Clay and the Human Imprint: “Social Recession” at the Weston Gallery March 13-April 24, 2021; “Multi-Cultural Fellowship Exhibition” at DAAP Meyers Gallery, February 22-March 21, 2021; “Artifact: Ceramic-based Works,” “There is a Fly on a Plate” and “Firstlings,” “Sublimation,” all at Manifest Gallery, March 5-April 2, 2021; and “Sanctuary” at the Contemporary Arts Center, March 10-March 21, 2021.
There were an awful lot of ceramics—in actual and argumentative forms—in the air the first weekend of spring in Cincinnati. Almost. The National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) has been an independent organization since 1966 when it could boast 200 members; now it has some 4000 members and its annual conference is the largest gathering of people interested in ceramic arts in the world. That conference, which had been scheduled for Cincinnati for the first time since 1990, was forced to go virtual this year. (Last year’s conference planned for Richmond, Virginia, had to be canceled altogether.) This year’s sessions were run online and presenters spoke via Zoom (as best they could). There were exhibits of young and established ceramic artists at the Weston Gallery and on the UC campus, along with shows which had been designed to coincide with the conference in galleries across the city, all limited by having to follow the various COVID-era restrictions to which we’ve all become fitfully and begrudgingly accustomed.
Everything about the conference and its associated activities suggests that NCECA—and the ceramic arts community—seek to locate themselves in a big tent about their art medium and are guided by principles of inclusion rather than exclusion. This is true in socio-political terms as well as in terms of technique, form, and function. The conference, for example, had threads about “Advocacy and Action” and “Global Community,” which featured sessions about such topics as “Impactful Social/Political Commentary in Clay,” “Disrupting the Canon,” and historical research into things like “Enslaved and Free: 19th-Century African-American Potters.” The Conference assumed that the ceramic arts could claim a scope as large as the earth, as long as history, and even as small as what NCECA speaker Magdolene Dykstra called “the microbial landscape.” (There is an undercurrent of hard science not far beneath the surface of many corners of the world of ceramics.) The very materiality of ceramics was everywhere under discussion, from the Manifest Gallery’s exhibition blunt note that we are, after all, dealing with “fire hardened dirt,” to NCECA participant Nurielle Stern’s sense that ceramics has at its core a celebration of materials that are “malleable, formable, and able to undergo transformation.” Perhaps more than any other art form, ceramics deals with our connection to the physical world around us. It is a form ideally suited to exploring the human relationship to nature. As Dykstra noted in her conference presentation, ceramics starts with materials “directly pulled from the landscape.” In the process of working with it, an object made of clay is, as Ling Chun noted, a record of the artist’s movements. Clay becomes an extension of the human body, making it, in Stephanie Hanes’s words, an “intensely intimate material.”
At the risk of recounting what may be obvious to those who regularly work in clay or teach the ceramic arts, it seemed to me that in ceramics there was a spectrum that had at one end objects designed with utility of various sorts in mind and at the other end what Janet Koplos called, at an NCECA session, things with a more “sculptural bias.” The sculptural end of things needs not be limited to the fine arts productions of today but could include all manner of objects across human history in which people invest ideals and onto which they projects metaphors, individual and—especially—cultural, but which aren’t designed, let us say for simplicity’s sake, as containers. On the other hand, there is a tradition going back as far as any ceramic objects we know that is about humans’ desires to hold, organize, or store the things they need.
There was a good deal of talk at NCECA, and a good deal of evidence in the objects in the various shows across town, that suggests that there is an ongoing creative tension between practicality and, at the very least, a commentary on practicality, often an undercutting of it. Conference presenter Ruth Easterbrook commented that she felt in all her work “the challenge of utility [which] is both comforting with its restrictions and daunting with its unattainable challenge to perfect.” This is further complicated by the traditional social status of fine ceramics and its part in the jigsaw of socioeconomic class. Because in every age and culture, fine pottery is labor intensive and its materials often precious, it tends to be exclusive and yet cannot ever be wholly uprooted from its utilitarian roots. (There was even an interesting thread of discussion about the energy and resource consumption in making and firing things out of clay.) In many of the ceramics objects displayed at galleries this week, we can see a layering and a conversation among these elements.
