“Fire!” is an amalgam of work from seventeen artists, in ceramic, glass and resin, and brought together because fire was part of their creation process. Any other thesis is indeterminable at the gallery, Venus Over Manhattan (New York, Sept. 18 — Nov. 1, 2014). To project its counterpart in painting let us imagine a show called “Oil” not about fossil fuel but the paint. Any subject matter or style accepted. Sound interesting?
Above image: Detail of Friedrich Kunath, We Sailed Out Far, Maybe a Little Too Far 7, 2013, glazed ceramic, 6 5/16 x 18 1/2 x 78 3/4 inches
The response to the show has mainly become an exercise in celebrity curatorship, fussing about that fact that the curator is the famous auctioneer Simon de Pury (until recently head of Russian owned Phillips, London). He is partnered in this project with his towering, elegant wife, Michaela, working together under the name of dePurydePury.
So what we get from the press after “OMG its Simon” is the even louder “OMG it is CERAMICS.” After more tha a decade of ceramics being hip on the scene, and now a staple, can we please stop reacting as though every new show from the kiln is an amazing breakthrough?!
Nate Freeman at the New York Observer writing like a tipsy Valley Girl (I thought they were long gone) is bowled over by the exhibition’s amazingly daring subject, “believe it or not, it’s a ceramics show.”
No Nate, it is not a ceramics show. Only fired clay is ceramic. Glass is, well, glass. And resin requires heat to be formed. It is a show about heat. But then Nate is mostly concerned with what Simon is wearing.
Then de Pury reveals the gallerist, Adam Lindeman’s shock at the theme, “He thought, ‘Oh, my God, a ceramics show?’ And then we said, ‘No, this is not a low-key phenomenon, I think this is a very important phenomenon you can witness today.'”
If we set the shallow theme aside and I calm down about press ignorance of the medium, I have to admit Fire is decidedly entertaining. DePurydePury deliver largely sustained visual quality and low as this bar may be, this experience is not that frequent.
That mitigates the fact that there is little new on the show. Roberta Smith in the New York Times said it was “an ebullient if overly familiar survey” and regretted that only five of the seventeen artists were women. Most (aside from glass) have been showing their ceramics on the art stage for a decade or seven, the latter being John Mason (de Pury “found” him on last year’s Whitney Biennial) still powering along in his mid-Eighties. Three of his monumental geometric stoneware sculptures anchor one corner of the gallery securely and elegantly.
Andrew Lord has been around since the 1970’s and his expressionistic riffs on vessel forms from the 1980’s have as much presence as ever.
If you like cute and cuddly there is Frederick Kanuth’s, We Sailed Out Far, Maybe a Little Too Far 7 (2013) a remake of the old ceramic disappearing-into-the floor-and-then-reappearing gag and the yellow glaze is nice.
If you like creepy there are Marten Medbo’s pustulating (spellcheck hates that word) forms. Among the more powerful works in the show, these are covered in sagging blisters that invite touch even though they might burst, releasing God knows what.
Well-known painter and ceramicist Dan McCarthy, whose jars look like a combination of Rookwood, Picasso and Southern slave pots, cheerfully distort the human face. They are garish and delightful but are a tad too glib, silly even, and one wonders if they will age well.
Antique ideals inspire the ceramicist Young-Jae Lee. Eighteenth century Korean Moon Jars, collected today for their bold modernist qualities, are somewhat blandly re-imagined by Lee whose eight vessels are differentiated by subtle variations in form and tonal blush. They pale next to the neighboring flash of the McCarthy pieces but they are a gasp of subtlety.
Sterling Ruby kicks it old school with 1960’s style constructions reminiscent of Robert Arneson’s early glaze palette and a dash of Voulkos’ action-clay. One of the same-old, same-old ashtrays is shown but much more handsome is a huge sandal (one imagines Ruby’s ego is large enough to wear it) that is arresting because by taking a wearable subject the sculpture suddenly explodes with context imaging its wearer, arousing a sense of pain as we experience it body to body.
Nobody is more multidisciplinary that Ai Wei Wei, whose small glazed ceramic The Wave – 6 is overshadowed by his arresting Oil Spills. These large, shiny, black glazed porcelain drops of oil with diameters between five and forty-seven inches, overshadow everything else in the exhibition. They are jarring, not only for their presence, but for their environmentalist poignancy.
Simon de Pury is, for the record, a longtime ceramics collector so this is medium not new to him. His enthusiasms are often infectious which have contributed to his legend as a king of art merchants, which is good for the ceramic field and the publicity has, as always, been substantial. I am sure a few more new ceramic collectors will catch his clay-bug.
But there was a chance to add more gravitas, to take the title and pursue the notion of fire as content and not just craft. There are many working today with ceramics and glass who translate the fury of the kiln into powerful metaphors about cataclysm, retribution, rebirth and sacrifice. That could be his next show, “deFurydeFury”.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile.
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