The Hottest Ceramics Show in the USA of recent times and in acknowledgement of the end of the new century’s first decade, was “Dirt on Delight: Impulses That Form Clay” curated at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania – a small but highly regarded gallery with a reputation for mounting exhibitions that can make many larger institutions seem conservative and timid. Widely anticipated in ceramic circles prior to opening and avidly discussed afterwards, the show was cogently a celebration of the unmistakeably ceramic in all its exuberant, sticky and malleable, colourful tactility. No way was it an exhibition of painting, sculpture and video with a bit of large-scale photography and two or three universally-agreed-on artists like Grayson Perry or Ken Price as add-ons. The curators included old and new, large and small, abstract and representational, glazed and un-glazed work from long-dead, newly-dead and still alive artists whose oeuvre is exclusively or importantly inclusive of, clay as core material. It is a reminder that ceramics does not need propping up by fine art but is a genre in its own right with rich histories and a wide range of expressions. Here we see – instead of the more usual reverse – ceramists diving into and quoting from other media, here and there, but in the main accomplishing what can only be achieved ceramically – unrestrained, often serial and colourful testaments to a wallow in the haptic; a delight in dirt.
Works were displayed upon large scale platforms, not unlike those made for Objectspace’s recent survey of Richard Parker’s work, directly on floors, on single, and individually variable, stands and upon tabletops when work should be viewed in cluster. Some areas of platforms had perspex vitrines to protect smaller works.
The display was cause for on-going controversy in museum and ceramic circles across the USA. Many loved the newness and the ability to look again at something rendered unfamiliar by position, others found this variability irritating, preferring a more neutral background where the support structure was not so much a part of the work.
Apparently it was a bit like old ‘Fletcher’ days where artists and teachers trailing van-loads of students crossed the country specifically to see one large show, or its touring trail. Twenty two artists from George Ohr and Beatrice Wood, Robert Arneson, Lucio Fontana and Viola Frey to Rudy Staffel, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein and Peter Voulkos as the (quite large) contingent of the dead-but-not-forgotten, to Ron Nagle, Ken Price, Adrian Saxe and Betty Woodman as the majorly currently senior establishment, Lucio Fontana as the only non-American and Arlene Shechet, Kathy Butterly and Nicole Cherubini as the stellar new dwellers within the clay firmament. The others were often new, or fairly new, faces and fingers. There was one ‘outsider’ artist – Von Bruenchenhein, (Robert Rapson take note) and a merciful absence of Duchamp who seems desperately overly-quoted these days when really, he was celebrating industrial production and his own unique, and original angle on the art world and what it represented. What they all shared in common was an obvious animate quality that comes from a sustained engagement with clay and its processes and an obvious pleasure in its demand to be touched and shaped, by hands. The haptic is preponderant, detected in thumb-prints left, an exquisitely wrought pristine surface – fresh and still wet-looking – or a lumpy, knobbly, grainy, curdled, granular surface exhibiting a palpable jubilation in ceramic processes and an eye for clay’s recording of the gestures with which it is formed from delicate finger-strokes to violent gouges.
One of my own delights was in finding parallels with the contemporary from here. Jane Irish for example, whose homespun gilt-edged versions of Sevres porcelain vessels are subverted by imagery depicting charm-free scenes from the everyday thus offering links with Richard Stratton and his political imagery on the Baroque. Both have derivations in American work from the late 80s/early 90s (see Matt Nolen et al) but maintain a fresh spin by keeping imagery current.
Beverly Semmes’s lumpen, knobbly pinched vessels bristling with addenda of ribs, loops and multiple handles cloaked in bright reflective colour and gloops and runs of still sticky-looking glaze were reminiscent of scenes at Otago Polytechnic, on a recent visit, which offered kiln-loads of not un-similar inspired by a whirlwind freeing-up session with Jim Cooper. His own work more directly corresponds with that of Arlene Shechet or Nicole Cherubini where organic forms with strange, multiple spouts, architectural armatures or heavily thumbed vessels encrusted with watch chains or rings carry echoes of his apparently casual approach to building albeit without his overt culturally charged representation. The ceremonial tongue-in-cheek grandeur of Corrina Hoseason’s work carries shadowy echoes of Adrian Saxe’s high-style amalgams and Ann Agee’s Rococo figurines in all-white dainties.
No-one I can readily bring to mind comes close to the fetish-finish exquisite surfaces of Ron Nagle, Ken Price or Kathy Butterly. Nagle has long elevated the humble cup into a transmitter of the sublime. With their high-key palette and pin-stripe detail his pieces operate between painting and sculpture laced with super-charged drips, entirely manufactured, scornful of the accidental. Price made history by being the first ceramist to be taken up by a major New York gallery – Leo Castelli – and is a gifted form-maker and colourist. His faceted pieces can resemble under-water rocks that have multiple layered colours, sanded away to reveal underlying reds and blacks on edges, their mysterious black holes carry the viewer deep into the interior of the work. They are solid yet appear as a shell, small but monumental in presence, toy-like but not playful. Likewise, Butterly’s incongruously tiny works are that only in physical scale. In terms of references and cultural quotations and ambitions they are large indeed. Always on pedestals, the tiny exquisite vessels are collapsed, twisted, mutated and augmented, the surfaces refulgently sensuous, almost erotic, the colour seductive.
What is also interesting is the shift in scale. America has long been home to the humungously sized over-statement. So much so that it sometimes seemed a rite of passage. A show like this seems to indicate that this is no more, at least within the parameters divined here. Here the maquette and the figurine are revived, the battery of framing devices celebrate over-ornamentation and what might occasionally come dangerously close to too casual, or is it just loose craftsmanship in places and just as America seemed to be approaching Britain’s supreme use of irony they shy away, relying instead on the materiality of the medium. There is strong attendance here to the act of making itself.
This seductive happenstance may only be temporarily in fashion and artists will move on to other things but right now, this seems to be where it is at.