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.
9 thoughts on "Commentary | Garth Clark on NCECA: Is It Time for a Conference of the New?"
Thanks to you, Garth Clark, for participating in NCECA for many years. Your contributions to scholarship and discourse over time and your decision to be part of the 50th conference with cfile in Kansas City remains important to our organization and the field at large. We are appreciative that your review took the care to notice efforts at improvements in the conference’s management. We learn a good deal from feedback and have been working hard to apply it over the past several years.
As a member of NCECA, past Onsite Conference Liaison (a board volunteer role in support of Pittsburgh 2008), and now its executive director, I have had an opportunity to experience the organization and its efforts from a number of perspectives. Prior to joining NCECA in these roles, having spent the broadest expanse of my career in the culture of K-12 and community education, I have a sense of the value of interaction, relationship and accessibility that the NCECA conference can provide to a broad spectrum of people and their interests in clay and culture.
Many of the assessments of exhibitions in the review are close to my own. I was particularly impressed with the “Convene” show that Bruce Hartman put together at the Nermann Contemporary, not only for the selection of artists, but also for the depth of insight embodied within the texts that resulted through pairing writers with artists. That said, museums as institutional environments embody constructs that are not welcoming to all. Their mode of display ought not be the only manner and standard we have for sharing ceramic art with a public. It’s also true that NCECA hopes to expand the group of those encountering ceramics as aesthetic experience, even as we seek to deepen understanding of the art-form and the people who toil within it. “Across the Table, Across the Land”, a project co-curated by Namita Wiggers and Michael Strand at the La Espquina Space of the Charlotte Street Foundation was but one such stand-out experience that enabled objects, voices of makers, and users of ceramics to be revealed with insight and unexpected charms.
cfile’s assessment of the conference, and exhibitions in particular, cite intelligence quotient(?) (one can’t be sure of the meaning behind the abbreviated IQ) as an essential lack in NCECA. The review’s rationale assumes that we agree with the proposition that the quality of intelligence operating in ceramic art is contingent upon where one is situated along a continuum between subjectivity and objectivity with the latter perspective correlating to a higher value. Perhaps the time has come to consider putting this distinction to rest as shibboleth.
It’s not too surprising that cfile’s review found Liz Lerman’s keynote presentation to be a bore. Lerman’s notion of horizontality suggests a process to bring diverse perspectives and life experiences to bear within the stream of creative inquiry. This diverges from the worldview that places distanced vantage point as the essential prerequisite of critical expertise. Lerman argues that we are living, working and creating in a time when such hierarchical distinctions are losing traction. She favors the between spaces of words that begin with the prefix inter- (subjectivity, disciplinarity), and uses their transitive properties as lenses to bring the impact of creativity into focus. Her presentation sought to frame this concept by creating a context that encouraged the thousands assembled to talk with and listen to one another about their work. Rather than demand we direct our attention to the authoritative position of the lectern, she gave the gift and responsibility of that position to each of us. Many of us seek this interconnected critical experience in our own work, or have friends or students who seek it in and through us.
This is the core promise of NCECA passed down to us by its founders, and it’s not an easy one to live up to. It takes continual looking, learning, and listening. One aspect that contributes to the sense of improved management of the conference is related to systems employed to review proposals and develop programming. Systems are by their nature limiting, and perhaps it is these limits that contribute to the perception that the spontaneity of past conferences has been superseded by a regulated tradeshow-like experience. A system that could encourage new and unexpected experiences while also generating the most thoughtful and rigorous program possible would be the ideal. Some experiences with creativity by their very nature should probably occur only once. Repetition might otherwise dull the freshness and vividness of our remembering.
To say that this conference lacked rigor and thoughtfulness is to dismiss the very fine and considered presentations I saw by people including Jenny Sorkin, Karen Atkinson, Ingrid Murphy, Klein-Reid, and Pete Pinnell, all of whom engage with ceramics from perspectives of scholarship, criticism, education, research and/or design that this review indicates were absent from this program. Admittedly, there was more than I could possibly experience in real time during the conference. Some of the criticism appearing in this review and the strand of commentary by those who admitted not attending the conference needs to be placed into perspective. It is as though a negative critique of a restaurant was based on one’s inability to sample the entire menu of offerings. We live in a big complex world and are continually confronted with choices and decisions.
Many of us like to think about ceramics in the most lustrous and socially noble terms. We characterize it as the world’s most enduring art-form; yet one role of an organization like NCECA is to destabilize the notion that it is immune to change. Many of us like to think about clay along with community: we envision ourselves as workers united under the idealistic banner of plasticity. It’s important for organizations like NCECA to remind us that communities must be perceived as permeable and mutable enough to welcome new people, perspectives, and ideas. Whatever forms the ceramic conferences of the future might take, one can hope that moving towards more exclusionary models as cfile’s review suggests is only way forward.
