Monday, March 28, 2011

New storage jar series

Here are some of the first of a new series of pots. The tin-glazed pots have imagery from American myth and history. Some of the forms I'm exploring are storage jars, cake plates and platters.

This jar has an image of tenant farmers. The jar has four "spouts".
Here is a detail of one of the knobs. It's a "green man" head. 

Part 3 Page 11

Part 3 Page 10

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Book Review: Stumptown Volume 1

The Portlandia Files

All comics is local. That’s not totally true of course, but it seems that comic stories lend themselves to specific places. Even in the Big 2 universes, each character is given a city to patrol. Superman has Metropolis, Batman has Gotham and in the Marvel Universe most of the superheroes hang out in New York City. Indie comics, which tend toward confessional autobiographies, really claim the mid-sized city as the backdrop for their protagonists’ downbeat stories. Newspaper strips were an integral part of a city’s daily life. In Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth’s Stumptown, the city of Portland, Oregon becomes a main character. Stumptown Volume 1 has just been released as a hard cover from Oni Press. The hardcover collects the first story arc from the single comic issues. Portland is home to some of the most important cartoonists and comic book writers. It boasts at least three major comic publishers (including Oni), numerous smaller publishers and several top-notch comic shops. In Stumptown, Portland gets its own comic book close up.

Stumptown is a terrific P.I story. Rucka has referred to this as an homage to The Rockford Files and other pulpy 70’s television shows. I too grew up on a steady diet of 70’s cop shows. I can’t remember a single episode of The Rockford Files though it seemed to be on constantly. I do recognize however, the kinds of walk-on characters usually reserved for washed up actors as well as the breezy and resourceful main character. Stumptown tells the story of Dex (short for Dexedrine) Parios. She’s a P.I with a flimsy grasp on her finances and her love life. She lives with her mentally retarded brother. She’s deep in debt from gambling. Dex is given a seemingly simple case that will clear her debts but inevitably becomes murky. Rucka knows how to tell comic stories. Without exposition he gives us glimpses of Dex’s history and character. He deftly balances cheeky dialogue and dangerous intrigue. Stumptown is fun and suspenseful and like those old detective shows, you know that Dex will be back for more cases. It doesn’t take itself too seriously but it doesn’t pander. This is smart entertainment without pretension.

Of course since comics are a form of visual storytelling, half of the narrative chores fall to the artist. Matthew Southworth (from Seattle, we won’t hold that against him, Rucka is from Portland) really captures the feel of the city. Southworth’s panels have a blunt elegance to them. His drawings combine a loose brushiness with tight architectural space. His characters feel fully realized. There are a couple of top-notch sequences. The full page spread when Dex is getting shot under the St. John’s Bridge overlaid with a cascading series of panels depicting a goose or duck flying off is just exquisite. His sequence of Dex trying to run out of a hotel room just after getting bonked on the head is a nice bit of POV. Southworth truly captures Portland. It should also be said that the hardcover greatly improves upon the monthly comic. The issues were printed on glossy paper whereas the new collection is on matte paper. This really shows off Southworth’s artwork and the color by Southworth, Lee Loughridge and Rico Renzi.

On the surface, Portland is a very clean and upright city. One might actually say the City of Roses is a bit of a schoolmarm. That self-righteous, left of center attitude is beautifully spoofed in IFC’s Portlandia. However, this west coast schoolmarm has a naughty nightlife. Portland is home to a lot of heroine, sex clubs and strange crime. Not to mention it has atmosphere. It rains here, a lot. The structure of the city lends itself to a certain kind of storytelling. We have a muddy river that connects the docks and granaries with the Pacific Ocean, a small downtown surrounded by wooded hills with opulent homes. That gives the writers of Portland a quirky but also archetypal canvas on which to work. Many other writers have begun to exploit this. Look at the success of Chelsea Cain’s detective series. In a very different and smaller way my own Green Man of Portland exploits the strangeness and local myths of the city. I hope to see more of Stumptown soon. This isn’t just because it takes place in my hometown, but because Rucka and Southworth are exemplary comic storytellers. I’m a big fan of Rucka’s past work such as Gotham Central and Queen and Country, but Stumptown has something else going for it. It is a story of normal people in seedy situations played out in a strange but very recognizable place. This is a place I would happily spend a lot of time.

