” Hence, platters, bowls, planters, teapots, ewers, crocks, gathering baskets, along with a tot-size Bath [tub] (2011) and miniature Canoe (2013) began to spill from the studio, the bounty of his vision of a harmonious commonweal.
By 2013, in a spacious installation also entitled Cultivating Civility, Karmo’s timeless, yet idiosyncratic inventory of ceramic wares was laid out across a black grid of knee-high, see-through steel shelving (a communal platform). Replete with a wiry Giacometti-like figure (the artist?) titled Dark Craft and a four-feet tall Solstice Staff, as a symbol of authority, a field of trays, bowls, plates, and platters spread airily across the gallery, an earthly counterpart to sun, moon, stars, and planetary bodies on high. A recurring detail, among the bowls in particular, is the prevalent eye-like opening that both animates and implies anthropomorphic associations, especially since eye-to-eye contact is basic to shared human interactions and transactions. Indeed, in many of his objects, the ocular opening serves as both looker and ergonomic handle, as in Pangaea. Here the “eye-bowl,” elevated on a plump, round ceramic cushion, like a crown on a pillow (that in turn rests on a shelf), attests to its centrality in Karmo’s cosmology. Occasionally, and stunningly, the amplified, all-seeing eye looms so broadly, as in Halcyon Native (2014) that the function of bowl as bowl is all but denied.
Instead, the magnified eye trains its gaze on each and every observer, as if to foster civil behavior and civility in general—sharing, conversing, touching, and embracing. Prescient and timely, to say the least.
Dennis Alan Nawrocki, December 2017
Copyright Essay’d 2017