“NCECA feels like a corporate trade show and, in a sense, it is.” Amen.
I have stopped attending because I already know who/what will be there and it is uninteresting to me at this stage of my creating. I am no longer a beginner or an intermediate who is hungry for glaze formulas, etc. What do I want? A vital discussion (lecture even?) with weight & effect from today’s world, not the same old stuff.
Yes yes yes. A new & different conference. I hemmed & hawed about attending NCECA & ultimately did not go. Not surprised to hear it characterized as conservative, corporate, lackluster. I’m a potter – so my intellectual needs are modest – but even I have the discernment to know we need a more focused & less collective & less frequent gathering in the field.
Rose B. S.
Garth; Thank you. I desperately want to be present for the more intense, real, pushing, conversations. I’ve been to NCECA my fair share, and left feeling more confused and dumbfounded than I’d wanted. Where is the true critical dialogue? Certainly wasn’t at the NCECA RISD reunions. Are we scared of it? Why? And culture?!? Let’s definitely not go there.
By the way, I have a couple honorary small block 350’s kicking around the backyard, we could soup one up with a dominator carb and some turbo, we could rig a kick wheel out of a stop sign to match… or we could drag the 410 horses out from under Maria’s hood; (the black on black ’85 el Camino painted like a Maria Martinez that wasn’t invited to “ceramics” shows cuz she’s not clay…) hmmm… ah well. Eee forget it.
I gotta get back to making art out of clay… and crafty ceramics not out of clay, apparently.
Same old conversation. Let’s push it further.
But please, keep me posted. I want to play. Grateful!!
I began attending NCECA years ago as a student of ceramics. Now I come as a curator and someone interested in the intellectual fervor surrounding why we do what we do. There is little at NCECA for those who don’t wear the educator/student badge (besides the off-conference exhibition gem). Perhaps the conference is not the place for what we yearn-spectacle aside?
I attended a small international clay conference in Denmark last year, and everyone in attendance was desperate to have the types of discussions you (and I) are looking for . I believe we are definitely in need of a space for intellectual discourse and discovery. So YES!
Nceca needs to be edited. The talks panels lectures shows you name it. Make it so wicked. Have a satellite show for the educators. Let this be about the professional field. Have demos and tables of crap for sale off site. Have it be about the work.
If you are making contemporary art then separate yourself from hobby ceramist and production potters and just let them do what they do. NCECA is not going to change. Its based on membership. It will do what ever the bulk of its members wants. If they want cute pottery demos…. thats what it will be. Myself, I don’t want to be called a ceramist anymore, “artist” or “sculptor” is fine. I identify with a greater world of communicating ideas and concepts through objects. Just so happens normally I use ceramic objects or start with a lump of clay to do so. When sculptors and other artists (Tom Sachs, JJ Peet) start using clay they somehow avoid being labeled “ceramist” and still keep the title as “artist.” They aren’t pigeonholed.
I believe JJ Peet said in an interview, “Im not making hippie pottery”. When you say “Im in a ceramics program” thats what most people (even the ceramics world) thinks you are doing.
As a first time speaker and attendee at NCECA, I was also struck by the conservative nature of most of the work, and would love more concentrated shows with things I have not seen and that have an edge to them. But then I am a faculty member of CalArts, where I just started a ceramics class which has practically never been taught there before and have students from every school in my class title Critical Ceramics. I think the past curators know the ceramics scene (whatever that means), but not the artists using clay scene. Having been out of the ceramics limelight for 30 years, I was looking forward to seeing new work, but there was very little I had not already experienced. I remember when photography was first really holding it’s own in the art context and there were two ways that artists and others talked about photography. The question was, “Are you a photographer, or an artist who uses photography?” which was really controversial to self identified photographers. I image this same question would piss off ceramic artists. But I think it is a valid idea for a curator to consider. You can be a ceramic artist and still be an artist who uses clay. Then again, polarizing the audience at NCECA might be the outcome. I think this would also diversify the attendees as well. I think a great question would be why would artists who use clay come to NCECA? What is the draw, and work from there? Looking forward to all the sh*t I will get from this comment……BTW, I do not see these two areas as a hierarchy, but a horizontal question. Just two different ways of working. And thinking.
Garth! I feel you on most of your comments. I want to say that it’s not easy to match the mayhem of Rimas VisGirda’s V-8 powered pottery wheel or Louis Katz’ flame-throwing pipe organ… but wild young artists like Henry Crissman still do things like publicly firing work in a backpack anagama kiln. Art Damage (craft damage?) is creeping back into NCECA. Let’s keep nurturing it.