The word clay rhymes with play.  That’s an illustration of the deep associative wisdom of the English language.  There’s a reason that child artists are often given clay to fashion.   Clay begs to be manipulated.  It’s more forgiving than working in stone, and more elemental than synthetics.  A sculptor in clay is encouraged by the material to take chances.  When the medium is mutable, it rewards a playful mind. 

There are dark undertones to “Playing Silly Games,” the imaginative group ceramics show that’ll enliven Evening Star Studio (11 Monitor St.) until July 8.  It can’t be helped: these are troubled times, and artists are sensitive to the touch of shadow.  The show, curated by the impish Doris Cacoilo, has hints of the monstrous, of circumstances out of control, of the dangers of getting led by faerie lights and overtones of the turbulent dreams of childhood.  But who are we kidding, really?, this exhibition is pure fun — and pure fun, as any child knows, requires a few scares.  It means a wide-eyed, cymbal-clashing monkey the size of a toddler, seated in a window well, teeth gritted against the exigencies of the day.  It means subtle references to kid’s lit, with boisterous little monsters reminiscent of the beasts from “Where the Wild Things Are,” and a donkey, as resolute in its sadness as Eeyore, hung on the eastern wall. And it means a menagerie of tiny woodland creatures, convened among ceramic toadstools, there in the dominion of a watchful fox, its body curled around a womb-like tree trunk.

Is the fox benevolent or hungry?  Well, how about a little of both?  Like characters in fairy tales, these ceramic animals possess capricious spirits. They’ve come to the right playground: Evening Star Studio is, in many ways, a pure expression of the personality of the sculptor Beth DiCara, whose kiln in the backyard is a magic cauldron where clay animals spring to life.  DiCara’s animal ornaments in the back of Evening Star are not, technically, part of “Playing Silly Games,” but they might as well be.  That donkey that sulks so pleasantly, straight through its glaze, is part of the show, as are a quartet of DiCara’s soulful animal busts. They feel designed for the nursery of an empathetic child — protective totems that murmur of the wild, and of parental love, sometimes in the same warm breath. 

The monkey is considerably less comforting.  With its flared nostrils, grasping toes, and sheer, desperate will to address anxieties by making a racket, it’s an an avatar of childhood itself.  Its creator, Jenny Reed, has paired it with “Trying Hard to Be Soft,” a play on old age — or, rather, how old age is perceived by youth.  The head of a white-bearded man rises like smoke from a body as limbless as a chimney.  The column is a heap of colored ceramic, and the furrowed face is made of plush fabric.  With his drooping, white mustache, and regal disposition, he’s like a playing-card king.  But he’s got no authority other than his weary expression, and no visible means of mobility or power.  No wonder he looks so sad.  

Other contributions to “Playing Silly Games” are mischievous delights.  Kate Eggleston makes headless turkey bodies out of ceramic, hollowed out as a bird in a Thanksgiving oven, decorated with colorful designs and stuffed with clay ovoids and lozenges like Necco wafers. That sounds slightly gruesome, but in practice, it’s as boisterous and inviting as a kid’s playset, and as maternal in its impliciations as the Venus of Willendorf.  The egg reappears in the belly of the fox-guarded tree stump at the center of the show.  It’s the tiny, throbbing heart of Atsuko Watanabe‘s enchanted forest, dense with ferns and ceramic mushrooms, birds, turtles, and animals as charming as netsuke.  Watanabe, the revelation of this show, also contributes a dazzlingly cute pair of squat planters, adorned with human faces, blue-green hair, wide, friendly eyes and tight, secretive smiles.  Like all of Watanabe’s characters, they know things they aren’t telling.   

Watanabe and Eggleston make ceramics reminiscent of toys.  Jin Jung contributes pieces that actually are toys.  Jung asks visitors to twirl sticks, spin cylinders, place fingers on the dial and put her clay in motion.  A zoetrope roughly the size of a paint pail contains a series of images of a sleepy girl; peer at it from the proper angle, and you’ll see her rouse and sink back into slumber.  Cacoilo’s own ceramics aren’t quite as interactive, but it’s hard not to want to slip on her superhero and Star Wars stormtrooper masks, made from black sheets of ceramic textured like snakeskin.  She’s hung them on the wall like a little tribunal of justice, peering out at the rest of the figurines with black eyes under heavy, scaly brows.  They’re not exactly childlike, but every child with a comic book collection will know exactly what he or she is looking at.  And every grownup under their stern supervision will remember exactly what it feels like to be on the cusp of adolescence, present, all at once, to the magic of childhood, and the strange wonder of the world beyond.    

(Evening Star Studio will host an artist talk on Monday, June 26 at noon. The gallery is open every day by appointment. Write to

Tris McCall has written about art, architecture, performance, politics, and public culture for many publications, including the Newark Star-Ledger, the Bergen Record, Jersey Beat, the Jersey City Reporter,...