PERSPECTIVES ON CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN CERAMIC ART
Providing meaningful insights and cogent interpretations of ceramics in America is clearly too large a topic for any conference, let alone one panel. America is vast and its historical influences diverse. This coupled with its entrepreneurial freedom and absence of class and guild distinctions has given rise to something new in the past two hundred years. As a nation that espouses rugged individualism and had, at least in its formative years, to confront a vast and varied wilderness, a pluralism developed that gave expression to new ways of thinking and working. The purpose of this panel is to explore this diversity, not on a macro level, but from several individually focused viewpoints. To that end, the four panelists, myself included, offer insights and interpretations from our individual perspectives.
Alleghany Meadows is both a studio potter and entrepreneur. He lives and works in Colorado. He received an MFA from Alfred University and studied in Japan. He received a Watson foundation for field study of potters in Nepal and has been an artist in residence at various craft and art centers around the country. In addition to being a gifted potter, he has an exceptional eye for the best of functional work. He put his entrepreneurial skills to work by purchasing a 30 foot 1967 airstream trailer–which he calls a land yacht and remodeled it in 2001 to become a ceramic gallery on wheels. He travels from Los Angeles to New York City in his yacht and he and it are perennials at ceramic art conferences.
It is hard to introduce Helen Drutt for she both literally and figuratively wears so many hats and each one more striking, more charming, and more significant than the next. Time simply does not permit me to adequately sing her contributions. She is just so remarkable in many ways. But briefly, though, she is a contemporary jewelry collector, lecturer, museum curator, gallerist, author, philanthropist – the list goes on. She is world renowned for her significant and continued commitment to the advancement of the Contemporary Craft Movement and her contributions are vast, with scholarship and education often being at the heart of her endeavors.
Paul Sacaridiz, is professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He received an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a BFA from Alfred University. He is a mixed media sculptor and ceramic artist and has participated in international and national exhibitions and most recently was included in The Denver Art Museum milestone exhibition entitled Overthrown: Clay Without Limits. His work titled Incomplete Articulation is based on a conceptual framework – an area he is most comfortable to present his ideas on Utopian systems using ceramic extrusions with precise mathematical models and structural forms. The individual components are physically and conceptually networked, creating an elaborate three-dimensional system of mapping space that becomes suggestive of architecture and cityscapes.
Now, serving as both panelist and moderator, I will take the liberty of starting first.
DEFINING PLACE, IDENTITY AND PLACE , A PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE ON AMERICAN CERAMICS.
Defining Issues, Identities and Ideas: A Personal Perspective on American Ceramics Communication in the world of art has never been more diverse. But while we think we have some familiarity with a country’s ceramic practitioners – whether it be by reading books, using internet search engines, reading magazines, perusing Facebook entries or blogs, nothing can ever surpass being in the country itself and observing firsthand the culture and its impact on artists. Simply put, nothing beats being there. We in the IAC know this intimately and have been blessed to be in each other’s cultures every two years to observe things first hand, to talk with one another, visit each other’s studios, galleries and learn.
My expertise is knowing about contemporary American Ceramic art, the last 50 years of it, particularly in the area of ceramic art in the service of social commentary. It is my hope, in this brief analysis, to offer fresh insights and make connections to current practice.
The decades in the latter part of the 20th C have borne witness to enormous social changes. Institutions and deeply entrenched values have come under attack from all directions and technology forever altered the world, as we know it.
Artists have embraced whatever materials and environments best suited their intent. Wax, fiber, straw, glass – even animal fat and chocolate – have been used.
Within that context, Jenny Holzer appropriated advertising and graffiti to expose the corrosive influence of the media and its messages.
Barbara Kruger combined slogans with photographs to expose presidential malfeasance.
The Guerrilla Girls brought attention to race and gender discrimination in the arts.
Perhaps it is a reflection of our time, but now, more than ever, artists – acting as journalists, ethicists, psychoanalysts, philosophers but most often, as ordinary citizens – are examining and reflecting upon societies which seem to be in desperate need of repair. (Damien Hirst image)
I see art today as even more confrontational, at times violent, obscene, disorienting and shocking. As the subject matter of art changed, so has the materials. Putting paint to canvas no longer reigns supreme.
