Makers and Modelers: Works in Ceramic

Gladstone Gallery
New York, NY
Michelle Grabner

When abstract painter Judy Ledgerwood was diagnosed with cancer she began hand-building ceramic flatware. It was the similitude of clay and body that compelled her to ceramics at the time when her physical body was her paramount subject. Ledgerwood began by employing rudimentary coil construction techniques that she then adorned with black and white graphic flourishes and loosely painted patterns. The result was a collection of domestic objects, private yet utilitarian.

In planning for his Ice Cream Socials, public soirees shaped by middle American values, Milwaukee-based artist David Robbins commissioned the notable Studio Albisola in Italy to produce dozens of variously shaped ice cream bowls glazed in pink, brown and white. Cake and ice cream are always the centerpiece in Robbins’ socials and the chunky ceramic bowls stood in as party-favor props for his events. After the stacked bowls were paraded in Des Moines, Paris, and Pittsburgh, they went on to the 3rd Biennale di Ceramica nell’art Contemporanea where they were displayed amongst ceramic works by Liam Gillick, Richard Hawkins, Michelangelo Pistoletto, and many others.

Pae White, My-Fi, 2007.

Pae White, My-Fi, 2007. Photo: Thorsten Arendt/SP07.

One of three projects titled My-Fi by Pae White consists of three human-scale majolica bells based upon the bells that mark the historic Camino Real, which runs the length of California marking the links between the Spanish Missions. These bells were recreated in Germany at Nymphenburg Porcelain in Munich. While still malleable, White instructed the factory workers to hug the hollow clay form. The object was fired and the embrace was permanently indexed. The imprint of the squeeze also modified the tone of the ring.

Los Angeles-based artist Elizabeth Bryant has been rescuing abandoned clay objects left behind by ceramic students at California State University, Los Angeles, where she is a professor. Bryant adopts the quirky, handcrafted experiments and employs them as vessels for ikebana-like arrangements. Cabbage, grasses, tomatoes and other homegrown produce complete her still-lifes and protract the peculiarity of the unclaimed clay objects.

In the four varying examples above, artists have enlisted the medium of ceramics in order to effectuate a discrete idea. Because ceramics perspicuously embodies the concepts of value, time, history, and transfiguration, it is regularly pressed into service by conceptual artists who elect to employ the medium and its citations in tandem with other objectives. Meanwhile, ranks of artists such as Jun Kaneko, John Mason, Betty Woodman, Viola Frey, and Adrian Saxe who employ ceramics as a medium for sculptural investigation are perpetually marginalized by the contemporary avant-garde. And on the other side of the coin are the ceramicists—skilled craftspeople who dedicate their lives to the tradition of pottery.

Ceramics—like drawing—has always been a vital tool for artists and artisans alike. Like a three-dimensional sketchbook, a mound of pliant clay helps artists realize mass and volume, to decipher form and material. But it is only recently that ceramics have offered a desirable, even preferred, medium for artists who have little or no vocational training in the medium itself. It has become a standard studio engagement for artists whose interest lay in emotive forms of discourse. And perhaps that is the draw. It is basic, primitive, receptive, permanent, and most notably, the ideal medium for a culture that has put a high premium on the aptitude of empathy.

Ceramics is also referred to in the contemporary avant-garde as just that: “ceramics.” It is rarely referred to as sculpture or craft. It prevails in a privileged category untouched by exacting definition or expectation. Enter Makers and Modelers: Works in Ceramic, a group exhibition at Gladstone Gallery, New York, that featured sixty-four ceramic objects by thirty-one artists.

In her ironically titled, in-depth article on the exhibition, “It’s Just Clay, but How About a Little Respect?,” New York Times art critic Roberta Smith wrote, “The show’s stylistic and physical scope defines ceramics as a commodious, seductive medium with fairly firm limits.” The exhibition itself represents a collection of ceramic objects produced by well-entrenched art world careers with a few newcomers mixed in for trend appeal. The only professional ceramicist in Makers and Modelers is Ken Price, who has made a full profession out of shaping and firing clay. And although Price has no interest in the categories that artificially separate sculpture and ceramics or ceramic and pottery, his inclusion in the show might indicate that the contemporary avant-garde is also relaxing media hierarchies.

The exhibition at Gladstone assembles divergent agendas all wrought in the biddable medium. Striking is the fact that curatorial projects organized around a single medium are considered outmoded and marginalizing, yet this project’s thesis firmly rallies around clay and its latent implications. Here vessels, figurines, fragments and abstract forms evince political, humorous, ironic, obsessive, and classical languages. Several unremarkable figurative compositions are the least deserving of a Gladstone pedestal. Matt Johnson’s Birth of Venus (2007), Paloma Varga Weisa’s Woman on a Block (2007) and Richard Hawkins’ Untitled (2006) are three among many crude, monochromatic, tchotchke-esque objects that are at best expensive Chelsea souvenirs.

Makers and Modelers, installation view.

Makers and Modelers, installation view, Gladstone Gallery (September 8–October 13, 2007). Photo: David Regen. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York.

