Below is an essay by Jordan Taylor regarding the most recent NCECA Biennial. For other coverage on the event, please read the excellent pieces by Justin Crowe and Anders Ruhwald. For the show catalog, click here.
False consensus is unanimity achieved by partial surrender of values. True consensus is where actual unanimity has been fought for down to the last point and reached. Truly consensual agreement achieves a truth beyond the sum of individual votes, something that may have been unimaginable at the outset.
Above image: Marissa Neuman, 90 Degrees and Sunny, 2014, stoneware, underglaze, clear glaze, wood, foam, textiles
In their statements, jurors of the 2015 NCECA Biennial at Brown University’s David Winton Bell Gallery, Providence acknowledge that the structure of a juried exhibition can only produce a partial truth. I agree despite NCECA Executive Director Josh Green’s astute defense of a historic tradition in juried art exhibitions, and despite NCECA Exhibitions Director Leigh Taylor Mickelson’s assertion that the process involved “true debate.”
Juror Anders Ruhwald calls the outcome a “hotch-pot”, a mixture. The parent in me takes delight in his demotion of “hodgepodge” to gibberish, a proto language in which my daughter was—and all children in the process of language acquisition are—fluent. This is what I assumed flowed non-stop from my daughter’s mouth, much like what filled her diapers: unselfconscious expulsions.
That is until I realized her effluent was often in response to books held right side up and with pauses and changes in inflection as she turned pages. There was order derived from her experience of a code not yet understood—text—and from that she communicated at least a partial truth.
To be transparent, my approach to reviewing the exhibition is similar. I limited my research to viewing the work and the catalog, and in most cases did not know the artists’ work in advance, feeling there was a more truthful response to how the work functions in this context than if I were crediting a given piece for the same artist’s preceding work.
On that note, there are works in the exhibition that derive from our collective ceramic history. John Rohlfing’s Untitled echoes early Volkous, John Utgaard’s Sink speaks of Glen Lukens just as Virgina Pates The Lower Parking Lot evokes the Natzlers. Zack Spates’s proud pitcher is rooted in both the apprenticeship tradition that he (and I) trained in. It’s also successfully engaging in the continual re-animation of the very shino that Jeremy Brooks subverts in Shinowear, subversion being its own form of homage.
None of this is a problem for me, I reuse words and sounds all the time, find no less meaning for it and love “etymology” in ceramics. Brooks’s other work Coming Out is a delightful bequeathing of gay memorabilia, dynamic in this moment as gay civil rights make great strides, at least outside of Indiana.
Culture around homosexuality is not typically passed generation by generation along to progeny. This is not for lack of loving gay parents or loving heterosexual parents of gay children, but because homosexuality comes and goes from one generation to another. And until recently it certainly was not a matter to be cherishes for family celebration.
The idea of homosexual memorabilia makes concrete an uncertain future for this commemorative platter. Will it be held until the next gay family member pops up? Language, unlike homosexuality, is learned, and we can accelerate our acquisition of language in studying its origins. What if we did not need to break new ground in the field for our work to be considered original. Can we be free to make work that is original, meaning, “of its origin”, without the term “derivative” being derogatory?
In considering language, several artists dealt with constructs around text and code. Vlad Basarb’s Archaeology of Memory aptly unpacks how language evolves. To my mind, the clay book on the table does not need the time-lapse video backdrop or the cello music. All the drama of the work was already in place.
Alternately, Jeffery Mongrain’s State of the Union… does not fully exist without the exhibition label, though the idea of giving material form to sound waves is alluring. Mongrain’s work began with text— Herbert Hoover’s 1929 State of the Union catch phrase “returning to normal”— and so excising the label would be elective, unnecessary surgery. In the end I take a pleasure from the irony of giving normality a physical form more so than from his petrifying of sound.
Amiko Matuso’s collaboration with Brad Monsma also leans heavily on custom-made Forrest Service-y signs and the text presented on them. I question the need to include the ceramics while identifying with the desire to abscond with and transform the material found at momentous or monumental sites. Their text and their traffic cones are each more effective on their own, the one as poetry published in an unusual format, the other as sculpture.
Aaron Nelson’s Pixel succeeds at articulating the tension in relationship between the digital, textual, and three-dimensional spaces. The seams inherent to a flat decal on a curved surface, syncopate. That seam is the small quiet moment in which the three spaces come together. I am splitting hairs in saying that treatment of the steel panels, choices in their sizing and related joints compete too loudly for attention. Maybe that is the intent, to fractally materialize the digital construct. Perhaps the steel plates are the pixels.
Zimra Beiner’s Grey Alphabet functions in my mind like non-base 10 numeric systems. I can understand the idea of a base 6 or base 12 counting system but I am stretched to put it to use. Beiner’s variations in grey, their variations in response to light and shadow and the implied utensils are meant to serve as a system for delivering meaning but are devoid of any specific meaning. Alphabet tickles my linguistic pleasure center with a healthy dose of base 61 nerdery.
Sunday tackles a similar taxonomy to Alphabet in a display of what I heard one viewer describe as “petrified panties;” which they might be if that’s all they were. Misty Gamble’s rendering of women’s underwear frozen in the state you find them in on the floor at the end of a day, before laundry day, is a state altered by her bedazzling of the crotch section on what would be the inside of the panties. Not knowing her work, and, pleasingly, absent explanatory text I am left straddling feminism and female sexuality, autoerotcism (the bedazzlement is not just a visual texture), and fetishization of undergarments by another, a voyeur.