In a video (one of several) at the Weston Gallery, Qwist Joseph sits on a metal scaffolding next to a human-sized vessel of what I took to be unfired, unornamented clay. It bulged in the middle and tapers at both ends, sitting somewhat precariously on a slender foot. It could hold some tribe’s store of grain for a year but also resembles a devotional object, with its abstracted anthropomorphic qualities, a little like a featureless Venus of Willendorf. In the video, Joseph inserts a hose into the vessel’s open top and waits patiently while it fills with water. As it gets heavier and heavier, the metal shelving on which it sits starts to buckle, and the artist holds onto the vessel to steady it. Eventually it becomes far too heavy for the platform and the artist’s restraining grip, and it falls over and breaks, spilling water all over the floor and the man. The piece is entitled “Birth.” Among other things, the piece suggests the allied nature of generation and destruction (and perhaps locates the male as an outsider figure in a process he may initiate but ends up having little to do with him). It served as a reminder that even the most apparently practical piece of clay has limit to its practicality and honors the fragility of what is apparently sturdy. It also presented an affectionately skeptical view of the relationship between humans and the things they create: we may make things, but our efforts to preserve them are futile. In a reminder that ceramics is an art form in which gravity always has a say, physics cannot help but win.
Joseph’s work was part of a show called “Social Recession,” this year’s NCECA Annual that is described as an invitational, curated by Shannon R. Stratton. While the curator’s statement suggests that the exhibit has its roots in concerns about “unraveling social bonds caused by quarantine and social-distancing measures,” only a relatively small percentage of the works seemed like a response to COVID or even our year of isolation. (The curator’s statement enlarges on the show’s reach by citing “the legacy of settler colonialism and white supremacism that has shaped capitalism, Western culture and, specifically, the United States, [and] has long disrupted social bonds, destroying communities, histories, and traditions in its wake.”) Those that did could be perfectly trenchant, like Amy Bernard’s “How to be a Good Teacher in the 21st C” (2020), a suite of outstretched arms with lanyards from which dangled plastic ID cards with QR codes that prompted videos, suggesting in all the interplay between personal teaching and impersonal teaching, and humane and inhumane responses to our social crises. Others served as reminders of the nature of our isolation from one another, like Lauren Kalman’s “Device for Filling a Void (30),” where we see a photograph of a seated naked woman embracing an egg-like clay shape almost as tall as she is. In front of the picture the resulting stoneware object, fired and glazed, sits on a pedestal: an oval monolith, almost as smooth as marble, it bears a minimal set of markings where body met clay—clasped hands, the crook of the elbow. It is an unsettling way to make figurative sculpture, marking the ghostly absence of a body. This is what absence is like if we hugged it, an ingenious and melancholy reification of the negative space that surrounds the human body.
Other works dealt with the presence and absence of the body. Ashwini Bhat’s “My Body is Dirt, My Spirit is Space” (2020) took the form of a sculpture and a video of how the central element of the sculpture was created. In the video, the artist, to the accompaniment of a poem by her husband Forrest Gander, wraps and rewraps a sheet of malleable clay around her leg, sometimes higher, sometimes lower, sometimes taking the floor into account. The resulting shape—a monumental crumpled cylinder—is a sort of a record of all of the encounters between clay and body and floor, of all the foldings and unfoldings, to which have been added a plinth and a superstructure and some biological elements and a deep blue color. In all it gives a rich sense of what it means for the body to serve as a model, and that representations are intrinsically transformations. The encounter with the body is essential as well for Ana England’s “Listen” (2020), which consists of ten waxed ceramic sculptures of the ears of various primates. I was glad I did not have to match the ear to the primate. They are not casts; even the smallest of them is almost as large as a viewer’s face. Nor are they monumental—that would be a different sort of sculpture altogether—but they are unsettling to see to some degree because of their sheer intimacy. The ear may be the richest part of the human body from a sculptor’s point of view: what really are the functions of all those ridges and whorls and valleys? Of course the ceramic ears cannot hear—but it was interesting that England chose to depict them as closed off, without an opening for the auditory canals. These are ears as we see them from the outside, rather than as we experience them, the objective ear, not the subjective. Do they suggest the absence of the rest of the body? They are strange and intricate in their beauty.
