I have been annoying CFile’s moderate ceramic base for not rejecting all informal, craft-challenged, ceramics that are coming out of the fine arts. Worse, I have actually supported a few like Sterling Ruby.
In fact, I am more on their side than not. About 95 percent of this lumpy, dumpy, and frumpy school of ceramics is cringe provoking. But there is still the 5 percent of artists seeking the kind of life, energy and aesthetic that conventional craft does not deliver. And that I’ll follow even when it’s discomforting. The ceramics world is becoming risk averse and that is not healthy. So for better or worse, fine arts visitors are taking the lead.
Interestingly ceramists often like the painting and sculpture by that 5 percent minority, while dismissing their ceramics as “rubbish.” They do not notice the contradiction. The artists treats canvas, paint, mixed media and ceramics in exactly the same messy irreverent way. So ceramics deserves special rules and is more precious?
As for the undeserving 95 percent, we will just have to endure it for a while longer until attrition take its toll and the collectors begin to realize that they are not buying tomorrow’s ceramic treasures. Take some solace in the fact that they are doing as much injury to painting and other disciplines.
Yes, it’s been ten long years since the clay wall began to crumble but the signs are encouraging, particularly as more actual ceramists are being drawn into the fine art mix. And once an artist gets hooked on the kiln, Grayson Perry warns (and he should know), “ceramics will not allow you to remain an amateur.” But don’t turn away, rather look closely and keep an open mind.
The “look Ma, I just found ceramics” moment in the fine arts will take a time to transition into a more mature understanding of the medium and is cultural complexity. Luckily we have Ai Weiwei and a few others to set a higher tone.
However, there are limits. For me that was reached when I opened a folder of images for the recent Jane Hartsook Gallery exhibtion, Ghada Amer, Trisha Baba, Robin Cameron, Joanne Greenbaum, Pam Lins, Alice Mackler, David Salle (New York, February 27 – March 27, 2015, curated by the usually more perceptive Adam Welch with assistance from Derek Weisberg. I was shocked by its utterly graceless fumbling with clay. It is one thing to make this work as an exercise in learning rudimentary qualities about the medium, but then to organize a public exhibition of their fumblings? In New York City!
The premise is an old one, bring in visitors from other media to play with clay. In this case they all worked in the Greenwich House pottery school, a wonderful institution with a long history in the City.
When this idea is approached with serious intent and the correct support, like Margie Hughto’s New Works in Clay, an exceptional program at the Continental Can Company in Syracuse in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, it can produce major art. This did not.
As a card carrying ceramophile (the root word for CFile) I will now treat these ceramics as hostile witnesses and review them as one might a beginning BFA ceramics class. And that is what most of it is. You can click on some images to enlarge the work and put my opinions to the test but you do so at your own risk.
It turns out that David Salle might be an even worse ceramist than he is a painter. No, I have never been a fan. I enjoy the art of Francis Picabia too much to see him as anything but a clumsy, space-gobbling, wallpapering poseur. Salle takes the honor for the ugliest and most formless work on the show against strong competition.
Ghada Amer, above, comes across as a Salle acolyte although she is a better draftsman and and her use of line can be airy and weightless. But on clay her drawing and painting is sluggish, clumsy and dull.
Trisha Braga’s ceramics are something one sees a lot of around Art Basel and the other traveling art malls. It is an attempt, usually unsuccessful, to capture childlike innocence. And before you look at the singer below and feel a soupcon of charm, examine the group shot and the hapless reclining nude. It is hammer worthy. On the other hand Braga’s video art has a sophistication, even an elegance, but it’s not transferred to her ceramics in any way.
Robin Cameron’s work on fabric is modestly interesting decoration. Her approach to the vase below provides a degree of promise and an interesting way of dealing with transparency in her fabric painting but— ugh— those handles! It’s not that they are well attached or not. It’s not craft but line. Handles are drawings in space and these have no tension or esprit. Her other works are grimly banal. Still, the vase idea has potential, its palette is warm and earthy. Another six months at the Greenwich House Pottery perhaps?
Pam Lins’ powerful sculpture below in wood and other mixed media (and not on the exhibition) reveals a gift for mixing solid mass and gossamer fragility. The little ceramic objects on their boxes come very close to succeeding. The tiny glazed tableaux have almost achieve amateur charm and toy-like innocence. Also her sculptural use of flat color works. But finally the ceramics require more finesse in the handling than the artist possesses. It’s not yet ready for prime time though there is real promise.
In some ways Joanne Greenbaum represents the newbie’s fine art ceramic cliché: take a ill-formed abstract shape and douse it in running glaze and color. They would make nice garden ornaments, peeking out from shrubbery but in a gallery they are an affront to ceramics.
Remember Thomas Shutte’s rooms full of graceless glaze-trickled blobs a decade ago at Marian Goodman gallery? Well, they have been breeding and the trend goes on and on. They even make Jun Kaneko’s dumplings look good. It takes a master like Ken Price to make this paradigm truly succeed.
That said, and while Greenbaum is no Ken Price, she is one of the show’s two saving graces and like Pam Lins there is a reason to persevere. Her handling of clay in fragile folds, vague abstract vessel forms or sculptures on plinths with the color and painting shows a sensitivity for the medium and is an interesting shifting of her 2D work in oil and ballpoint pen into 3D. Scale is a problem for these pieces, they call out to be to be smaller and more deliberately precious or somewhat larger and more sculpturally aggressive, but at eleven inches they just do not hit the mark.
Alice Mackler is from another generation, several others in fact. She is 82, rediscovered and the recent toast of New York. What does one say? After one learns something about her and her work it is very difficult to dismiss the glazed ceramic sculpture. Is this reverse ageism, a kind of granny love? Possibly, but she has a very distinctive and clear way of seeing the figure which was apparent in her 1960’s paintings that are perverse and engaging.
Beatrice Wood, who lived to 105, liked to call herself a sophisticated naive; an adult intelligence feeding childlike art. Mackler’s art is much the same. Her canvasses make one wince at the profoundly awkward line but if one pulls away they draw one straight back in. And what her paintings and figures possess with their comic grotesquerie is an unapologetic vision and authenticity, more than one can say for most of the rest of show. She is a guilty pleasure to which I am pleased to have been introduced.
Smacking this quality of work with the fine arts wand does not turn these toads into princesses, or in Salle’s case, a prince. Unlike Satan Ceramics at Salon 94, there is no conceptual edge, no conscious irony, no wit or seditious bite. Confrontational ugly needs purpose and context, not just the inchoate product of ceramic illiteracy.
I try and avoid these kind of shows. It seems unkind and unsportsmanlike to shoot fish in a barrel. But occasionally the fine arts have to be served notice. Much of what they show is tragically short of what the ceramic medium, even minimally, can offer.
Garth Clark is the Executive Editor of CFile.
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