Reconsidering Exhibition Practice: NCECA Biennial
Welch, Adam, Ceramics Art & Perception
CAN THE NCECA CLAY NATIONAL BIENNIAL EXHIBITION become the quintessential ceramic exhibition? With the proliferation of international biennales, should NCECA consecrate its biennial to create consequence beyond the conference? The NCECA Biennial has the potential to be the platform the conference revolves around--not merely 'one of the jewels in the crown but the crown itself. Reconsidering exhibition practice to increase the Biennial's potential will establish a framework to recapitulate both NCECA and the Biennial's purpose and mission among growing membership and cultural globalisation. I submit the title should have been changed from The NCECA 2007 Clay National Biennial Exhibition to 'The 2007 NCECA Biennial'. This more succinct label corrects the misnomer, redundancy and inaccuracy. Firstly, the majority of work in the Biennial is not 'clay' in the strict sense of the term. 'National' appears twice in the title, repeating what is for all purposes false. The Biennial is an international juried exhibition, so long as the international candidates are members of NCECA, therefore reiterating 'National' is unnecessary and inaccurate. The exhibition should be open to the international community regardless of membership status. An international Biennial has the potential to make explicit the dynamic and potentiality of the field while increasing the educational component of the conference. Additionally, it is common knowledge that a biennial is an exhibition; therefore, it need not be repeated in the title. Simplifying the title makes it more accurate and attains prestige through association with other art exhibitions and fairs.
Publicity is another factor that can contribute to the success of the Biennial. While readers of American ceramic journals and NCECA members are already aware of the exhibition, reaching beyond this specialised group to the larger public would elevate awareness and credibility. Advertisements in Art-Forum, Art in America, and in all ceramic journals worldwide can increase attendance, prestige and awareness of important research in the field. The money earmarked for awards should be diverted to promoting the exhibition. The added exposure would result in increased recognition for the artists as opposed to a nominal monetary sum. With 14 separate purchase, juror, and merit awards, the Biennial looks more like an awards show or pageant than a serious critical perspective of the contemporary state of the ceramic sphere. Although nice additions to artists' resumes, the promotion of an arbitrary meritocracy is a detriment to the show, trivialising the exhibition. Additionally, the money spent on the NCECA Dance, no doubt a significant amount, would be better spent on the development of the Biennial. The dance is a form of frivolity having nothing to do with ceramics, art or the mission of NCECA. Lastly, having the Biennial opening on Friday evening, the night historically reserved for the dance, could increase attendance at the exhibition and encourage more critical participation.
Exhibition catalogues are growing in size and importance while those of NCECA remain insignificant. Even MFA programs produce catalogues that are more substantial. Catalogues can convey the theme and its importance beyond the show. Producing the document in a hardback format, with larger images, and essays explicating both the exhibition and the art, lends credibility to the introduction of the work and the ceramists, to a public perhaps seeing them for the first time. Including substantial catalogue essays and relevant texts by prominent artists or critics would elevate the discourse providing substance beyond the images and the exhibition.
How well does the NCECA Biennial represent the dynamic of the field? Does it make a significant statement about ceramic practice in 2007 that is different from 2005? The function the Biennial fulfills within the public should contain connections with the purpose and mission of its members and those of NCECA, which should reflect those embodied within the ceramic sphere. The ceramic sphere is an extraordinarily complex structure making it difficult for all its members to subscribe to a single ideology. The Biennial should embody that which is intersubjectively shared by its members. Biennials have limitations. Not everything about a field can be reduced to an interpretive convention. Many factors affect the outcome, not the least of which are the jurors selected to choose the works for the exhibition.
Does having three jurors who are 'professionals' in the field make it any more authentic, unbiased and informed, or ensure an authentic embodiment of the field's intersubjectivity? One can infer from juror statements that the exhibition showcases what the jurors believe are the best works in the field. Irrespective of the difficulty in establishing a definitive characterisation of what 'best' implies, this method does not necessarily guarantee an outstanding exhibition. This subjective criteria may dismiss work that is intentionally the antithesis to this misconception de fining craft, and has almost nothing to do with the contemporary discourses of art.