There were a series of pieces at the Weston that engaged with the various ways that the ceramic arts have roots in utility. Shannon Blakey’s “Passing through” and “Passing through 2” (2017) featured pale turquoise squared-off cups nested on an elongated bed of resin the color of irradiated aquamarine. If ancient Chinese cups grew like crystals in a deep cave, this is what they might look like. I assumed that the cup and the resin were attached as one piece, though of course one mustn’t touch. If indeed they are, each cup is both elegant and ridiculous, fit only for an emperor or for no one at all: the resin “saucer” makes a mockery of ordinary utility. Clay Leonard’s “Connected Dinnerware” is part of his quest to “reclaim the table,” as he describes it: “Through my work, I highlight the important ritual of sharing a meal, utilizing my ceramic serving forms as a catalyst for interaction and communication.” His porcelain dishes are thick but stacked, looking a little like a step pyramid, and on the top they are crowned by coffee cups. A pair of gold luster lines are drawn on one edge of the plates leading to a rectangle on the cups, giving the feel of a staircase leading to a door. The cups are bent backwards and belly out on the other side, giving the impression of being both hard and soft at the same time. I would have liked to know what the feel of them was like in the hand.
Flor Widmar’s “Todo sobre la mesa” [Everything on the table] (2020) was a crowded tableful of pottery, and though she has written that her work is designed in part to celebrate “domestic rituals,” this table seemed deliberately overcrowded. There was no room for ritual or really anything else; in some ways, it seemed more like works set out in a museum conservation lab for cleaning and cataloguing. Almost all of the pieces are done in very thin ribbons of coils in various shades of pink, not all of which seemed, well, wholesome. There is something very fine about each of the pieces, and also a whiff of tacky. Several of the pieces had zones of gold luster that called to mind the connections between thin porcelain and luxury goods. Luxury goods were also invoked in Connor Czora’s “Trenton Vase: Pandemic” (2020), which had the look of the sort of piece that won a prize at a late 19th century exposition, found its way to a museum via a well-heeled and well-intentioned donor, and is never truly admired again. Czora’s vase is of course playing with that tradition: where we might have expected to see an inset portrait of McKinley or Grover Cleveland, or perhaps an allegorical figure of Liberty lighting the way for the conquest of the west, we have instead an oval rendition of Dr. Fauci.
There were many other ways in which utility was addressed. Ashan Pridgon, for example, had a sturdy vase that was decorated by multiple French braids cascading over the sides of the pot in slightly snaky curves. It raised the question of what we value as decorative motifs and why. The result was beautiful and just a little bit creepy. One of the best engagements with utility was Lauren Skelly Bailey’s “Bangarang” (2020), a thing that looked like it used to be a vase with flowers until it got turned inside out at the molecular level. Bailey, who also headed a session at the conference, suggests that the piece brings together a series of interrelated anxieties: COVID and quarantine; the need for an artist to create; and the duties, pleasures, and distractions of motherhood. The porcelain is exquisitely thin and delicate with hundreds of tiny serpentine curves everywhere, along with an occasional coffee cup thrown in. It is beautiful and monstrous and untouchable. I would not know how to pick it up without breaking off a piece. Though it is roughly like a vase, it could never hold anything, though I thought that part of the triumph of the piece was that it could ever have been anything like a vase at all. It is overstuffed with colors jumbled together. Bailey’s spirit is adventurous and additive; she explains that she does multiple firings. (On her website, she says “I make earthy lasagnas.”) The piece seethes with energy, leaving us to wonder whether the sheer delicacy of the porcelain can tame it, or even capture it.
