If you work in ceramics, either as your main medium or as an adjunct, Art Basel was your best bet in Miami. If you mainly work the vessel, then Design Miami was your show of choice. There was more ceramic and clay on these two fairs than all the other satellites combined. Given that these are Miami’s two blue chip venues, does it follow that ceramics is becoming blue chip as well? I would venture a cautious yes. The medium is now appealing to an increasingly sophisticated audience.
However, this access comes with rules: $30,000 is the entry ticket. I asked the price of every ceramic that I saw and half of it was a surprisingly consistent $30,000, a quarter of it was priced round $60,000. The total gamut ran from $4,500 to $450,000.
However, before looking further at this market and clay’s surprisingly active role, a few words about the event itself. I last attended it two years ago. Little has changed since then. The booths were mostly a deja vu experiences, acres of Tony Cragg and top club members. But there was less Hirst and almost no Murakami. Has the gag reflex finally kicked in?
Modern art offerings (1910-1960) were few and disappointingly minor. This spigot is drying up, with auctions skimming off the best modern masters. Quality overall was down. More artists were second rung, not necessarily in the quality of their work, but in their TVQ (that is the TV measure of celebrity). There was a sense that this art bacchanal is finally peaking; still hugely profitable for some, but reaching its limits of both supply and demand.
The ceramics on show was mostly primitive (and not in the good sense of the word). Apart from being able to command a $30K starting price, you might also need to exhibit signs of inept craft. If that’s not your style, fake it. High craft was everywhere else in other sculpture but scarce when it came to clay, where a lack of skills seemed almost de rigeur, and possibly (and wrongly) interpreted as sincerity. (Although there was a lot of what can only be referred to as crappy painting as well.)
And the ceramic clichés that we all know and hate were in abundance. The glossy red shoes, shown above, by Glaswegian David Shrigley on Berlin gallery DQ’s booth, is a case in point. In every ceramic class someone makes a glazed red shoe. It’s the Dorothy syndrome and it’s everywhere. And the price? $30,000 of course. Mostly these clichés came from non-ceramists and several of them are talented artists in their primary medium, be it painting or photography. Shrigley is actually an excellent sculptor…in other media. But first time clay is still first time clay. And tired ideas are still tired ideas.
This raises questions. If an object appears at Art Basel with the signature of a well-regarded artist that is nearly identical to what beginning students and lesser talents in ceramics have been making for decades, does that maker’s reputation magically transform a cliché into an important artwork? Does the science of alchemy apply, dross into gold? Or, does such a work only pass muster because that artist’s market is too poorly schooled in ceramics to know the difference? Is ignorance bliss? And does it matter? You can catch up with some more exemplars of trite elsewhere in CFile’s pages.
I am not a foe of ceramics by non-ceramists. Indeed, since the early 1970s I have been writing and speaking positively about what I call the “visitors” to clay. It is a major part of the field’s aesthetic legacy: from Gauguin to Miro, from Cragg to Ai (although Weiwei is becoming more of a permanent resident these days). They come to ceramics unshackled from conventions of tradition and craft and so are sometimes more free to innovate, but the reverse is also true, sometimes they are not familiar enough with this plastic matter to find a nuanced voice and the obvious takes hold.
One might hope that, now that ceramics is becoming popular in high art, what is being plucked from the clay bin would be better and include more ceramists who are making exceptional art—rather than handing this opening over to establishment figures who seem to have little empathy for the kiln.
Clay, and yes I mean wet plastic clay, is gaining popularity and here specialty holds no great advantage. Making sculpture in the ancient tradition of terra cruda is probably the fastest growing medium in art today. Everyone is doing it and it’s an equal opportunity zone. For a master in this regard, see Amy Albracht’s CFile post, listed below, on Adrián Villar Rojas’ exhibition that inaugurated the Zaha Hadid extension to the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London.
However, there is a catch. Terra cruda is fine for large-scale installations that will be torn down afterwards but it’s a fragile and an inconvenient product to merchandize at fairs. The solution: a surprising number of sculptures that looked like clay but was actually bronze with patinas that faithfully represented dry, wet, green, or any other kind of clay.
This trend is being explored in other materials as well. Next week CFile will publish an article, also by Albracht, on the gifted Dutch sculptor Mark Manders. He represented the Netherlands at the 2013 Venice Biennial and was also shown in Miami. He works with the appearance of wet clay but fakes it brilliantly with resin.
Johan Cretan, a ceramist who long ago crossed over into the fine arts, had a handsome bronze sculpture on view that was so amazingly clay like; I imagined smelling damp earth. Could it be that, in time, all ceramics in the top end of the market will be converted to metal and the growing alchemy of patinas will give us celadon, tenmoku, crystalline, or any other kind of glaze?
So the bottom line is, yes, ceramics is more present than ever before. Terra cruda is a rising taste and an excellent one with excellent work.
You can play too… if you can snag a dealer bound for Art Basel next year and can meet the $30,000 retail threshold. It’s not that difficult. If you make works that sell for $3,000; line ten of them up on a shelf, call it a collage, an assembly, whatever term you want, and you are in. Originality is not essential, but probably does not do any harm. And if you really want to ace it, if either you or your dealer has the resources, translate your ceramics into bronze. It’s not just for baby shoes any more.
In other posts I will look at some upbeat moments and some upbeat talents, some new, some old, some record prices and reveal what ceramics looked like on Design Miami.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of Cfile
Above image: David Shrigley’s ceramic work on the Berlin gallery DQ’s booth at Art Basel Miami.