The Art World Is in a Place That's Familiar Ground in the Realm of Ceramics

A new exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia shows that the art world is in a place that's very familiar ground in the realm of ceramics.
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 1, 2009

Here's what the art world wants these days: objects that are wonky, whimsical, weird, wacky, slacker, funky and fun. Those are the new art adjectives with clout. Last winter, they fit most of the sculptures in "Unmonumental," the giant pulse-taking show that launched the expanded New Museum in New York. Here's something else they fit: a good part of the work that's come out of potter's kilns for something like a century. The art world's brand-new heaps of wonky plaster, its visceral piles of wacky papier-mache, its whimsical agglomerations of found scraps, could as easily be made of clay -- and could have been, decades ago.

That makes this the perfect moment to think about what's art, and what's craft, and what is good in either. To wonder whether the distinction still matters, or when it ever did. And, now that art seems to have caught up to where clay's been for years, to ask around about the future of ceramic work.

A good place to start all this questioning is with "Dirt on Delight: Impulses That Form Clay" at the University of Pennsylvania's Institute of Contemporary Art, one of the country's most consistently innovative venues. The exhibition is a celebration of 78 works of full-blown ceramic art -- just the kind of craft that's almost never seen at high-cred art institutions like Penn's ICA. If clay has got there now, it's because certain pots are running toe-to-toe with what is coming from fine artists' studios.

New Yorker Kathy Butterly makes campy little sculptures that are somewhere between the finest Sèvres porcelains and an R. Crumb comic pushed into 3-D. Arlene Shechet, a New Yorker who shows at Hemphill Fine Arts in the District, presents large ceramic sculptures so bizarrely shaped they could be science-fair models of germs. Sterling Ruby, who lives in Los Angeles, makes visceral ceramic blobs that look like they've been vomited up by a volcano. Beverly Semmes, a Washington-born artist based in New York, makes knee-high pots painted Play-Doh pink, with goofy, hand-pinched surfaces that evoke craft day in pre-K.

As I said, in art-world terms, it's all fiercely up to date.

And, as this show proves, within the world of studio pottery, such wacky, wonky funk is about as old-time as could be. It almost defines the field.

"Dirt on Delight" includes bizarrely squished pots by George Ohr, the "Mad Potter of Biloxi," that are a perfect fit with the art world's current trends. Except that they were made about a hundred years ago. The show also presents baroque pileups of clay by Lucio Fontana, the great Italian artist better known for his razor-slashed canvases, and by Peter Voulkos, the pioneer who brought abstract expressionism to American ceramics. Their visceral clay work dates to the 1950s. And, of course, it has pieces by the California ceramicist Robert Arneson. His clay work was so funky, it helped launch the term "funk art" -- way back in the 1970s. (Here in Washington, the Hirshhorn Museum owns -- and sometimes displays -- plenty of Arneson's work, as well as one major Voulkos and a pair of textile works by Semmes. The museum's lawn is full of bronze "pots" by Fontana that might as well be made of clay -- which is what they were first modeled in.)

Potters must be pleased that, somehow, their old-time craft has suddenly started to pass as up-to-date art. But they might also want to worry, since it's hard to think of a worse moment in art for potters to find themselves up to date with. Though slacker whimsy is what many younger artists are now making, and selling, even their supporters don't bill the trend as something likely to bear fruit. This slacker moment is usually described as a turn away from the big ambitions of the past, rather than a turn toward some productive new idea about what matters now.

Those diminished expectations seem to have infected potters, too. Judging by this show, the discipline that gave us ancient Greek amphorae, Renaissance majolica, the tea bowls of Japan and the constructivist coffee sets of Kasimir Malevich now seems content to treat clay as fun stuff to fiddle with. In art schools, the "serious" art students call their pot-throwing colleagues "mud bunnies." "Dirt on Delight" shows its artists living up to the insult: Their work is mostly about dug-up mud, and what a craftsman's hands can do to make it weird, wacky and, of course, dirtily delightful. Those notions have ruled ceramic art for such a time, they've become its most entrenched cliches -- and like all cliches, they've lost whatever impact they once had.

With a very few exceptions (the porcelain figurines of Ann Agee, showing women killing pigs and burning bras; the Sèvres-style vases of Jane Irish, painted with scenes of drug use and the working poor; the mashed self-portraits of Arneson, reflecting on the cancer that killed him) the exhibition's barely at all about what ceramic objects mean, out there in the real world where most of us live.

Which is doubly weird given how ceramic continues to be so much a part of our daily lives: Most of us start breakfast drinking our coffee out of it and end dinner spooning dessert from it. And, of course, once those coffees and desserts work their way through our bodies, we all of us retire to a private moment with a common object of ceramic craft.

Marcel Duchamp figured that out: He chose a toilet as the object he would use to shift the meaning of all the modern art that followed after him. In 2004, when 500 experts chose Duchamp's upended urinal as the most important work of the 20th century, they may not have realized that they were also casting their vote for ceramic as one of its most important mediums.

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