The difficult change is introspective, that falls on the shoulders of future jurors. Examining the 2007 jurors' statements should determine what results they sought and the guidelines to achieve them. Nick Kripal states the exhibition is an assessment of "the state of art in contemporary ceramics", and that it "reflects the tremendous diversity of contemporary ceramic[s]". Silvie Granatelli writes, "it is a varied show, covering many points of view, many styles and techniques". Syd Carpenter gives a shopping list of views "given voice", suggesting the goal was to exhibit "the disparate views" of ceramics. These professionals are serving as one-time jurors and are not exhibition makers. Nevertheless, formulating a theme and sticking to it, is a necessary condition for a cohesive show, which this exhibition was not able to attain.
Choosing the work that looks the best or is of the best quality misses the ideological point and misunderstands the contemporary. Quality of manufacture goes in and out of fashion and attempting to define the contemporary by the measurement of quality is uncritical and dogmatic. It reflects juror bias and a misunderstanding of the art and craft world. If we are discussing 'contemporary' to the extent that the work is made in the present, then this definition holds, however attenuated. Just because a piece was recently created, it does not automatically follow that it has meaning or makes it art, let alone good art. 'Contemporary' within the discourse implies more than proximity to the present, it suggests a response to common determinants, relating to current circumstances. Even if proximity to the present is a defining characteristic of the contemporary, how would one be able to differentiate these pieces from ones made a few decades ago or even longer?
The difficulty lies in the production of an exhibition that challenges prejudicial notions of the field. The 2007 NCECA Biennial was not the best representation of current ceramic practice. The jurors could have randomly selected the pieces and the result would not have been any more arbitrary than this exhibition. However, there are some notable exceptions. These are works that carry significance beyond objectness, that both represent and equivocate the art and ceramic world boundaries by embodying some sense of the 'contemporary'. What follows is a sampling and explication of some of those pieces.
Despite proximity to contemporary art utilising text, Ian Anderson's Try Truth falls short in comparison of scale but not in effect. 'Truth' is naive in its optimistic proclamation, unless Anderson's intention is to be ironical, in which case it is not ironical enough. Like the popular advertisement, 'Got Milk', 'Try Truth' is a catchy slogan, relying on philosophical complexity to carry content. 'Truth' is both metaphysical and ambiguous, making it a perfect analogy for art. Anderson's piece reflects the relationship between science and the human experience of the world by exploiting the inevitable tension between them.
An extraordinarily sensual work, Daniel Bare's Wall Platter contains 45 perfectly formed teapots fused together by brilliant glass, alternatively puddling in dense opaque and translucent turquoise pools. Stacked together in nine rows of five, all are slightly off-kilter. None are stacked perfectly with the one adjacent or below, creating a gentle concave form. The interesting contradiction in this piece that removes it from the monotony of abstract expressionist vessels, is that Bare defies function only as an unintentional side effect. Obliterating function is not the intent, only its inevitable reciprocity.
Addressing environmental degradation, Tiffany Carbonneau's Well #1 critiques a culture detached from responsibility. Well #1 is simultaneously critical and ironical. While critical of the rampant depletion of earth's resources, the piece paradoxically utilises the same systems of manufacture it is critical of. The ceramic bottles are mimetic of the plastic bottles they were cast from--an interesting illustration of the Marxist concept of value. The contradiction emerges from the water bottle that has no value despite its utility while Carbonneau's version increases in value without a practical application. Carbonneau critiques mass production through mass production, an irony often missed by today's radical culture.
Bede Clarke's Pitcher 2 is a documentation of its making--the seamless merger of product and process. Clarke's form is elegant yet robust, suggesting psychological excitement and contentment. Pitcher 2 has an offsetting balance between its handle and spout where the positive and negative spaces are mirrored. The extent to which it has any utilitarian significance is questionable and beside the point. This work represents a movement in functional ceramics toward handcrafted design. Resisting industry's slick manufacture and responding to intellectual art, it offers visual pleasure as an instance of truth.
David East's Split Level. Ribosome is conceptually complex despite simple material juxtaposition. Split-level refers to a style of house invented in the 1950s, the same decade as the discovery of the ribosome. The magnification of the ribosome and the miniaturisation of the dwelling make the contrast interesting, emphasising science over culture, and exploiting the tension between science and art. The work is as humorous in its use of material as it is serious in its metaphoric associations.