Stumptown Vol. 1
by Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth
available from Oni Press 
Released March 2011

Friday, March 25, 2011

A Ceramic book to check out

Here is a link to Paul Mathieu's excellent new book of ceramic essays called The Art of the Future. The whole thing is available online. This is a good addition to my earlier list of books about ceramics. Finally with books like Mathieu's there is a new frame for thinking about clay. Mathieu's earlier book Sexpots is another great rethinking of ceramic history.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Essay: The Ceramic Boom

The Coming Ceramic Boom

“The God image, not pottery, was the first manual act. It is the materialistic corruption of present-day anthropology that has tried to make men believe that original man fashioned pottery before he made sculpture. Pottery is the product of civilization. The artistic act is man’s personal birthright.” So saith Barnett Newman in his essay “The First Man was an Artist”.  The cantankerous abstract expressionist spelled out in the most explicit terms I’ve ever seen why ceramics are considered the snotty little orphan of Fine Art– it’s domestic, effeminate and banal.

If Newman took a quick gander at some current trends in contemporary art he would be aghast. Apparently ceramics, and not just fired clay, but of all things lowly pots, are of interest to young artists, critics and collectors. How did this happen? As a practitioner of ceramic art for nearly twenty years, I accepted that ceramic history was a sleepy cul-de-sac of not much consequence. Sure, I dig it, but I am embarrassed by the corny provincialism of that world. The ceramic world is like the relatives I’m slightly ashamed of. I left the ceramic dialogue many times in search of greener pastures, but it always calls me back. My home is in that burnt earth.

This month in Portland there are a couple of notable shows that reflect this trend. At Pulliam is a terrific show by Seattle artist Jeffry Mitchell. The show is called simply “pot & snowflake”. In a show of over 60 modest sized pots and cut up prints in snowflake patterns, Mitchell completely overturns the expectations of how fine art is supposed to be presented. There is no real artist statement; there are no overlays of French theory and no titles. The show’s title is as blunt as the work. That doesn’t mean that it’s dumb or anti-intellectual. In fact it is smartly sensual, playful and satisfying as hell. If this show were filtered through the status quo of ceramics history and craft protocols, it would come off as fusty or defensive. The pots all resemble colonial bean jars and honey pots. The mottled glaze recalls medieval lead glazed earthenware. Sgraffito drawings of elephants and flowers adorn the surface of the pots. The pots have lugs and cut-out holes that make the pots de facto bodies– ears, mouths and sphincters. They’re occasionally hilarious and always bewitching. All the pots are arranged on pedestals that are slightly too tall. The viewing experience never becomes too comfortable. In fact, there is a reticence in the work that suggests the hand of a trickster. Knowing Mitchell’s earlier work this seems apt. Mitchell strips the vessels of utility and leaves the viewer with an acute awareness of the physicality of clay.

Jeffry Mitchell at Pulliam
Around the corner at Elizabeth Leach is the group show “Here/Now” which includes the work of Jessica Jackson Hutchins. Hutchins’ lumpen brown vessels combined with altered furniture brought her to national attention. She was featured in the last Whitney Biennial. The success of Hutchins’ work is that she does not shy away from the history of hand made pots. On the other hand, she is not collared by the orthodoxy of ceramic history. Of course if you were to walk a few blocks down the road to The Museum of Contemporary Craft, you would find that history on display. Those earlier makers would probably think, “What’s the big deal? We’ve been doing this stuff for decades”. “Era Messages” a show curated by Garth Johnson from the permanent collection chooses pieces that reflect their times. Some of the work certainly does look almost embarrassing in its reflection of a particular era. Much of the work looks fresh again. Some of it looks down right prophetic. Craft has had an alternate history without much crossover into the mainstream. We seem to be in an era of dovetailing.
Jessica Jackson Hutchins at Elizabeth Leach

