BOCA RATON, Florida—This exhibition Regarding George Ohr: Contemporary Ceramics in the Spirit of the Mad Potter at the Boca Raton Museum of Art (November 7, 2017-April 8, 2018) brings together 15 unique, major works by the iconoclastic, Biloxi-born “mad potter” George Ohr (many not exhibited in public before) along with objects by 16 international contemporary artists from five continents—Glenn Barkley, Kathy Butterly, Nicole Cherubini, Balbak Golkar, the Haas Brothers, King Houndekpinkou, Takuro Kuwata, Anne Marie, Laureys, Gareth Mason, Ron Nagle, Gustavo Pérez, Ken Price, Brian Rochefort, Sterling Ruby, Arlene Shechet, Peter Voulkos, Jesse Wine, and Betty Woodman—who work in a similar avant-garde spirit and all exhibit in the fine arts.
Featured image: Foreground: Takuro Kuwata and Nicole Cherubini
This takes place on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Biloxian’s death in 1918. Ohr serves as a prism that deflects and compresses time by linking primal creativity. The premise is not mimicry. The works were not created as deliberate homages. Not all of these contemporary artists were directly influenced by him (some were, but a few had barely heard of him before they were invited to this exhibition). The purpose is to take a similar tool kit—ambitious, seditious, innovative and exploratory—which Ohr had pioneered, and how they are transforming the role and values of ceramics in art.
All are decidedly irreverent in their processes, disdainful of rules, and liberated in their use of vessel form, morphing into sculpture, painting with similar abandon and an electric palette. Just like Ohr, many are highly controversial talents and their disregard of the conventions of beauty have polarized the ceramics and art community.
Some faced scorn from critics for changing rules, rejecting symmetrical elegance, bringing raw, rude emotion to the surface. Often these critiques employ exactly the same language (“tortured form” for instance) as was used against Ohr, and then in the 1950’s against his revolutionary successor, Peter Voulkos. What we witness here is a major shift in why artists use clay and kiln, replacing refinement with a high-risk release of energy, emotion and extreme abstraction. The truly new is always discomforting.
That is its thrill.
What is most touching for me is that I imagine this as the moment when a lonely time-traveling potter from the past (Ohr’s career was not fully launched until his oeuvre was discovered in 1971 and the New York art community championed his prescient work) is united for the first time with his aesthetic successors under one roof, a spiritual gathering of like minds.
This exhibition exists because of the freedom afforded me by director Irvin Lippman. I told him early that this exhibition may not be well received because of its informality and resistance from the ceramic establishment and he said, “don’t change anything.” It has been assembled with enthusiastic support from his staff and in particular curator Martin Hanahan who is the organizational force behind this project.
Of course none of this would have happened without the generosity of collectors Martin and Estelle Shack. I first met them in 1978. Ever since I have followed, and at times been a part of their mission to introduce Ohr to the world. They are collectors and educators, two roles they have laminated together, often lending these fragile works to exhibitions, allowing access to their encyclopedic collection (the largest whether private or public) of the mad potter’s art. They continue to research constantly tracking provenances, exposing fakes, and sharing their discoveries with a circle of Ohr scholars. For five decades they have dedicated their lives to keeping the flame alive in George’s conceptual kiln.
Photography by Jacek Gancarz