“Ostracon: a potshard used as a writing surface in ancient times, particularly in Greece and Egypt when paper like products (papyrus and parchment) were costly. Earthenware shards, essentially free and plentiful, became the post-it of the day. Messages were either scratched through slip surfaces or written in ink or paint on the porous surfaces. Shards were used as ballots which is how this fired messenger got its name. In Athens when a citizen’s right to live in a city became contested, voters would decide and give their decision on an ostracon. If the citizen lost the shard count, they were banished (i.e. ostracized from the city).
The ostracon is the precursor to the computer chip. Thus, we at CFile felt that it was a perfect title, if a little obscure, for a journal dedicated to writing on ceramics in the information age.” -Garth Clark
Above image: Brooke Winfrey, Plates with Blood Orange, 2014, photo by Pippa Drummond
The following is an abbreviated version of Mary Callahan Baumstark’s 2016 essay Rehashing Modernism: Pitfalls of Popular Pots. The full essay is the first issue of our newest publication Ostracon Journal of Criticism + Issues, available in C-library. Ostracon is a scholarly periodical about contemporary trends in ceramics. If you are already a member, view the eBook, or begin your 30-day free trial.
Rehashing Modernism: Pitfalls of Popular Pots
Ostracon Journal of Criticism and Issues: Issue 1
Baumstark, Mary Callahan
Santa Fe: CFile Foundation, 2016
This new “trend” of ceramics revolves around a core group of makers and aesthetics (mostly out of New York and modernism), situated firmly between luxury and maker markets. It’s one thing to address the trend of ceramics, but quite another to define its origins. This particular trend comes at a time when the maker market (the DIY/IndieCraft scene) of the early 2000s has reached its peak (with “artisanal” and “handmade” now as trite as “green” or “eco” products) and has come to be associated with luxury markets, as “benchmade” and “handcrafted” work their way back into elite advertising.
By now, we’ve all seen the New York Times article, claiming ceramics are “white hot” and the millennial’s “craft du jour.” In 2015, Vogue described ceramics as, “those at-hand quotidian objects whose appeal is growing among the fashion set.” For those in the studio ceramics community, it can be difficult to hear ceramics (one of the oldest and most diverse artforms of all time) categorized as “trend.” For others, it’s optimistic. 2015 may have been the year of ceramics, especially in mainstream media, with several New York Times and Vogue articles, a reality TV show, finalist potters in Martha Stewart’s American Made competition, and more.
So, what is this trend? Better yet, who and what constitutes this trend? Perpetuated by “fashion” media, this trend takes its cues from commodity, lifestyle, and consumer movements from the past two years. It appears to be regional, as most potters featured come from the “stunningly intertwined Greenpoint–North Williamsburg scene.” The two largest perpetuators have been New York-centered media (NYT and the New Yorker) and Vogue (both magazine and online). But these content providers are merely indicative of a larger, media trend spanning different countries and groups of makers.
The Globe and Mail called it, “the new age of ceramics,” and the popularity of the media was so evident that The Telegraph had to ask “Why does everyone suddenly love ceramics?” The New York Times profiled global-financier-turned-potter John Mosler and T Magazine covered “The New Ceramicists,”. Similarly, hipster mag Nylon gave us their roundup of the “best young talent,” and New York Magazine gave us “The Everything Guide to Urban Claymaking” highlighting the best of the “Artisanal Brooklynites.”
And, of course, there’s the 2014 tweet from Lena Dunham, she’s so ahead of the curve.
Here’s the thing: don’t all of these pots look alike? Is it their staging? The glazes? The majority of these fashionable pots (I’m talking the ones appearing in Kinfolk, Paper Mag, Apartmento, and Vogue), ascribe to similar aesthetics. Aesthetics that remind us of modernism in their simple shapes and glazes, geometric or painterly surface design, where function comes to the fore.
Are these pots a throwback to modernism? Are they simply rehashing old ideas and presenting them as new? Or are we looking at a new aesthetic movement, a neo-modernism, if you will?
Ceramics has suddenly become the height of hip, as a middle class activity that can be transported and networked into homes as symbols of one’s good taste for quality and simplicity, simultaneously elegant and edgy. Ceramic’s fashionable moment, however, is just that. It’s related to the fashion of the commodity, and finds itself detached from the reality and history of studio ceramics. While these highlighted practitioners would certainly disagree with this assessment, the fact remains that studio ceramics is still held at a remove from the art world, the fashion industry, and the larger markets, and while we find the fashionable pottery trend in New York encouraging, it does not reflect a nationwide trend in the field of studio ceramics.
