The following is a review written by Christer Dynna for Norwegian Crafts. Dynna summarized and critiqued CFile Chief Editor Garth Clark’s recent appearance in Oslo, where he opined about the history and possible future of contemporary ceramic art. We’ve run a portion of Dynna’s commentary here, but encourage you to read the full piece on Norwegian Crafts. Thanks to Dynna for the insightful commentary.
Above image: Process photograph of Filthy Lucre, Darren Waterston’s take on the famous Peacock Room at Freer Gallery.
Garth Clark spent thirty years as a gallerist, hosting ceramic art shows on both coasts of the USA. With his partner Mark Del Vecchio, he became a key collector of ceramic art and wrote extensively on the topic, producing catalogue texts and more general overviews. The latest career move of this liebhaber of everything ceramic, now in his late 60s, has been to venture into publishing. Now based in Santa Fe, he edits the online magazine cfile.daily. The C can of course be understood as pointing to the topic close to his hearth for so long, but it is also the initial letter of “Clark,” the family name he brought with him from South-Africa, his country of origin.
Clark’s Oslo talk aimed at infusing the field with optimism about the current state of affairs: some fine art galleries, for instance, are selling things made in fired (or even unfired) clay for ever-higher sums. This didn’t go down well with everyone, of course. But Clark knew how to silence his opponents and was very clear about where he stands:
“All the criticism I’ve heard about these artist, that their craft is lousy, they don’t know how to use the material, … quite honestly that piece (by Sterling Ruby) is as beautifully crafted as any piece. You may not like it, it may disturb you, but in terms of craftsmanship, there’s nothing wrong with it.”
So adamant was Clark in his quest to push back old school ideas of ceramic art that he used the metaphor of “fortress ceramica” to structure the lecture. Thus he brushed off the past’s ideology, deeply rooted in the modernist epoch and fertilized during the studio craft movement.
50 odd years after its creation, as merely “an art world in miniature,” Clark observes how this fortress is about to be abandoned and crumble away. The enforced separation between “us” and the others is about to collapse – yet this very divide still dramaturgically held the lecture together … Anyhow, Clark sees a major shift taking place before his very eyes: many artists now gain momentum by turning away from the fortress ceramica. The purpose for which it was built, namely to cut all “links with fine art”, is now being questioned from within. In the world we live in today, says CFile’s messenger, the old truth that one should “keep separate the two very important fields of art and industry”, presumably in order to save ceramic production and appreciation, no longer prevails. Those outside the fortress used to shout “terra worthless” at those working on the inside and forever adding to the thick walls. This structure was conceived in the 1950s, in response to being excluded from the field of fine art.
But the phenomenon that began emerging some two to three decades ago, which came about through slow change, is now speeding up: Clark’s vigorous testimony of the present situation appraises how the “floodgates are opening” for ceramic art to enter the art Market with a capital M. The re-evaluation of this material that has been part of human civilization for more than 12,000 years is evolving quickly. Clark sees the present situation as the “biggest change in 150 years”. In this pointing back to the second half of the 19th century, Clark seems to suggest that the current change in ceramics is second only to the change that occurred during the Industrial Revolution. This, it must be said, is quite a mouthful from an art historical point of view.
Oligarch collector power
The subsequent brouhaha over a once-so-dirty-and-worthless art medium such as fired clay is undeniable, according to Clark. He nonetheless lets us witness a moment of meta-reflection or self-criticism, since he runs the risk of sounding a lot like a “terrible snob and elitist”:
“… these are shows going on in the top 20 galleries on the international scene. … I am interested in it because of the impact it has. I love ceramics. And what this [new situation] does; in terms of media, attendance, knowledge of the field, acceptance of the field, it is beyond anything we could do within fortress ceramica.”
With huge sums of money changing hands in galleries, the art critics are not far afield; and regarding de Waal’s latest show, it received only “terrible” criticism, Clark noted, then added that even a string of bad reviews doesn’t matter to a hot artist. Critics, he said, “have absolutely no influence. [The only] three people who count are the famous artist, the powerful dealer and the oligarch collector. Museums are not independent of those three, since they run the museums, the print media and everything else in the art world from that point on.”
Clark himself didn’t directly embrace de Waal’s new body of work, which consists of hundreds of miniature pots placed on shelves (or in wall-mounted boxes). In fact, he found these installations to consist of “uninteresting vases”. He had, he stressed, looked closely and evinced no “art in them. So the art had to be in the box. But then the box was not interesting so that was not art.” Clark showed his audience how de Waal had semi-opaque boxes built to house his vases, and how this staging made the pots semi-visible to the point of becoming “a kind of calligraphy”, that Clark appraised as “interesting” art.
Next on the list of top ceramicists was John Mason, “who never got picked out but was a great sculptor”, and Arlene Shechet, who is reputed in the art world and has the right pedigree since she comes “from the ceramic community”. Clark attested to her having “no fear of pots” plus the ability to give them “conceptual content”, and he percolated his view of how “New York loves her, but I don’t know why”.
From resistance to acceptance
As for the veterans born and bred within the fortress; some have become household names in the artworld. At this point in the lecture the likes of Peter Voulkos and Robert Arneson served as examples. Orthodox art of the fortress had hitherto not been “paid attention to or written into the art story. But now it is a whole different story; the insiders of fine art embrace it, whilst before it was pushed forth from the outside – and it got [only] resistance”.
The need to clarify why the ceramic material’s status has shifted seems as strong as ever, but at this point in his talk Garth Clark did not utter much of an opinion. Still, he was adamant that the shift was “more than just a flash in the pan”. The times we live in give rise to a topsy-turvy zeitgeist and uncertainty on many counts. The big picture Clark’s lecture drew up [but does not endorse, merely recognizes as a current fact] seems as much about how the richest one percent of us spends money on art as a gesture of extravagant squandering, while simultaneously embracing the logic of speculation and the desire for profit, since there might be someone else out there willing to paying even more.
If we’re witnessing a flash in the pan that will cool off at the next whiff of another trend in the art market – well that remains to be seen. Clark is perhaps too close to the movers and shakers to tell, since what he says might as well be a self-fulfilling prophecy. But as another gallerist who is active in today’s volatile art market relates, “There just happens to be a craze now, so you see a lot more people showing ceramics than ever before. I think it’s hard to determine how trends are changing in time, but if the peak is midnight, I would say we are still around eight o’clock.” This observation was made with regard to the Design Miami art fair of December 2015, so quite fresh off the blocks (as opposed to the fortress…).
At what time midnight will strike remains to be seen of course. Once this fire in the art market pan is fully felt on the old continent, with prices to match, the audiences hankering for reviewers such as Clark will be larger. Either way, it’s worthwhile recognizing both the ebb and the flow in the moat surrounding fortress ceramica: it is a community endowed with a multitude of capital Cs – even if in the end there’s also a C that stands for Cinderella, who left apace at the height of the party.
Christer Dynna is a free-lance art critic and regular contributor to Norwegians Crafts. From 2008 to 2014 he was editor of Kunsthåndverk, the sole Norwegian magazine devoted to crafts. He holds a master’s degree in art history from the University of Oslo (2003), doing part of his studies as an exchange student at Sorbonne, Paris. In 2014 he was a member of the international jury for the biannual film festival on crafts in Montpellier (FIFMA), and in 2013 he sat on an artistic committee that prepared the first edition of Révélations – Fine Craft and Creation Fair held at Paris’ Grand Palais. He enjoys collecting functional ceramics and other wonders that come his way.
Love or loathe contemporary ceramic art? Let us know in the comments.