NCECA also had a juried Multicultural Fellowship Exhibition on view at DAAP’s Phillip Meyers Gallery, one of many ways the organization works hard to support the work of a range of young artists. Compared to the Annual, I thought this show leaned a little more on the connections over many centuries between ceramics and social organization: the result was a collection of works that tended to highlight the anthropological and archeological, or perhaps just helped me see that emphasis in other works. Malene Barnett’s “Reflection” (2019), the artist explains, is based on West African mud house designs. It is built up in coils in uneven layers, giving a swaying rhythm to the piece. There is a small opening that goes all the way through the piece suggesting a window though it never lets us look inside the structure. It also might be seen as marking a sort of seam between two parts: perhaps the piece is the result of a merging of two taller, more cylindrical shapes. We are invited to think of the whole as having assumed its shape in part by the way smaller units adhere and combine to make new forms. Varuni Kanagasundarum (also a NCECA presenter) had a piece aptly named “Traces of Rituals” (2018) that had pottery fragments standing guard over powders, the eternal bearing witness to the evanescent. Other pieces in the show glanced, I thought, at some of the great richness of New World ceramic art, occasionally evoking what is now the American Southwest. Patti Paiz-Jones’s “Barrel Cactus Pair #1” (2018) has four ivory-colored cacti each swaying slightly to catch the sun. Instead of spines they have rows of tiny buttons in various patterns of orderly draftsmanship. Each cactus is crowned by new growth that doesn’t look—to me—like cactus blossoms, but more like some strange and beautiful fruit. Linda Zhang’s “The Story of Water, 1, 2 and 3” (2019) displays the artist’s interest in architectural shapes. Each of the pieces is a kind of open-topped container as if it were the model of an ancient house or granary; it could have been built into the sides of a cliff. I could not explain just how they are part of telling the story of water, as the title suggests, though I was intrigued by the tension between the possibility of their being structures to hold onto water and the open tops which seemed to open them to evaporation and losing water. I wondered too about the possible tension between the solid form of the pottery slabs and the invisible water that was essential in shaping anything made of clay.
There was a kind of wicked anthropology in Jacqueline Tse’s “Wedding Cake” (2018), though an anthropology much closer to home. A bone white piece of porcelain, it uses a modest cake as a pedestal for a garish array of objects cast from the things—mostly edible—we tend to use to celebrate, especially with our children, or to appease the child in us. There are roses and florettes of whipped cream, and oreos, donuts with sprinkles, cupcakes, gummy bears, Bundt cakes, macaroons, and skulls, I mean lots of skulls. It is both a memento mori and a reminder that art transforms things that cannot be preserved (ice cream and whipped cream, in addition to the more traditional blooming roses) into something more nearly eternal. The piece is crowned by an upside down ice cream cone, making the object as a whole look like a party hat, or perhaps a dunce’s cap. It is a satire, of course, on certain aspects of consumer and consumable culture, but surely it must also be read as a celebration of it. It was a sly piece, combining elegance and vulgarity.
I thought that one of the strongest pieces in the show was Japheth Aseidu-Kwarteng’s “Picking the Pieces Together” (2020), one of a number of ceramic works I saw that was designed to be hung on a wall. Like an unframed canvas caught in a breeze, its outside was plain but the inside surfaces were all intensely decorated. There we can see patterns drawn from various cultures and media. The upper registers seemed to draw on textile arts—there was at least one woven pattern—and the lower registers like embossed tile work and ceramics. There was no effort to hide the joints: the various parts were held together by a thick white compound. Though the piece celebrated a synthetic urge to bring different cultures, forms, and genres together, it did not want us to lose sight of the effort involved. The fragments do not blend easily into each other, and we literally can’t lose sight of the effort that has been expended to bring so many things into close proximity.
Manifest Gallery went all-in on supporting the NCECA Conference, though as always—due to the gallery’s limited size—presenting a wide range of work in its miniature way. In considerably less space than either of the other two gallery shows sponsored by NCECA, Manifest mounted no fewer than three shows. In one of Manifest’s many juried theme shows, it showed “Artifact: Ceramic-based Works,” with 18 works by 13 artists. “Artifact” was a reminder that if “Ceramic-based Work” was the only guideline, a show was very likely to be inevitably miscellaneous in nature. Bob Bruch showed “Wave” (2020), a very finely-crafted contemporary pot with a beautiful glaze and elegant shallow surface decoration. Its rim was broken into sweeping Aegean curls which allowed us to see how thin the piece’s body was. If the show was intended, as the wall tag suggested, to show a range of work between “art and utility,” Molly Johnson’s “Dark Entropy” (2018) was more purely sculptural—indeed, it might have been a maquette for some monumental public piece. Made up of small softened geometric forms, it had a visually arresting combination of being at rest and writhing.