Why now? Why is handicraft on an ascendance? Six years ago, colleagues, curators and collectors were huffing the fumes of new media and a bubble economy. Any regard for a handmade functional object was met with derision, anxiety and dismissal. Design, not craft was king. At the Pacific Northwest College of Art where I teach, students were mainly interested in relational aesthetics, video and ephemeral practices. An underground rumble was beginning however. With young people becoming more and more interested in Americana, folk music, DIY craft and artisanal food, it makes sense that traditional craft would be rediscovered. While design usurped craft’s utilitarian role, Social Practice and Relational Aesthetics usurped craft’s social structure. Young artists are primed through exposure to socially based work and a desire to subvert existing power structures to reengage craft. Social practice tends to make non-participants feel they’ve missed a party and will never get it, and many participants don’t get it either. It can be a slight experience. “High” design tends to be smug and self-satisfied. Craft works best in the human realm. But the craft movement as it existed since William Morris’ time and flowered in the eighties needed to die.

Wayne Higby at The Museum of Contemporary Craft
There are a few texts that seemed to herald this new age. In 2008 Garth Clark presented his excellent essay “How Envy Killed the Craft Movement” available through the Museum of Contemporary Craft. He presents what he calls an “autopsy” of a movement whose failure rested in its desire to emulate fine art instead of being itself. He ends with “Craft is dead, long live craft”. In 2007 Glenn Adamson’s book Thinking Through Craft created a critical framework for a new generation of crafters. Last year Adamson edited The Craft Reader, which will become an important source for renewal in crafts. Richard Sennett’s book The Craftsman uses the craftsman as a model for economics and education. Sennett shows among other things that there is an explicit connection between the hand and the head. Making is a kind of thinking. Finally in 2009 the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia launched the influential exhibit Dirt on Delight. The show featured both historic ceramic luminaries such as Robert Arneson and Viola Frey as well as younger artists such as Hutchins and Mitchell. The catalog includes an essay by Adamson and should be a seen as a kind of manifesto for young ceramic artists. There are many other shows cropping up as well even the New Museum’s 2008 Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century pointed toward a more material, handed moment in contemporary art.

Dirt on Delight installation view
Of course, some other seismic shifts helped usher in this renewal. The economy collapsed in 2007. It collapsed because we got conned into believing that we could borrow based on nothing but blind belief. Since the Dot Com boom we’ve had a cult of the “Visionary CEO”.  These are businessmen who speak like conceptual artists and cook books to hide the fact that there is no earth supporting their hare-brained schemes. They got rich and we got poor. Even the bailouts rewarded the gamblers and punished the poor. Meanwhile based on this imaginary capital the art market swelled to historic highs. The trend toward international superstars creating blue chip baubles and MFA programs promoting a masturbatory professionalism in young artists revealed an art world reflecting and fed by the financial world. As Andrea Fraser in her excellent essay “From a Critique of Institution to an Institution of Critique” states, no one benefited from the Bush tax cuts as much as artists. It’s no wonder that young artists desire the immediate and the physical. It turns out that we can’t completely deny the physical world.

In the ceramic studios at PNCA more and more students are throwing pots and making things with clay. This is an exciting sign. Clay more than any other material is primal. It is literally the ground beneath our feet. Fired in a kiln it is the first promethean act of industry and alchemy. Newman is correct that pots go hand in hand with agriculture and civilization, but he is incorrect to assume that the god image is not contained in these humble vessels. A fired clay vessel is one of the most human of objects and therefore if not divine, then profoundly philosophical and cpomplex. The vessel as metaphor and artifact sums up the physical life of a human being. Yes, the history of ceramics is filled with kitsch, bad jokes and just plain dumb objects. But isn’t painting as well? What about sculpture? Not all performance art is created equal let me tell you. Why deny this whole facet of material, visual culture an intellectual assessment? Why not grant it the same contemplative capacities granted other art works?  This reevaluation of clay signals a coming reevaluation of art in general. Perhaps the mud and the fire, the broad humanness inherent in the material and its history will help usher in a more poetic and human era in art.