Situated firmly in “fashionable goods,” the trendy pots produced have a kind of essentialist, ceramic aesthetic, employing the language of midcentury masters with a hipster, internet lean. Removed from the history of the last 50 years of ceramics, which haven’t been considered by the fashion cycles, we find ourselves looking to the language and aesthetics of modernism.
Modernist pots followed the design influence of the 20th century, drawing from high culture and their own aesthetic language, influenced by Bernard Leach, Japanese ceramics, and perpetuating these aesthetics through the British Studio Pottery movement and much of post-war pottery in the United States. While post-modern pottery of the eighties, nineties, and early 2000s was much more reflexive, much more about craft and the materiality of clay than its modernist counterparts, this new school of fashionable pots seems to swing back toward the design, simplicity, and function of modernist pottery.
What makes this work contemporary, however, is its playful sensibility, driven by meme culture and the curatorial lens of Internet image-sharing platforms. These neo-modernist pots fit into the kinds of lifestyles being perpetuated by Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr, and mainstream media providers like Vogue. While recognizing the ephemeral nature of fashion, the inclusion and prominence of ceramic objects in fashionable, mainstream media content providers offers hope for the enduring relevance of the handmade.
It might be easy to describe this trend as a mere throwback, but it points us to a powerful, cultural zeitgeist and the consuming power of the new, young, hipster elite. These potters are not merely producing modernist-ish pots for the sake of their own artistic vision, but they are contributing to the cultural lifestyle perpetuated by fashion media. Our mythical, contemporary fashionista drinks a Moscow mule from a hand-hammered cup, and snacks on organic, local wasabi peas in a shallow, handmade ceramic dish, wipes her hands casually on a pair of vintage levis, and swings her vegan leather clad feet wistfully from a reclaimed lumber bar stool. We are all, at some level, aware of the lifestyle ascribed by fashion media, and yet, it took us by surprise when this lifestyle started to include handmade pottery.
These pots exude a neo-modernist aesthetic, with a distinct contemporary edge. Rather than market themselves as traditional potters, they collaborate with fashion houses, they make planters, chandeliers, and place settings for new hip restaurants. Sure, they have artist websites and business cards, but instead, we follow them on Instagram, Tumblr, or Vine. The context in which these pots are situated is distinctly contemporary, but timeless and classic, as the forms themselves refer to an established, chic aesthetic made popular and fashionable in mid-century modernism.
Take, for example, Helen Levi, a Brooklynite potter who has 109,000 followers on her Instagram (Consider that the Pots in Action (#PIA) Instagram only has 25,000 followers). Levi’s Instagram is dominated by pots appearing in a variety of settings that ascribe to a particular lifestyle. Levi’s pots are simple, marbled forms with minimal glazing and nuance, often taking the form of mugs, pitchers, and planters. Often they appear on a blank background, but just as often, we catch glimpses of her romantic, loft style studio in the middle of the city, her casual collection of gorgeous houseplants, and her photogenic dog. In addition to looking every bit the hipster covergirl in Vogue’s Earth, Spin, and Fire, Levi gives off an air of carefree crafting, one that lends itself to the “authenticity” of her work.
The pots by Helen Levi and her compatriots have a remarkably consistent aesthetic, one that seems to be proliferating this fashionable moment for ceramics. The pots produced have extremely simple forms, typically thrown, cylindrical vessels with straight walls and rounded bottoms or simple, wide pinched bowls. The handles are a marked and basic “C” shape with little nuance. The unique touches to these vessels are in the surface treatment, although the trends are similar there as well. Many, such as Levi, choose to marble clay bodies together, while others, such as Lena Dunham pal and Twitter subject Isabel Halley and Romy Northover are enamored with the shiny effects of gold and palladium lustres. For the most part, these pots are minimal and functional, and without the “organically shaped cutting boards and sun-dappled succulents,” Instagram filters, wool blankets, reclaimed wood, and occasional puppy in the background, they could be misconstrued for modernist pots.
