First, let me add my Happy 50th birthday wishes to the chorus of congratulations that have been sung to the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts. I will not sing as I am immaculately tone deaf. It is a remarkable achievement and NCECA emerged after its annual clayfest in good shape with 5,500 attendees for its conference in Kansas City (March 16-19, 2016.) Next year it travels to Portland.
Above is a photograph from 1981 by Mary Jane Edwards of me at NCECA in Wichita with Michael Cardew when I worked on his retrospective (his only one in the US) with Don Gauthier. We reconnected a few months ago while I was jurying the Orton Cone Box Show with Greg Daley for this year’s NCECA.
My first conference was in Baton Rouge 1976. I was invited speak while I was still living in London. In England ceramics was a much more private affair and to see this three-ring clay circus was overwhelming and curiously self-parodying.
Students chased down super-star teachers (that class is gone now) waving sheets of slides (slides are gone, too) trying to get into their graduate programs. Outside my digs in a dormitory was a wheel powered by a V8 engine that sent clay flying along the length and breadth of the campus.
It was there that I first encountered Leopold Foulem, uber-critic and the prowling scourge of poor presentations, standing up and in no uncertain terms giving Bill Daley a tongue lashing for an ill-considered lecture. I was impressed. That would never have happened, at least not publicly, in the much more reserved and repressed British ceramic scene. I felt there was hope for my own brand of honest criticism, as the response to my lecture seemed to confirm that openness.
So, what has changed?
Not much. But what is missing is telling. There was no V8 muscle wheel this time. Indeed all the pranking, streaking and sense of fun has disappeared. NCECA feels like a corporate trade show and, in a sense, it is.
Registration was the best organized and quickest I have encountered at any conference. Signs of management improvement were everywhere. Things worked better everywhere. Only the printed events program remained a problem. A good index next time could make it all a lot more navigable.
The lectures (the few I attended) were lackluster as always, given mainly by NCECA faithfuls. True outsider voices were rare. And the keynote was a bore. And the Mud Ball was as musically grim and dated as ever.
Overall exhibitions were better and bigger than a decade ago but only one stood out as being worthy of a serious review, Simone Leigh’s exhibit, “I ran to the rock to hide my face the rock cried out no hiding place,” at the Kansas City Art Institute’s H&R Block Artspace. It is an ongoing consideration of the black female body. The artist explores historical and contemporary practices of representation and the conditions of identity, power, and lived experience for anonymous and regarded women in their many roles as worker, creator, healer, performer, and storyteller.
The premier show Unconventional Clay: Engaged in Change at Nelson Atkins suffered from a cramped installation and no aesthetic focus. It was supposed to, “explore connections between clay, art, social issues and process.” But this was so general and vague as to be meaningless. At the end of the day it was the same-old, same old, “fifty ways to go with clay.” And if you have a taste for avant-garde, it was quite conventional. The only standout for me was a bizarre urn by Tom Sachs (no photo, alas).
The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art survey of ceramics A Whisper of Where It Came From was better but given the scattershot selection it was not as breathtaking and penetrating as it could have been. Also, while I have no problem with a lack of virtuosity in craft terms, when confronted with hundreds of poorly made objects, the effect, beginning with Mark Cooper’s dominating installation, was at first charming but over time became bilious.
Convene at Nerman Museum in nearby Overland Park in Kansas was a worthy effort. The theme was ceramics by non-ceramists, basically the same as the Kemper show but it was so much more effective. Why? The selection of work by museum director Bruce Hartman was more interesting than the Kemper which, with a few exceptions, resembled the products of an insanely ambitious but skill-starved adult education department.
Another favorite was one half of the KCAI show Chromaphobia & Chromaphilia, two concurrent and thematically related alumni exhibitions (click here for an explanatory brochure) sponsored by KCAI and organized by the KCAI Gallery and Director of Alumni Relations and Development, Marcus Cain. Chromaphobia is my pick curated by artist Peregrine Honig, a Kansas City star, an artist offering up exceptional installations. Honig is, among other things, a purveyor of sexy lingerie to transsexuals.