Janet MacPherson achieves a balance of simultaneous textual support and neglect in Monk a rabbit in ascetic garb (wait for it, the punchline is coming). The humorous tension has a darker side in its dysmorphia; it is both human and rabbit though both forms are not shown at scale. The depicted rabbit head in proportion to a human torso implies a small human or a large rabbit. Among the many issues faced by transgender people resolving (or not!) their own gender dysmorphia (a condition where a person can’t stop thinking about one or more perceived flaws with appearance) is the common pressure to define transgender individuals by the genitalia and what one does with it, by whether the genitals are “intact”, and what genitalia transgender people might prefer to come in contact with. It is the classic problem of an oversexed culture to frame questions of identity through gendered sexuality. The rabbit is a symbol of sex so to make the rabbit parts bigger over sexes it; to make it a monk reframes the tendency to relate to its sexual behavior.
Heteronymous, according to Webster, means “having different designations” or literally from the Greek “other-named.” Heteronymous by Jin Kim is the most successful title for a work. Webster’s example is a parent and child being related but having different names. For all its brilliance in transmitting color to glaze by light transferring through colored plexi Heteronymous has little to do with ceramics except that there is a sort of heirloom quality to the color.
Jessika Edgar’s work deserves comment for its undeniable presence and even ceramic-ness despite its incorporation of other materials as supplement. Both pieces in the show achieve their impact through life size or larger renderings of the human figure, but their power comes from sheer corporeality. The fleshiness of the folds so clearly imply that the rest of the body need not be depicted for us to sense its dance with gravity and how that ties to the floor through the stool. The Thumb, the one digit that separates us from other mammals is the only mark left in treatment of the surface. Without the pedestal, we might imagine those opposing digits just under the floor but Edgar’s choice of materials (latex) suggest that this thumb is a severed one and unopposed by the other digits, can only penetrate and this holds true for both her process and her sculpture.
Two works have strong form and use of material but trip me up in their choice of language. No one can deny Loopapalooza III was a part of the show, but I wish it were differently titled, and for all its scale it lacks in presence, perhaps because decisions about its form are left to, or limited by, the angle of repose determined by artist Ned Day’s choice of module. This is of course a bonafide Minimalist strategy, but Day does not bring new discussion to that modality other than its “clay-ness”. Regeneration II too closely resembles a mushroom to work well with the title artist Donna Cole chose for it. Both result in a formal hiccough.
18 Inch Lift struck me as too opaquely conceptual, and that it may be, but it did not stop me from trying to unlock Ian Thomas’s code. The state of the art world and using higher education to lever success resembles a financial plan based on a future NBA contract or winning the lottery.
When we get it, does the golden promise deliver? Re-deconstructed platter is the Biennial’s unintentional emblem; Ivan Albreht’s fly decals give us the clue that it is a “compound” pot just as the exhibition presents a compound vision, a common denominator truth. Were our optic centers wired to process the many lenses present, we would benefit from the synthesis of all the data.
Despite Director Green’s valiant defense of the juried show, I side with Ruhwald that NCECA needs to take a risk, that the three person jury likely does not exhibit the most important work, as Green’s brief history also reveals. Where is Taylor Mickelson’s equivalent to Napoleon III’s Palace of Industry (where artists not admitted to the Salon de Refuses were allowed to exhibit)?
Juror Linda Christianson commented on the impossibility of jurying based on images, especially for functional work, yet sharing those images took only disc space. If, as Christianson notes, it is “a crime” each time a worthy work is excluded, why not let that work live on in dignity, digitally.
Juror’s choices would have so much more meaning if we could also see what they excluded, not just the few who won that year’s sweepstakes. Or, embrace the gatekeeper system, but allow all those who benefit the most intensely, professors who have been hired, tenured, or in other ways anointed based on their association with NCECA, to augment Biennial funding.
Their institution is likely paying their conference registration as it is, they do not take unpaid leave from their work to attend. NCECA could then hire a single curator who does not already deal with ceramics and, absent the jury, elude the false consensus model.
Juror Jo-Ann Conklin’s statement refers to Michelle Grabner’s inclusion of ceramics in her “one third” and “separate but equal” part of the 2014 Whitney Biennial. The Whitney curators made a bold statement about the nature of team curating: there is rarely time for true consensus to develop. Absent a jury we might risk deepening the gibberish, but we stand to gain, as the NCECA Biennial catalog design suggests, a “flipping of the book” to right-side up even if we never fully unlock the code. To continue as we are is limiting literacy.
And, in the spirit of my own suggestion, here are images of work not discussed, not because they are not deserving of discussion, but because they simply did not spark gibberish in me.
In short the NCECA Biennial represents the mildly experimental coupled with the easily documented. For it to demonstrate the “state of the union” between fine art and clay is impossible, because it is a selection of artists who want to be included badly enough to pay a fee. It is a redacted field report on those who want to define the medium. The most compelling work going on in ceramics defies inclusion in a show like the Biennial. Work that is difficult to document, or by artists that have more mainstream outlets does not typically find its way here. Initiatives like “Across the Table” may have the right idea, documenting social practices in a “museum without walls”. Perhaps Roberto Lugo’s got it right, donating proceeds from art sales to offset legal fees for incarcerated youth, though there are questions to be answered there, too. As much as any of us love clay and all its possibilities we are geeks, outliers obsessed with trying to find resonance using clay. Clay is simply not central to any contemporary cultural discourse unless we inject it there. Gone are the days of fine china determining social status, or of being kicked out of a show for submitting bathroom fixtures. That said, there can be something undeniably cool about the self-professed geek.
Jordan Taylor is a Contributing Writer for CFile.
Any thoughts about this post? Share yours in the comment box below.