The tons of pinch-pots clotting parent’s curio-cabinets worldwide are a testament to clay’s unique ability to chronicle precious time in material. As a courier of history and human sentiment, great worth has been placed on the timeless fragility of ceramics. Thus, in an exhibition comprised of many celebrated contemporary artists, a pinch-pot by Anish Kapoor, Untitled (1994), takes on extraordinary commercial value. Contrarily, Ricky Swallow’s stoneware Coyote (2007) and fired clay Skull with Bay Leaves (2007) reveal exceptional modeling skills. Their unglazed surfaces, their exactitude and their smaller-than-life scale evoke the work of an artificer instead of the product of a contemporary artist.

Very different motivations are at work in Sam Durant’s blue and white porcelain chairs. The pale blue chair is titled Light Blue, Unique Mono-Block Resin Chair, Built at Jiao Zhi Studio, Xiamen, China, produced by Ye Xing You with Craftspeople Xu Fu Fa and Chen Zhong Liang. Kang Youteng, Project manager and Liason (2006). Durant’s cast surrogates mime the ubiquitous plastic yard chair available for only a few dollars at big-box stores throughout the western world. Global economics and its cataclysmic ramifications are highlighted in Durant’s nonfunctional chairs. Confusing material value, production value, and use value, Durant reroutes the flow of capital, confounding principles and profit. Rosemarie Trockel’s Untitled (2007), like Durant’s chairs, is also a fabricated piece of ceramic furniture. Her hard, glossy, bone-white, modern-designed sofa takes on a functional critique while also flirting with cultural and material values.

Fischli & Weiss’s Untitled (brick) (2007) also recruits simulacra strategies but with humorous and ironical ends. Slap-dash in its construction and made from unfired clay, its one-liner status mocks its pedestal-worthy place in the exhibition. Jonathan Meese’s four Brancusi-inspired commemorative objects function as sloppy, handcrafted trophies for transgressive achievement, an ironic gesture in itself. In regards to abstraction, Ken Price’s Zoma (2005) and Liz Larner’s smile (abiding)(1996-2005) represent the show’s most alluring formal investigations. These works also evoke the complexity of a sculptural practice, something conspicuously missing from the vast field of objects and pedestals.

Yet the most telling and most endemic works in the show are emotive in aspiration. They are the works that employ the medium of clay for its empathetic appeal. A parallel between the current enthusiasm for the cathartic properties of ceramics and a preoccupation with idiosyncratic drawing that took hold of the art apparatus several years ago is of note here. It appears that ceramics is the new drawing. Drawing presented itself as the consummate tool for regaling our personal narratives, hopes and dreams in glorious, obsessive detail. While this frantic drawing activity corresponded with the outing of Henry Darger, it is also curious to chart its development alongside of MySpace, YouTube and Facebook. Although the drive to present ourselves in narrative form has not diminished, our cultural longing for empathy has mushroomed.

Where systematizing requires detachment, a desired trait for the information age, today empathy, self-expression, touch, human connection and understanding—all those mushy, touchy-feely, right-brain traits—garner newfound appreciation. Knowing the world through someone else’s experience requires empathy and this instinct now holds vocational currency in the professional sector as well as in the arts. (Stanford Business School is presently teaching a class called Interpersonal Dynamics.)

Empathy is intuitive and spontaneous. Clay, like empathy, mimics and records our presence. Artists are pulled to clay’s tactile and plastic qualities because they confer uniqueness. Unlike other media, clay’s material mass indelibly records the whole presence of the artist, not just the hand. This shift toward full-on self-obsession is a cultural phenomena, underscored by “YOU,” Time Magazine’s person of the year in 2006, and by the fact that consumer culture routinely reinforces specialness via a continuous feed of individually tailored technologies.

Makers and Modelers, installation view.

Makers and Modelers, installation view, Gladstone Gallery (September 8–October 13, 2007). Photo: David Regen. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York.

William O’Brien, Marisa Merz, Urs Fischer, Elizabeth Peyton, and to some degree, Andrew Lord with his copious suite of body fragments installed on the Gladstone project room wall, underscore ceramic’s potential for direct and open expression. This work—figurative (Peyton and Lord), functional (Fischer), and abstract (O’Brien)—carries traces of the artist’s body and generously divulges its material processes. For example, O’Brien festoons a tabletop with richly glazed coil doodles, candlesticks, yarn-wrapped constructions and other bric-a-brac. In her New York Times review of Makers and Modelers, Smith goes on to write, “…It seems as hard to fail as it is to make something that surpasses generic competence and appeal. …(Ceramics accommodates so many levels of skill that the statement ‘My 5-year-old could do that’ has an unusually high rate of accuracy.)”

With both ironic wit and genuine fraternity, Pae White’s emblematic ceramic bell project (not included in the Gladstone exhibition) carves out a critical junction for empathy as subject matter in contemporary art. And clearly, other artists have caught on. Ceramics is no longer simply a means to an end, like David Robbins’ 1993 ceramic Kleenex dispenser, manufactured to take the spurting form of a penis, or Durant’s porcelain yard chairs enterprise or Elizabeth Bryant’s discarded student work project. Ceramics is now part of the contemporary artist’s repertoire. And although clay has gone mainstream, culture’s influence on the medium’s current popularity has yet to be fully mapped. But a broad-based craving for empathy is certainly part of the equation.

Michelle Grabner is an artist and critic living in Oak Park, IL, where she and her husband Brad Killam run The Suburban, an artist project space. She is a professor in the Painting and Drawing Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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