The market conditions and commodification of lifestyle make the timing right for “trend spotting” journalists to take note of these potters. As the maker market of the late nineties and early 2000s hits its peak, the elite, luxury market took note, looking to commodify a set of objects and elevate them from the holiday craft market to luxury goods. The commodified lifestyle that fashionable media looks to perpetuate is one of casual fashion, careful quality, and custom, “bespoke” objects to craft a home.
Now, we’re seeing “craft” used in a much wider range than we were even five years ago, as our coffee, furniture, beer, bikes, and clothing is all “crafted” in some way. The maker market has peaked. It’s no longer alternative, local, or indie, but rather far-reaching, fashionable, and ubiquitous. Look at the ways these popular pots are being described, they speak to both their contemporary fashionable nature and the “timelessness” of a modernist aesthetic. Media outlets describe Bari Ziperstein’s work as “functional and strikingly sculptural,” (work that looks similar to Hans Coper’s) and pottery’s fashionable, “less sleek, more crafty aesthetic,” in Vogue. The New York Times describes Forrest Lewinger’s work as “cups with marbleized glazes, earthy bowls with hand-carved geometric patterns, and ivory-colored vases with a confetti-like spatter of blue,” but this could also describe a number of modernist potters like Dora Billington or William Staite Murray, and NYMag’s profile of the best “power potters” showcased a number of “mid-century-inspired” and “simple shapes” pots.
These articles define the rising trend of ceramics as something that emerges from the desire for quality, handmade goods, an authentic experience in this digital age. Claiming that ceramics may be the new reclaimed lumber furniture, minimalist jewelry, or fixed gear bike cautiously suggests that this trend may be like all the others, shallow and quickly passing.
I should note that the aesthetics of these works, and others, are not displeasing or without merit. I love modernist aesthetics as much as the next Lucie Rie fan, believe me. These fashionable pots, however, conform to a specific, historical aesthetic of pottery, one that is not always considered contemporary among the greater community of professional ceramicists. Studio ceramicists worldwide are making work that is more interesting than this fashionable work, work that reflects the depth and diversity of studio ceramics since Modernism. Garth Clark may have said it best, writing, “[At the Times] Writers have no sense of design history or standards…. On design they feature the barely competent, mostly from the Brooklyn design community, which is at best a mixed bag.”
The particular, fashionable position of these ceramicists privileges the history of fashion, first, the accessibility of pottery, second, and, finally, the Internet sharing platforms that best benefit their markets. If these “trend spotters” truly wished to delve into the “authenticity” of handmade, or the “experience” of excellent pottery, we all know they wouldn’t have to look far, although perhaps a bit further than just New York City. We know these journalists aren’t potters or ceramicists themselves, but rather generalists promoting the work that has crossed their paths, their neighbors, friends, and acquaintances. While this can be discouraging, there is still something to learn from the generalist perspective.
We can take cues from these popular potters, from their trending aesthetics, staging and product photography, their social media prowess. The fact is that fashion matters. While these pots might not be the best of the best, they are being marketed as such by mainstream media, bringing greater attention to ceramic practice.
Robert Sullivan’s question remains, “Is ceramics having a moment?” or is it suddenly more fashionable than it has been before? I would argue that this fashionable moment is happening outside the greater ceramic community in the Western world. While potters have been joking about their own reality show for years, 2015 is the year that it happened. Suddenly, ceramics felt visible in a way that it previously hadn’t.
Ceramic objects are, at once, utilitarian, expensive yet attainable, and simultaneously timeless and new in the hands of this group of “It” potters. It’s optimistic, I think, for the craft world to be considered trendy. For while it can undermine the romantic ideologies associated with craft and increase craft’s appropriation from the neoliberal, capitalist model (craftwashing), visibility for craft (and, microcosmically, ceramics) is a necessary advancement for the field.
I see you, out there, commenting and sharing excellent ceramics in the comments sections, taking journalists to task for ignoring the diversity of our field. Keep it up! One can hope that, despite the quick cycles of fast fashion, the work represented in mainstream media will begin to more fully explore the technical and conceptual mastery of contemporary ceramicists.
This is an abbreviated version of Mary Callahan Baumstark’s 2016 essay Rehashing Modernism: Pitfalls of Popular Pots. The uncut essay is available in Ostracon Journal of Criticism + Issues in C-Library. If you are already a member, view the eBook, or begin your 30-day free trial.
Do you love or loathe this trend in contemporary ceramic art? Let us know in the comments.