KANSAS CITY — NCECA’s 50th conference in Kansas City yielded almost too many exhibitions to count, let alone see. As the world’s largest event for contemporary ceramic art, NCECA seeks to highlight the best and brightest in our field, while promoting accessibility and diversity within ceramics.
We notice trends at NCECA, as students imitate teachers, as artists influence one another, and as we all witness and participate within our unique cultural moment. These trends range from imagery (cough, “clouds”) to content (irreverent, swearing pottery), to technical (some years, woodfire, others, electric) and they can reveal much about the cultural consciousness of ceramics, and greater cultural production.
This year I witnessed the same reaction to a specific type of work at nearly every opening and exhibition I attended. The viewer would gasp, “Oh!”, then laugh or tug their viewing partner, and then click, a camera shutter would close or a smartphone would flash.
The works in question? Animal-based sculpture. Figurative sculpture. Cute sculpture.
And yes, it’s not all kewpie-doll-cute, but these works are leveraging the aesthetics of cute (wide eyes, small scale, personification, infantilization) to reach something greater, or more subversive. The use of cute as an affective tactic is prolific in cultural production, but the extent to which the ceramic community has recently embraced cute and has developed trends surrounding the aesthetics of cute, demands examination.
There is a long history of figurative, animalistic sculpture, from bison sculptures found 15,000 years ago to the Meissen animal figurines. There are those who do it exceptionally well: like Beth Cavener’s Kept at the Belger Crane Yard Gallery, Patti Warashina’s Whisper at the Belger Arts Center, or even Beth Katleman’s Hostile Nature at the Nelson Atkin’s Museum of Art in the Unconventional Clay exhibition.
These gems of the studio ceramic world emerge (and are recognized) for their notable complexity, for a rigorous departure from cuteness that signals complex emotional states and a depth to the human condition. These works engage with historical art norms and tropes, redefining the discipline beyond content, as Cavener elevates figurative sculpture through gesture and multi-media, Warashina’s use of subversive humor and feminism, Katleman’s deft assemblage of various cultural signs, but none of them rely on cute.
Cute might be a brief attribute of some of these works, but even the most surface readings of their work bely more than a twee aesthetic.
Cute has connotations of pity and possession. When we consider something cute, it’s because it is somehow less than equal, often of diminutive size, age, and complexity. Cuteness is something we assign to others, it is rarely self-assigned or appreciated by the subject. We pity a cute thing, because it’s not beautiful, it’s not complex. It is simply adorable and the subject of our well-meaning, possessive, and nurturing intentions.
More than any of this, cute sells. Cute is the aesthetic of kitsch, of mainstream, commodified culture that exists to placate and pleasure. It typically provokes little thought or introspection.
Cute invokes commodity, it leverages itself on the pleasurable grounds of kitsch, on baby animals in the pet store, adorable children’s toys, and syrupy sweet figurines.
This current use of cute, however, has a dark undertone, as Marta Finkelstein’s bunny weeps beneath a chastity belt in Guilt, and Molly Allen’s deer threatens to crumble off of it’s too-long legs in The In-Between. The influence of irony is felt, as cute is subverted, made monstrous, sexualized, or otherwise twisted.
Here, cute is an aesthetic Trojan horse, a hook to intrigue viewers, beneath which lies humor, disgust, or critique.
This subversion, however, doesn’t undermine the commercial viability of this work, or its adherence to the cutesy trend. Given the proliferation of “hipster” culture, irony sells pretty well these days, too.
We’re not strangers to it, certainly, and neither is our cultural production, as irony is as equally commodified as cute, particularly in kitsch markets.
To be fair, there are those who purchase and consume kitsch objects sincerely, but I don’t think the ceramics community is among them. As makers who are hyper aware of objects, the ironic nature of kitsch is clear here, as mass-produced objects meant to evoke pleasurable emotions, used by a field dedicated to the craft of the hand.
To invoke kitsch, via cuteness and irony, is to invoke the antithesis of contemporary ceramic practice, and this is where the punchline is.
This trend, of cute, subversive animal sculptures borders on kitsch, playfully. These works appropriate kitsch aesthetics, turning cute to ironically so, in an effort to comment on cultural production and social attitudes.
Without a marked departure from either the aesthetics or implications of kitsch (like our aforementioned works), I worry that works like these can be trinketized and contained, reduced to small conversation pieces that require little engagement or depth. In relying too heavily on the Trojan horse of cute, the viewer might not hang around long enough for the subversive warriors of engaging content to emerge.
If NCECA’s (and its exhibition’s) goals are to showcase some of the best work in our field, might we depart from ceramic’s consumerist and kitsch past? Or, perhaps, by referring to and playing with our expectations, are these works making ceramics more accessible, more friendly, more… cute? When it comes to the best of the best, are we seeking salt or saccharine?
Do you love or loathe these works of contemporary ceramics? Let us know in the comments.