I was particularly struck by three pieces at the show that focused on the body. Amanda Gentry’s “Brother John” (2013) (after “Frere Jacques,” I presume) was a wall-mounted collection of 15 ceramic pillows, each with a name (of a sleeper?) inscribed on the side. The pillows had indentations where heads may have slept, suggesting rather casually the presence of bodies by traces of their absences. Kelly Devitt’s “Self Help” (2021) was an edgy work that suggested a body part decorated with sutures. Which body part? It wasn’t clear to me: in shape, they could have been two vertebrae, if vertebrae had skin stretched over them, but it had openings that suggested something more intimate, if not sexual. The title implied, I thought, that either the original wound or the sutures were self-inflicted, which contributed to the discomfort one might feel in looking at the work. “Self Help” was both an image of the body exposed and repaired, and yet also modest and hidden with a cloak of clinical anonymity. Jessika Edgar’s “Get it While You Can” (2019) was an abstractly figurative work in the tradition of the Venus of Willendorf, presented on a faux fur seat. It is figurative only by suggestion, but the suggestion is strong: it had something like a head, something like a belly, something like arms and folded legs. The piece is truly a celebration of folds, of overlapping sensuous forms. Its surface is made unabashedly glorious: it was decorated with graduated rows of pearl beads and there are golden speckles everywhere. It is as optimistic about the beauty of flesh once it has been transformed, as Devitt’s “Self Help” was cautious about the price of having flesh that is more actual.
Manifest’s best contribution to the NCECA world was a two-person show by Ivan Albreht and Arny Nadler. Nadler takes on what he calls “the predicament of human form.” His work is in conversation with many other representations of the body, not least Michelangelo’s fundamental vision that the body is most essentially seen when it is engaged in emerging from a shapeless medium. (It’s also possible to see Nadler’s sculptures as human forms over which tar or plaster has been poured, but the battle between the articulated and the unshaped is a vital factor either way.) Each of his pieces is displayed in the round, which is not unusual; what is unusual is that from each side, they sometimes seem like virtually different sculptures, more or less monstrous, more or less human, depending on which side we’re looking at. Nadler writes, “Many of my sculptures are formed by grafting individual parts together in a manner that nods at structural order but disregards anatomical and proportional correctness.” This results in pieces that are related to all kinds of classical models but are intensely visceral. Again from Nadler: “The resulting forms are often simultaneously heroic and absurd.”
“Firstling No. 24” (2019) seems a little like a winged victory, but one that is buckling under its own weight. The surface is gritty and unpolished; it looks like a plaster sketch for a piece to be later rendered in marble. Like all figurative work in three dimensions, Nadler must work out how to support the verticality of his figures, and make those supports a part of the piece. There are strips of cloth draped over part of the support near the bottom: more bulk needed here. Though none of the pieces are particularly large, there is nothing diminutive about any of this work. “Firstling No. 17” (2019) has the most elegant surface of the three major works in the show, a kind of polished black like Wedgwood basalt ware. It seems to be a head connected to a massive torso (though perhaps wasp-waisted). A pair of randomly placed horns makes it appear to be a bull from one side, though there seem to be more human parts on the reverse. Nadler is deeply interested in the feel of anatomy but especially for the possibility of rearranging it. This is, of course, what makers do, whether divine, surrealist, or post-modern.
Ivan Albreht places his work directly in conversation with traditional ceramics by literally repurposing them. He takes fine middle class luxury goods, chiefly dinner plates, and adds his own decorative elements: (silkscreened?) flies. He is keenly aware that he is swapping out upscale for downscale, though it is fair to ask whether it matters what your decorative motifs are really constituted of. He chooses his materials carefully: he needs fine plates but not truly precious ones (he’s not a vandal, after all) which have enough open space at their centers for him to use as his canvas. Albreht writes: “At the time of their production these objects had significant value as the level of craftsmanship and technology involved in their production was quite high. They were exclusive in their own time, but do not hold such purpose anymore and are being sold for a few dollars in thrift stores.” He calls this body of work “Up-cycled.”