In their search for the most expressive medium for the delineation of their ideas, many artists have turned to CLAY. It is plentiful and inexpensive, had a legacy centuries old, and can be manipulated to elicit the visceral, intuitive and primitive qualities needed to support the social, political and avant-garde issues artists are attempting to confront. IT HAS OFTEN PROVEN TO BE THE BEST SUITED MATERIAL FOR THE DIVERSITY OF THIS EXPRESSION.
The artists whose work I will discuss today attack, satirize and/or expose the stupidity of the human condition and its institutions. They use the devices of irony, parody, obscenity, erotica, introspection, violence, dream imagery, and the grotesque to convey their messages and are seen as continuing the tradition of critical social commentary as an intrinsic element of cultural discourse.
Roberta Smith—news caption…..
While much has been written about Robert Arneson as a funk artist, one has to get past that association to fully examine the courage he exhibited when he began to joust with the conventional. He shocked the establishment with the grotesqueness of FUNK JOHN, a sculpture first entered in an exhibition sponsored by Kohler, a manufacturer of porcelain sanitary wares. When he was asked to remove it, he knew, he said, he was on to something new. Like Duchamp he had no fear of pushing boundaries.
War Memorial Confrontation, shock, protest, senselessness, absurdity, and fun were underlying themes in his early work but, in time, his messages assumed the poignancy befitting a true satirist. In works such as Sarcophagus, he returns to the device of the grotesque commingled with fear, perversity, and amusement to literally force the spectator to reexamined personal values.
In WAR HEAD, a charred, gaunt, hairless head rests face up on a capital column with rats etched along its base. The head, torn from its body, reveals empty eye sockets that stare up to a lifeless sky as a silent shriek spews from a grotesquely distorted mouth. Stenciled letters that pierce the forehead read “War Memorial.”
In my estimation this work is one of his most potent efforts and, when seen up close, one cannot help but be moved by as you shudder at the thought of nuclear annihilation.
Howard Kottler known as a decalomaniac and supreme appropriation-nist long before that word was part of the art world – employed unbridled wit, sarcasm, and punning to give numerous variations on a theme using commercially available decals and store-bought plates. He was trailblazer in American ceramics commingling the handmade with the ready made…using industrial molds and commercial plates, not as a canvas for decoration …but to make cogent comments about religion, sexuality and war …… as seen, for example, in his American Supperware series, boxed store bought plates with decals disassembled and reassembled imaginatively in diverse ways to protest the Viet Nam war.
Double Identity uses his profile to reveal multiple meaning and interpretations, making use of clay with a marble decaled surface or venerated in gold… In Howards own words…..“ If an artist refuses to be dominated by the medium or by tradition, clay can be an exciting means for the expressions of ideas. These words influenced a host of artists who today embrace clay for its inherent capability to express their intent.
Those were some of the antecedents, now on to their more contemporary offspring. First: the artists who deal with war and politics.
Charles Krafft Making a clay body using human bone and trademarking it Spone, Krafft has worked on a rather disturbing series known as Disasterware in which a Forgiveness Beauty bar of soap is particularly disturbing.
Ehren Tool, an ex marine has made hundreds of cups that serve as a visual reminder of individual Marines within a military unit. Each cup is uniquely crafted, decorated with ceramic decals of soldiers’ photos, propaganda, war porn, and sculptural reliefs shaped like bombs, guns, or medals. In his work, the White house papers, he sent cups along with letters to elected officials to make a vivid connection to those who had died in combat. Tool then posts the vague and gratuitous responses to these gifts along with still more cups.
A second group of artists comment on the human condition. They deal with the major issues daily confront us: overpopulation, a pervasive gun culture, technology run amok, the loss of privacy, and the degradation of family values- all loom large as these artists attempt to deal with their emotional reactions to what they perceive as a world desperately in need of repair.
