My timing has always been lucky. First my parents made sure that I was born in 1947. That means that by the time of my 25th birthday my veins ran hot with clay and I was able to be in touch with the first generation of studio potters born in the 19th or early 20th century. These included Bernard Leach, Michael Cardew (with whom I was particularly close), and Katherine Pleydell Bouverie. Since then I have worked with at least four generations that followed them and I am still young enough to be following a fifth: students still in schools today.
Images: Kot Diji Fort. It was built around 1790 in Khairpur by Talpur dynasty ruler of Upper Sindh Mir Suhrab, who reigned from 1783 to 1830 AD. It is made entirely of ceramics and clay. It was never attacked but is currently in disrepair. Let this wonderful building serve as a metaphor for “Fortress Ceramica” in our discussion.
Timing benefited A Century of Ceramics in the United States, thanks to Margie Hughto who drew me into this groundbreaking, blockbuster exhibition that toured the US for four years and transformed the field’s sense of legacy. Yes, Margie and I worked hard on this, but again it was the perfect storm at the perfect moment. A decade earlier or later and it would not have gone viral as it did.
Ceramic Millennium was held in Amsterdam in 1999, drawing 3,500 delegates from 56 nations. It offered a film festival, an art festival, an arts fair and tours to Europe’s ceramic capitals. Mark Del Vecchio, Dawn Bennett and myself had the sense that this was the last time that ceramics as we knew it was going to have the chance to come together, to look into a crystal glazed ball and confront a new order that would alter everything. We were correct. That world is largely gone now.
Now I can say the same for CFile. It launched on November 1, 2013, two years ago. The decision to publish was intuitive. Having closed Garth Clark Gallery, I was still not in a mood for another large project. But reading the bones revealed that a moment of revolution was about to happen, it was about to explode.
That would bring massive change, faster than anything the field had experienced in the past. It would be, depending upon your point of view, exhilarating, liberating, but also confusing and upsetting. And the bones were right, the last two years have been transformative for ceramics.
Let me deal with this in six points. I have just returned from speaking on the subject of the new ceramic landscape at the Design School in Copenhagen, the Royal Art Academy in Oslo and on US soil in Portland Maine (Thank you Marit Tingleff, Jorunn Veiteberg, Kristine Tillge Lund, and Kyle Patnaude.) The extensive debates that followed have been instructive, thanks to the mixed views of educators, students, artists, and critics.
One is the diaspora. The Fortress Ceramica is a metaphorical place where craft and art ceramics lived for 150 years (represented here by the majestic Kot Diji Fort), having been exiled by fine art. It has high walls to defend it against the evils of design and industry. It is losing residents for the first time after a history of an ever-growing population. Its not emptying out; it’s still a place for gifted specialists, writers, historians, workshop potters and some fundamentalists from our community, but it is shrinking and fast.
Two: the Fortress no longer decides who are the artists of the field, which explains the reduction. Ceramics is now mainstream, so one does not have to live in a desert fortification any longer. High arts marched in and has taken away what they consider the artists and anointed them. They have not turned all ceramists in artists, just a few creatives that they in their wisdom (with uneven results as one might expect in the beginning) believe fit into their world. It was a slow start, a step forward, a step back but then in 2013 the surge came and the floodgates opened.
There have been dozens of ceramics exhibitions every month, solo and group, modern and contemporary as well as the medium’s incorporation in group shows that explore recent history and seek to establish canon. And to my surprise fine art is doing a great job (admittedly with 100 times the resources and audience than the Fortress ever possessed).
Third: many readers of CFile, perhaps even most will reject my last statement. Many see the last two years a period of ceramic fraud committed in the name of high art. And they are both correct and incorrect. Yes, when there is a revolution it brings out everyone, the gifted and poseurs. In all the confusion of the new it is difficult to differentiate one from the other. But what is happening, whether it causes you discomfort or not is that a new aesthetic is taking over that probably would never have come from ceramics because its character is anchored into the status quo and polite evolution.
There are several new aesthetics emerging and the Fortress is most at ease with those that exhibit virtuosic craft and deal with beauty or at least classical order. The ones that are, by the Fortress’ judgment, “ugly” get a lot of verbal abuse. These criticisms are mostly incoherent ramblings but they share one central theme: “they are not well made.” This reveals that they are much more rooted in craft sensibility than they wanted the world to know. It is their weapon of choice.