Her approach was to take her simple theme, fear of color, and create an installation to house and illuminate the concept. She took the risk of being intrusive, perhaps shifting meaning for individual artists but at the same time amplifying their presence and giving them a connective tissue completely missing elsewhere. Viewing that show was the only moment when I was transported although, like most, I first thought all the work was by one artist. This made me see the show again.
The exhibition of dramatic screen prints on sheets of porcelain by Ole Lislerud at Todd Weiner was enjoyable but they had nothing to do with the material. They could have been printed onto white enameled tin. The porcelain, at least as presented, was redundant.
I did not visit many shows because I was in the Resources Hall for three days manning the CFile booth with Justin Crowe and successfully launching our new cfile.library. In any case, 50 or more shows is not the ideal way to go, mainly a glut of minor group shows (with most of the players from last year), but it fits the NCECA’s ethos of quantity over quality. There were exceptional individual pieces and artists lost in this cacophony.
No matter how many shows one visited there were scores one could not see and that was frustrating (although if one listened to feedback from others, one was not missing much).
So maybe it is time for NCECA to rethink exhibitions on two different levels: the sophistication in terms of curatorial intent and the numbers of shows. The former is a problem because of NCECA’s demographics. It attracts hobbyists, semi-professional potters, traditional makers and grade school teachers in large numbers and their intellectual needs are understandably modest and material based. So exceptional shows conceptually speaking may not attract. The kind of expanded ceramic world you see on cfile.daily is invisible at NCECA.
A solution might be for NCECA to only recognize, say, three exhibitions, scholarly but accessible, enough for all of us to see. Except for one artist curated show, they should hire skilled, independent curators with a radical edge to excite and deliberately polarize the conference.
Have the curators give talks as part of the program so attendees can directly confront them and their vision. That would bump up the IQ level of the talks as well. It’s not that artists who are currently making up the bulk of the speakers have a low IQ. It’s just that they lack the distance for a truly objective dialogue about where ceramics is now. That is ideally an outsider’s role. Then, NCECA should publish a quality joint catalog for all three. Think of the accumulated impact this will have on our field, on critical expectations and aesthetic growth over the course of a decade!
This would not prevent anyone else from hosting their own exhibition during NCECA. They could pay to have their show included in the NCECA listings.
The idea may not fly because probably less than ten percent of the attendees seek this focused quality of content. Most NCECA attendees participate as part of beer and buddies. That is its main attraction. The rest is window dressing. And its worthwhile. The beer in Kansas City was exceptional! I enjoy meeting up with friends I have made in this world over four decades. The tears, the hugs, the condolences the congratulations and the camaraderie is a huge reason for the gathering. But is it enough?
Despite carping from the fringe, yes it is. NCECA works well enough.
However, if this conference focuses on the recent past one must ask whether ceramics also need another international conference (biennial and not annual) to take on the cutting edge ceramics in art, design, architecture and technology that NCECA ignores? Is it time to revive the International Ceramics Symposium (ICS)? Or should ceramics avoid the urge to cluster again but find succor in multi-media events?
I guided the ICS conference for more than 20 years in the US and Europe. The last one, the eighth, Ceramic Millennium, took place Amsterdam in 1999, with Mark Del Vecchio, Friso Broeksma and Dawn Bennett at the helm. It attracted 3,500 ceramophiles from 56 countries, which indicates that quality content can sell. One of the event’s key concepts was one venue for all talks so everyone experienced the same event, heard the same words from the same speakers and responded, albeit differently, to the same stimulation.
Am I advertising for a job? Absolutely not but it is a question for CFile readers: Do you want a biennial conference that deals with the more intellectual and creative edge of our medium? This will not replace NCECA. But wouldn’t it be exciting every two years to visit the outer reaches of clay and kiln?
The closest to this experience currently is the uneven but always provocative and controversial Ceramic Biennial at Stoke-on-Trent, England. This could be the answer if it becomes more international.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of cfile.daily.
We are cfile.daily are open to the conversation and being a catalyst for contemporary ceramic art. Let us know what you think in the comments.