Arthur Gonzalez emotionally charged sculptures reveal dark and ominous predilections of inner suffering and dire warnings, not only in the rough and tough manner of the surfaces, but in a masterful painting style and brilliant integration of found objects . (Pinocchio Series Cadence of Stupidity, Blue Salami, Saging and El Comboveron)
Cynthia Consentino uses the figure to explore gender, familial and societal roles, and cultural mores. Borrowing from myth and cultural iconography, her sculptures blend the absurd, or fantastic, with the familiar, or more mundane.
With sweeping swaths of creamy clay, Beth Cavener Stitcher surfaces elegantly crafted rabbits, lambs and hounds to portray the darker side of the human condition. Each anthropomorphized animal’s gesture conveys nuances of insecurities, self loathing, and predicaments that reveal inner fears and the complexities of life’s struggles and desires. The animals are found in familiar emotional & psychological states or in precarious predicaments that create provocative and confrontational situations. This last image is from her recent exhibition that opened last week in NYC and was attended by the preconference tour participants. Again employing animal forms as human surrogates, her work becomes piercing reminders of our common associations and behaviors.
Julie Green ‘s The Last Supper is an installation of china painted plates illustrating the final meal requests of death row inmates in the United States. Green was disturbed to find the final menus of the condemned printed in the morning paper in Norman Oklahoma along with the details of how the inmate died.
By focusing on their individual requests she humanizes them and gets you to think about the death penalty, the victims, the crimes committed, the individuals executed, the large number of minorities on death row, the margin for error in the judicial process as well as food choices and class distinctions based on those choices— a great deal of red meat but few lobsters, sushi or Godiva chocolates.
The third issue deals with clay as a visceral medium. It can be worked soft but made to look hard, and, when hard, can be made to look soft. Its surface can be shiny, wet and glistening or coated with a “skin” to resemble flesh. Its malleability can lead to organic shapes with voluptuous curves, or it can be worked with sand paper and woodworking tools to yield the sharpest edges. Clay can be dark brown to exploit its scatological association, or it can be the purest luminescent white to rival the gossamer wings of angels. There is no better material to act as metaphor for the human body, to speak to gender issues or to conjure up bodily functions than clay.
Tip Toland exaggerated unsettling life like laboriously constructed sculptures reveal vulnerability as in Grace Flirts and Tender Flood.
While Anne Potter in Tar Baby exploits and explodes the figure to combine child or adolescent like poses and body parts intermingled with women’s struggles with sexual identity.
Jason Briggs Obvious sexual references and an extravagant, fetish-like attention to surface, Briggs offers a fresh perspective creating objects with inherent mystery and intrigue that quietly insists upon viewer interaction. They are enigmatic, foreign yet familiar, handmade and organic. Provocative elements insure that the piece will not be too comfortable to view. He enjoys using hair – particularly in the ‘wrong’ place: sprouting from what might seem to be an ear, an orifice, or in this case, growing out of porcelain.
This next group make visual comment about the fears, frustrations, anger and sense of futility engendered by the collective awareness of a rapidly degrading planet. We live in plastic worlds of synthetic fibers, synthetic scents and synthetic values. Threats to wildlife and plants, the availability and quality of water, air pollution, acid rain, ozone depletion, drought, famine, global warming, conservation and preservation, the ravages of disease, the evils of uncontrolled population growth, corporate greed – are some of the issues confronting the artists in this group.
Mary Ann Webster – Bernard Palissy’s Renaissance vessels of idealized nature inspired Webster’s series of mutant, damaged, and altered forms. “Monsanto Pond” refers to the PCB pollution of a pond in Alabama which was discovered when a deformed fish was pulled from it and later discovered that the entire town had been polluted with PCBs a chemical known to cause birth defects, genetic mutations, and cancer. Monsanto was required to clean up the soil but how much damage has already been done, here and elsewhere.
There are many artists in this category but because of time, I am moving on to this last group.
Historically, we have looked at clay as a material long associated with low-brow culture – the material of the curio, the tourist souvenir and the kitschy collectible. The artists, in this group, make use of this historical association to create instantaneous associations with the cheap, low down and dirty – art for the masses. While most clay artists try to distance themselves from the medium’s often low-brow history, today’s post modernists use the material and its low associations to make cutting and insightful comments about popular and material culture. These artists challenge the consumer-oriented imposed cultural values. Within this context, power, publicity, money, glamour, greed, fame, shopping, and morality are all seen as grist for their mill.
