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

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