What I find interesting is that the criticisms are almost verbatim to those flung at Peter Voulkos and Company in the 1950’s and through the 1960’s as well. No real change is greeted without invective. If it does not disturb then it is probably not change, just a new coat of paint.
I find some of the new “uglies” to be thrilling even if their full potential is not yet reached. Jesse Wine was the latest to offend the Fortress. Brian Rochefort was another. Some put Arlene Shecket in this category as well. So is Sterling Ruby and a style’s originator, Andrew Lord.
I enjoy their irreverence and that they are making choices sure to enflame (although that is rarely their motive). They approach the medium with a radical recklessness that the ceramic mainstream is incapable or too cautious of making. And none of them are poor at craft; indeed, all are virtuosic. It’s just that their process is not worn like a Sunday suit.
You have to admit that CFile does not rubber stamp everything that crosses our desk, we have taken on many shows and artists (See these examples) that have been, in our opinion at least, bogus, straining to erupt with passion and energy after a couple of nights at the adult education class and ending up with as much vigor as a collapsed soufflé (which with incoherent splatters of multicolored sauce is exactly what the majority of them mimic).
Nor is this particular style the only style to work in. But it is the one getting the most determined pushback from the Fortress and is the most difficult to embrace.
What we are saying is that the new aesthetic of free form experiment, with its brazen sense of being adventurous and not carrying its senior’s baggage, is legitimate. We acknowledge that probably 90 percent of it is beneath contempt, but taking the genre seriously; looking, judging, sorting, and letting fresh air into one’s mind is the way it needs to be addressed. Not with a pat dismissal.
In two years fine art has fully absorbed the art part of ceramics with a fervor that is surprising and thrilling. It is not playing with the medium, or visiting it; it has swallowed it whole. A maker in Copenhagen suggested to me that this is a cruel joke, let us taste the freedom then whip it away. While this relationship is in the full heat of its honeymoon and the current frenzy will subside after a while, ceramics is here to stay for all the reasons it flowered in the crafts. Art collectors are falling in love with medium and so are artists. And those journeys have just begun.
Four: the other trail of migrants is to Design Land. Two years ago it was a trickle. Today it is a stream. And when the studio potters get there they are surprised to find that there is little difference between them and the design community. Both make useful or decorative objects, both are in love with material and process.
Design has been installing craft workshops in the studios for the last decade so that in addition to work for industry they can proceed with their own limited editions or bespoke goods.
Both can learn from one another. Potters bring exceptional facility; designers have been forging new markets. It is difficult to explain why they have not at least become friends eons ago. In part it’s because William Morris’ fear of industry has lain like a heavy shroud over modern ceramics since 1850.
Studio pottery and design are cohabitating in fast growing numbers. The design model will in time replace the 20th–century potter studio model (except for a smaller group of extremely valuable, important, dedicated workshop potters who will remind us, like ceramic tuning forks, of the vessel’s pure note).
Five: education is in its pre-revolutionary mode, rooted in the mid-20th century but becoming unstable. And this is becoming CFile’s key audience. In the broader picture education’s “success” rate is appalling. Only 6 percent of graduating art students, after giving five years and a quarter of million dollars to their degree, are working as artists (and “working” is a nebulous term) after graduation.
Aside from finding other career paths for those degrees, other than the 19th-century stereotype of the artist, the role of the ceramics department is poised to shift. If you know you want to be in the fine arts, ceramics will no longer hinder you, indeed for a while it might be a plus. Given these new freedoms ceramics may not be the best place to become knowledgeable about cutting edge art but certainly it is where one can gain intimacy with clay. Fewer and fewer students now opt to become potters in the traditional sense of word. And even fewer who take that route graduate with the same intent.
Six: markets are changing. The number of ceramic art galleries is dropping, the craft shop is becoming a tacky gift shop and is no longer an informed temple for the craft discipline. So the potter is following the path of the designer and finding other sources, more commission-based than ever before. Some now only make and design custom dinnerware for restaurants. Others are entering the architectural field.
Of course because they are only a few years old the new pathways to these fresh values, opportunities and aesthetics are not well delineated. That is CFile’s role and we are proud that we arrived when the drums of change began to beat their tattoo. For the past two years we have been the primary journal of record for the medium’s new path in art, craft, design, architecture, and technology. We will continue to be so for years to come. Thanks to all who believe, support, fund, write, make, and curate. Also, thanks to all of those who hold views contrary to our own, but who still remain engaged with us. We are your GPS device from Fortress Ceramica to the future.
Garth Clark is the founder, creative director and editor of CFile Foundation.
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