Bibliography and further reading
Adamson, Glenn. The Craft Reader. Berg Publishers, 2010. Print.  
Adamson, Glenn. Thinking through craft. English ed. Oxford; New York:
Berg, 2007.
Flood, Richard, and New Museum (New York, N.Y.). Unmonumental : the object in the 21st century.
London; New York: Phaidon in association with New Museum, 2007.
Schaffner, Ingrid, Jenelle Porter, and Glenn Adamson. Dirt on Delight: Impulses That Form Clay. Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 2009. Print.  
Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Book Review

Comics and poetry share many similarities. Both depend on the boiled down image- the distillation surrounded by silence. Both have the possibility of resonances echoing in the space between word or image. Three books that have been on my “think about shelf” exhibit those qualities. Each of these three books is either self-published or from a small publisher. A premium is put on the quality of the book itself.

I discovered Malachi Ward’s Utu at last year’s Stumptown Comics Fest. It is a short haunting story about a man in some unnamed future trying to affect the outcome of a very distant past. Ward uses near silence in the story telling. Utu harks back to 1970’s psychological science fiction. His line work is simple and uncluttered but retains a hand drawn vivacity. The story ends with the past symmetrically reflected in his present. Ward is able to retain the poetics of the medium without sacrificing the clarity of the medium’s past. This is top grade comics.

Aidan Koch’s The Whale is pure poetry. The Whale is about loss and remembrance. A women sifts through the artifacts of a lost lover and tries to fill the void left behind. Koch has a wonderful lightness of touch in her graphite drawings.  Her use of white space and scumbled erasure is one of the great pleasures of looking at the book. However, her real trump card is in her economical use of text. The words bounce off the drawings giving the book its emotional weight. The whale in question is one that has been beached far from home. There is a beautiful sequence of the lost whale sounding for its companions.

Jens Harder’s Leviathan takes the whale head on. Combining quotes from Melville’s Moby Dick with long silent sequences Harder reveals a powerful metaphoric whale. The whale in these gorgeous blue and gray drawings emerges as an ancient spirit deep seated in the human psyche. It is a mysterious and beguiling book. The dynamic drawings recall etchings, medieval block prints and heavily cross-hatched adventure comics. Some of the sequences evince formal rigor while others explode maniacally across the page.

All three of these books point to the poetic qualities of comics. These books are great examples of what comics do singularly and best.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Part 3 Page 2

Part 3 Page 1

Part 3 The Story So Far

The Naked Boy is spit out of the mouth of a white whale on the east coast of an unnamed continent. The little unformed baby is adopted by a group of crows. The crows tell him that The Great Bear (Ursa Major) — the constellation that turns the seasons — will ravage and kill his sister Ursula if he doesn’t get there first. They give him wings and a directive to follow the railroad west to Ursa Major’s home.

Meanwhile, the Great Bear and Ursula discover that they are expecting twins. The Great Bear worries that The Naked Boy will fulfill a prophecy to kill him.
After The Naked Boy blinds Pirate, a giant snapping turtle, the turtle bites off The Naked Boy’s legs. While blinding Pirate, he inadvertently killed the seven sisters who now form a constellation named The Pleiades. His friend Lyle (formerly a werewolf), now a wandering spirit, keeps watch on The Naked Boy as he crosses the continent.

The Naked Boy has recently left Freedom City-The City of Big Men in flames. A family of escaping slaves- Mama Lou, Cash and Rose have led the "volunteer" work force out of servitude in Freedom City. The Governor of Freedom City has just hatched his plan to run for president of the continent. Part of that plan involved experimentation on the Naked Boy to create a lab grown work force that would dispense with human workers. The Naked Boy's capture gave The Governor another political edge- his image as a protector. The Naked Boy thwarted his plans with the help of Lyle by escaping just in time to help the slaves break out. Now, The Naked Boy continues his westward journey in search of his sister in the beginning of the final part of The Naked Boy.