Art Review

Review: Martha Russo's Spectacular Solo at Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art

There’s a spectacular solo on now at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. Martha Russo: coalescere showcases selected works from the 25-year career of the innovative ceramics sculptor. But when I walked through the show with Martha Russo herself, she explained that she came to be interested in ceramics by accident — literally. 

Russo attended Princeton University in the ’80s and started off studying biology and psychology. She was a student athlete, good enough to be considered for the United States Olympic field hockey team — but in 1984, during her junior year, she seriously injured her knee, crushing her athletic dreams. During her recuperation, she became interested in ceramics, taking classes at Princeton with the renowned Toshiko Takaezu. Russo attended the University of Colorado Boulder as a graduate student in the 1990s and studied with Scott Chamberlin, one of our state’s most significant ceramics sculptors. The relationship between Russo’s work and Chamberlin’s is easy to see, as both have an affinity for abstract shapes based on natural forms.

Russo’s exhibit, curated by Mardee Goff, occupies the entire main level at BMoCA. Goff included pieces that span a period from the 1990s until now, but they have not been installed chronologically, so the show doesn’t function as a retrospective. Still, there’s a wide range of expressions, including singular forms; sculptures and installations that comprise aggregations of multiple shapes; and a couple of cabinets-of-curiosities with materials installed in drawers that are meant to open and close. Although everything here meets the same high standards, the monumental aggregated pieces are the showstoppers. For these, Russo has assembled related forms — sometimes multiple vocabularies of them — to convey a visual rhythm. Their size gives these works an emphatic presence, but their many small details also create visual interest.

In “phagocytosis,” the first of these to come into view, Russo has taken hundreds of roughly spherical components accented by twig-like elements and assembled them into a mound. The wall piece “klynge,” commissioned for the show by BMoCA, is closely related, though here Russo juggles different shapes into an interwoven cluster. The show’s tour de force is the magisterial “nomos,” a wave-like conglomeration made up of some 20,000 horn-like shapes (installation required the help of thirty assistants) that covers a specially created curved wall that is eighteen feet long. When you turn the corner and it catches your eye, it will stop you in your tracks.

The marvelous coalescere has just a few weeks left in its run before it closes on June 12. BMoCA is located at 1750 13th Street in Boulder; go to or call 303-443-2122 for additional details.
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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia