What distinguishes Beth Katleman is her use of ornamental 18th-century rococo-seeming designs, coming to her attention during study in Italy, and then often using them to present pop culture figures in different ways.
Beth Katleman casts porcelain forms, joined with dolls and found objects, to sculpt story-suggestive pieces and is showcasing her work through May 14 at Wasserman Projects in Detroit.
As part of a group showing titled “Cast Illusions,” her work will appear with pieces by three other artists, each represented by different approaches to materials. While Jessica Dolence prefers digital decoration and ornamentation, Sarah Meyohas leans toward film, photography and sculpture, and Victoria Shaheen advances clay, neon and found objects.
“I haven’t been as familiar with the others’ work, so I’ve been excited to see it,” said Katleman, 62, based in Brooklyn with a background that includes earning her master’s degree at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills and later featuring her decorative projects at the discontinued Sybaris Gallery in Royal Oak.
“I think this exhibit is an interesting juxtaposition of different materials and different thought. I guess the unifying factor is some relation to casting or industrial processes in our work.”
What distinguishes Katleman is her use of ornamental 18th-century rococo-seeming designs, coming to her attention during study in Italy, and then often using them to present pop culture figures in different ways. At times communicating the artist’s stark impressions, the sculptures also are intended to evoke private narratives from viewers.
The piece Colonel Sanders, for instance, uses traditional porcelain to depict the pop culture iconic figure otherwise associated with selling carryout chicken. For a Jewish-themed exhibit, Katleman altered what he was wearing to place him in a Passover piece commissioned by the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.
“Colonel Sanders has played different roles in my life over the years,” said the three-dimensional artist, who visited Michigan for the exhibit’s opening and to spend time at Cranbrook.
“When the San Francisco museum asked me to do a seder plate, I was looking around my studio and thinking about who was going to play Moses. Then I saw Colonel Sanders. He already had a staff [for walking], and I put a little head scarf on him [and a flowing robe] so it worked out.”
In stark contrast, the piece Alice returns viewers to the story of Alice in Wonderland with some jarring differences. Amid a pretty floral setting, three young girls are carrying guns, which perhaps could be reminders to address the issue of young people accessing guns with tragic results.
“I love themes of lost innocence,” Katleman said. “Alice in Wonderland is definitely that for me. It is a touchstone that I’ve referred to in my work over the years. There are multiple Alices going through that confusing forest of trees.”
One technique Katleman calls upon is the use of mirrors to enhance viewer immersion. In the Detroit exhibit, Fire and Ice is a response to Robert Frost’s poem of the same name in keeping with an apocalyptic theme. A close look at the figures reveals catastrophic circumstances because Katleman wanted to represent ways in which people currently feel buffeted.
Katleman’s grandmother, a recreational painter, was an artistic inspiration and early teacher. Much later, as a literature major at Stanford University in California, sculpting became a professional focus.
“When I got to Stanford, I knew I’d be a writer or an artist,” she recalled. “When I started taking art classes, I found I couldn’t do any of my other work. I would go in a deep dive into the studio, and I couldn’t fit all the other things I had to do into my brain. I just wanted to be in the studio.
“My undergraduate degree is in English, but I couldn’t get enough of clay I loved it so much. I think that degree led me to the storytelling aspect of my work and my interest in referring to other narratives, like fairy tales or mythology.”
After learning her teachers had gone to Cranbrook, Katleman decided that was the school for her.
“I wanted a place that was for people who were self-motivated, and Cranbrook was that place,” she explained. “It’s just the artist in the studio and the relationship to the artists there.”
Although Katleman has created some Judaica, most of her work enters other spheres. It has been exhibited across the United States and in Europe and Asia. Public collections showcasing her sculpture include the RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) Museum in Providence, Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena, Mont., and the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wis.
Apart from artistic commitments, Katleman has visited Israel three times because of personal religious interests that also have kept her in synagogue membership near her home. She is pleased that her 19-year-old son spent a gap year in the country.
A widow with twins, a boy and a girl aiming for careers outside of art, she is now an empty nester.
“I’ve raised them pretty much on my own,” Katleman said. “They’re off at college, and it remains to be seen how that comes out in my work.”
“Cast Illusions” can be seen through May 14 at Wasserman Projects, 3434 Russell Street # 502 in Detroit. Private in-person viewing by appointment runs noon-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays. (313) 818-3550. wassermanprojects.com.