Reinaldo Sanguino explores the effects of society on personal identity. By combining imagery of luxury brands such as Hermes or Tiffany with an historical symbol of a crown, Sanguino brings awareness to wealth associated with the upper class. Furthermore the black-glazed porcelain crown, constructed of breakable ceramic, represents the power material culture has in the blurring of class and the fragility that the upper social class seemingly faces.
Timothy Foss asks the viewer to look at issues related to value. Is the biggest the best and should it be the most expensive? Foss tediously threw one hundred and one vases with the same shape ascending an eighth-inch at a time in height from one inch – to eighteen inches. He priced the smallest piece at one-thousand dollars, and decreased the price by ten dollars per vase until the largest piece was free.
Finally, I want to close with an installation artist, more of a tableaux creator, who choreographs performers to produce small clay vases but with messages that live well beyond their reality as objects.
JJ Mccracken’s poetic metaphors are about duration, deformation and change. In Stasis, a sterile environment is presented while performers in white lab coats produce perfect ceramic objects that are then Sealed wet in plastic bags, labeled, priced and set up on racks like displays of potato chips to be sold by the pound.
In the Dissolve project, 5 white-suited workers are seen at work at various workstations. At the first, the worker is throwing bud vases on the wheel. At the second, the worker is trimming a foot ring. At the third, the worker puts the still leather-hard vases into mason jars and pours in corn syrup. At the fourth, the worker vacuum seals the jars. Finally, at the fifth, the worker labels each jar with the date, takes it to a display area and adds it to hundreds of jars already on freestanding shelves. Because the clay is not fired and the corn syrup is water-based, the clay breaks down over time, until no form remains. Her work raises issues, not only about clay, but about life and how we perceive it…
Her work is about time…..and mine is up…but JJ’s words are a fitting end …
As artists, as people, we live within a continuum of time. We become part of history as each moment leaves us and takes on its new existence as part of the past. Everything that is new is soon old. We can never stop time, that is, not if we are truly aware of our transient role within the history of art.
IDEA DRIVEN WORK – CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN POTTERS
The past 25yrs has seen a shift away from a physical, abstract expressionist vocabulary towards a cerebral, idea driven aesthetic. Process is often employed by concept, rather than process driving the communication. Evidence of the physical touch of the maker has become less of a requirement and more of a choice for expression. Quality is no longer subject to a hierarchy of materials or techniques. Possibilities for process continue to be pushed beyond “how was it made” to “what does it mean”.
Education has played an enormous role in the changes. The field is led by artists with a Master of Fine Arts degree, who understand their place within contemporary art, within art history, and within their personal views of the world. There is an incredible depth of research into objects intended for the context of a home. Utility has become engaged as content. There has been a shift away from economic concerns, like speed of production or conservation of material, to an indulgence of time and process.
Artists to be discussed: Peter Beseacker, Andy Brayman, Julia Galloway, John Gill, Sam Harvey, Ayumi Horie, Andrew Martin, Lisa Orr, Mark Pharis, Linda Sikora and Lilly Zuckerman
AN INCOMPLETE PRACTICE
Over the past decade in America, ceramics has gained both a widespread acceptance and a critical foothold in the world of Contemporary Art. This paper will frame out a discussion of current trends in American Ceramics that celebrates base materiality and an unapologetic embrace of formalism.
Primarily focusing on artists who integrate ceramic materials into an interdisciplinary practice the work of Jessica Jackson Hutchins, Nicole Cherubini, Liz Larner, Arlene Shechet, William J. Obrien, Andrew Lord and Sterling Ruby will be discussed.
While their work’s fit seamlessly into the conversation of contemporary sculpture, they have been largely, and one might suggest intentionally, ignored within the discourse and history of contemporary ceramics. This paper will argue for the possibility of widening our understanding and acceptance of works that fall outside of predefined narratives of craft and skill.
Paul Sacaridiz is Associate Professor and Graduate Chair, University of Wisconsin-Madison.