Surely the hosts of flies are meant to turn our stomachs at least a little, though Albreht sometimes wants it both ways: I think he enjoys the jarring distance between intertwined pale green vines on the original plate and the orderly infestation of flies he adds to them, but he also notes that the fly gets bad press and is an agent of environmental cleanup. He brings in his flies in complex patterns, playing with their placement and size, but otherwise, they are as unindividualized as any other decorative motif on consumer ware. I felt that he had in some ways turned the flies into bees: that is, I think of flies as the loners of the insect world, but these flies are highly organized, all in orderly geometric patterns like the mosaic tiles in the geometric floor of a Renaissance prince. In one of his best pieces, “Loop,” he has mounted 9 plain white plates on the wall and leads his flies through a sinuous, circling maze. It is like watching insect choreography. I can’t deny that I would love to eat off them, wash them clean, and put them back up on my wall.
Manifest’s final show was “Sublimation” by Manami Ishimura. The artist writes, “In Japan, we have a ritual where people fold a thousand origami cranes for a person who is sick….Once the person is better, they bring all the origami cranes to a Shinto shrine, where they are burned for purification.” For this show, Ishimura has filled the floors of two gallery rooms with tiny pale porcelain-coated cranes, and visitors are invited to take one, replace it with a colorful paper one, and drop the original into a large case, where it will shatter. The porcelain cranes have been arranged in beautiful patterns, looking like tidal flows or the whorls of a fingerprint. To see the piece, you have to follow a gently curving pathway amongst the lovely swarm. It’s hard to decide which one to pick up.
But to pick one up is to break it. They’re just that fragile. It’s like trying to take home a spider web that particularly struck your fancy. The work’s interactive nature is to make us see that we cannot help destroying things, but that we can make a pledge to replace them. The paper ones are complicated substitutes: they are durable and more colorful, but far less exquisite and not iridescent at all. We then deposit the porcelain crane in a tall, lighted vitrine with a hole at the top. It’s a little like casting a ballot. The vitrine is transparent and we can see the shattered pieces pile up. The shiny white fragments are worth admiring too: they are now a part of another sort of beauty, and we have participated in another sort of creation. I confess that I wish that the collection of fragments had been several inches deeper by the time I got there, or that they had been allowed to spread out over a broader canvas. This would have made the piece’s striking interplay between creation and destruction clearer and more powerful.
The final exhibit I saw in connection with NCECA was “Sanctuary,” with woven paper by Lisa Merida-Paytes and raku ceramics by Marsha Karagheusian, to be found in the grim confines of the bottom floor of a very quiet Contemporary Arts Center. But what an installation! The woven paper whirled like a tornado or was spreading like something dropped into water (it could have been floating and it could have been flying—weightlessness is the key). The ceramic parts were more or less lined up in a column at the center at different heights. Merida-Paytes’s paper work looked fragile and airy, and Karagheusian’s raku spheres were weighty and protectively sealed. The wall tag proposed that the piece was about “dropping seeds of hope for a promising future” in response to having been isolated for so long, and that seems an important part of it. But not, I think, the whole story.
Everything about the paper is sensual. Sometimes it looked like latticed crinolines. But a thing can be sensuous and also ominous. The paper sometimes seemed to have feathers extended from it—or possibly barbs. It was all visually dazzling. I felt at times like a fish that’s seeing a fabulously elaborate lure. Should I take the bait or just let my fins do their stuff? Looking closely at the paper, we can see that it is in part stained pink. Are we to think about lungs, perhaps—or something else stained with blood? If the central fact about the paper is its sense of weightlessness, the central fact about the ceramic parts is that they seem heavy. They are falling like seeds or pods or perhaps tears. Once we are in the realm of a rich and multivalent invocation of the body, there are excretory possibilities for them as well. The pods look monochromatic from a distance, but close up we can see how much richer the surfaces are. There are greens and blues and violets. Sometimes their surfaces are scorched and sometimes not. And some of them are so high off the floor that we cannot tell.
I’m not sure that I read the raku elements as “seeds of hope.” All in all, it seemed like an evocation of giving birth, but this was a difficult delivery. The delicate tissues are tinged with blood-like stains; the pods might be slipping down or they might have broken through. Hope is not an easy emotion or something you can turn on and off with a switch. In all, I thought that “Sanctuary” was the most powerful COVID response I’ve yet to see. It looks forward to times when we can anticipate new beginnings. It seemed a way to suggest fertility in trying times. The fertility might come at a cost, perhaps even a steep cost. But if new life was possible, then at least there is the possibility of winning.