I first encountered Katie Swartz’s work in “All the Usual Suspects” at Thompson House Shooting Gallery (see aeqai.com, July 2012). She showed three crocheted animals: “Bartholomew,” 2010, an 11” tall, cuddly bear, and two friendly octopi: “Mario,” 11” tall, and “Myron,” 9” tall, both 2011.
In that review, I placed her work in the context of the DIY – do-it-yourself – aesthetic/culture. To define that simply, it is the interest of specifically Gen X’ers (born between 1965 and 1982) in making things for themselves in the craft hobbyist tradition. They do not consider themselves fine artists.
Still this aesthetic has been adopted by self-identified artists with the ironic intention of making fine art – thank you, Marcel Duchamp. So Swartz’s cuddly crocheted creatures ended up on a gallery wall, not Brianna’s bed.
I think another way to look at this hobbyist aesthetic is as a post-9/11 cultural development. The traditional crafts became the visual equivalent of comfort food. After meatloaf and mashed potatoes, thousands settled down with knitting needles and crochet hooks.
But in Swartz’s “be easy” exhibition of ceramic pieces at 1305 Gallery, instead of DIY, I saw them somewhat differently. Her plates, bowls, mugs, and plaques do look like a hobbyist might have made them, maybe even in a “paint-it-yourself” shop like Our Name Is Mud. That’s the kind of place you where might hold your 10-year old’s birthday party and have them paint on ceramic blanks. Voilà – they’re china painters, and what they’ve made is a decorative art object.
And it is in the context of the decorative arts that I understand Swartz’s work in clay. To my mind decorative art objects are functional (I think even objects like figurines do have a purpose – to please the eye) and are made of the traditional craft materials. So you have glassware, metal hinges, table linens, furniture, and china. I see Swartz’s ceramics as decorative art, knowing full well that the decorative arts do not command the same prestige – or price – as “fine arts.”
For example, a c. 1900 Limoges tea service of 23 pieces is priced at $800 but Cindy Sherman’s “Madame de Pompadour” Tea Service of 21 pieces is $7,000 on the Gagosian Gallery website. Swartz’s prices go from $30 or so dollars to about $150 for a large bowl, definitely in the dec arts range. But when she decorates a piece with a character like “francis fox,” her intent is the same as Sherman’s with “Madame de Pompadour”: both are portraits decorating usable forms that probably won’t be used.
Swartz’s ceramic pieces are all food safe, and thus usable, and decorated to please the eye. At 1305 Gallery, most are handsomely displayed on the gallery’s rough wooden walls, like collectible china has often been.
Swartz is a 21st-century china painter. She carries on a rich Cincinnati tradition of the genteel art, most famously exemplified by the hobbyist china painter Maria Longworth Nichols Storer. She established Rookwood Pottery in 1880 to sell her own decorated wares. Just an aside, like the customers of My Name Is Mud, she also painted on ceramic blanks.
Swartz is a skilled potter having done her undergraduate work at the University of Cincinnati in ceramics, and she has sold her functional ceramics at craft fairs.
In the pieces at 1305, Swartz uses a naïve drawing style to incise simple line drawings of people and animals — soulful bears, wise cats, slithering snakes — on her forms. Her characters could have stepped out of a children’s book. She then paints them with glazes and colored clay slips (essentially liquefied clay) in a palette of what I can only describe as “pleasant” colors: chartreuse-y greens, bluish grays, buttery yellows, and the aqua of the Mediterranean.
A work like “louie” makes the clearest case for classing Swartz’s work as decorative art. A stylized profile of a fox is all curves, reminding me of fleur de lys. Turn him 90%, and the design becomes pure abstraction. Swartz has placed him against a background of broad stripes of alternating gray and green, seemingly tied together with bows that look like an infinity symbol. The border is a bluish gray with an incised meandering line, and the plate is rimmed in kiwi green.
All of Swartz’s ceramic objects are narrative; even Louie has a story to tell. Her sentiments, expressed in her titles, are purely Hallmarkian. Take the cuddly teddy bear that holds a heart in “it’s nice to be nice.” Another part of the story might be the bear with hearts for eyes of “I only have eyes for you.” You’ve got the makings of a children’s story.
One unlikely creature that shows up often in Swartz’s work is the snake, frequently symbolizing speech – ah, that evil serpent from the Garden of Eden, but don’t assume Swartz’s are malicious. In “tongue tied,” two smiling snakes – if snakes can smile — it’s all in the eyes, you know – with their tongues joined hover above a sad-faced boy.
In “if it don’t sound right if it ain’t said right,” a snake with a forked tongue slithers out of a hound’s mouth. One wonders what that slippery serpent might be saying. Swartz may be cautioning the listener.
Gallery owner Lily Mulberry eloquently explains, “(S)ometimes these characters can take on more serious, dramatic, or even frightening roles . . .. Stories of heartache, compromise, triumph, and trial are ever present in the collective body of work, though often portrayed as one feeling at a time, through one endearing character at a time.”
For me the power of Swartz’s work rests in its modesty and homeliness. It is not pretentious or precious, neither intrinsically nor aesthetically. While I don’t know exactly what Swartz’s intention is, what might make it fine art per Marcel, I don’t think she’d find it being called decorative art so horribly denigrating.
–Karen S. Chambers
“be easy: Ceramics by Katie Swartz” on view through September 23, 2012, at 1304 Gallery, 1305 Main St., Cincinnati, OH, 45202. www.1305gallery.blogspot.com . Thurs.-Sun., noon-4 p. m.