Heather Mae Erickson's Sprinkle looks cumbersome in spite of its slick facade. These sanitary porcelain pieces represent a trend in current ceramic practice toward the commingling of industry and art. Erickson's retro space-age design is a departure from the handmade, though it does not move quite far enough away. As functional objects, they are more awkward than ergonomic and the display more cumbersome than convenient. Nevertheless, it embodies the tendency in the artworld toward the hypoallergenic, machine fabricated, anti-human tendency.
Neil Forrest's Scaff crosses over from mere material concern to one of scientific concern. Creating interlocking organic structures, Forrest's work references biological architecture and the degree to which nature's forms are architectural. Though it resembles the double helix of DNA, the cut appendages keep the piece neatly contained, implying human intervention. Presumably, Scaff is an abbreviation of scaffold to suggest cellular engineering, which brings to mind Deleuzian rhizomes and the inevitable interconnectivity of all things--a postmodern transcendentalism.
Brian Harper's New Myth Series: The Dam Builder is unique in ceramic practice. Harper creates art from ceramic chunks, carving the blocks after firing. The Dam Builder conjures up prehistoric society, as he intentionally invokes the ancient in order to critique the modern. His is a phenomenological search for essences transposed back into existence through sculpture. Overcoming the redundancy of monolithic sculpture by using the module, Harper creates a complex system that offers endless variation.
The title of Jennifer Holt's Metaphor for a Memory, weakens an otherwise spectacular work, inhibiting the potential to create a world unto itself; art is a metaphor making the title redundant. The elegant transfiguration in Memory of ice into water, the title suggests, is an analogy for the deterioration of proteins in the brain responsible for memory storage, recall, and the protein-synthesis in reconsolidation for maintenance in the hippocampus; literally translated, memory gets watered down. The physiological phenomena related to memory and the organ in which it is manifested is perhaps more complex then Holt sought to convey. Metaphor in the title does not allow for the true appreciation of this work's simplicity, simply as art.
Amassing groups of objects into larger configurations has become an important and interesting component of contemporary practice, in both the art and ceramic world. Tyler Lotz's Thicket is similar to the work of Neil Forrest with its reference to, and reverence for, the architecture inherent in nature. Refined to a mechanical cartoon-like precision, Lotz's curved forms are reflective of nature as glamorised through fashion and design. Softness and imperfection are substituted by glam and plasticity.
Gregg Moore's The Miner's Canary is a beautiful work in spite of its morbidity. Pristine canaries are piled in a pyramid on the cage they once inhabited with no sense of mortuary dignity. It is difficult to empathise with the harsh reality that this piece implies due to Moore's use of kitsch. The canaries have holes in the bottom, rendering them lifeless and distancing us from their suffering. The piece is too perfect to effectively purport an ideological agenda, even if it is a metaphor for the needs of the majority outweighing the needs of the few, which has obvious political implications.
Gail Nichols' Budawang Bowl Series #3 is unmistakably Nichols. The title refers to the Budawang National Park in Australia, which the soda firing has produced a likeness of on the form. This is an excellent example of technical possibility; the surface and form exhibits unparalleled virtuosity. Nevertheless, it is not indicative of contemporary art practice or quintessentially now, but rather technical repetition without conceptual innovation. Nichols allows process to determine her work, she achieves that seamless merger of technique and form, which is often exemplary of craft.
Susan O'Brien's Ms Mooney II represents a tendency prevalent in current ceramic practice--the production of overly decorative pottery. Perhaps it is a reaction to the decadent state of the world, particularly American culture, given over to industrial pottery production creating baroquesque forms and surfaces or perhaps it is stalemate. Overstating the handmade through a virtuoso display may be an answer to the boring minimal works churned out to fulfill physiological necessity.
Anne Potter's Me and My Sister exhibits psychological angst. The tortured postures and deformed bodies evoke empathy and psyche insecurity. The viewer, looking upon these disfigured bodies becomes a voyeur, witnessing a personal ritual, culminating in an experience at times perverse and sadistic. Potter's works are impressive. Me and My Sister consists of three nearly life-size perfectly articulated sculptures that represent the compelling and complicated relationships of the human condition. Potter's sculptures reaffirm the importance and future of figuration in ceramic sculpture.
Anita Powell's 5 of 4 is rife with exquisite retro pop culture references. The smooth lines of the modern dress forms recall the early commercialisation of domesticity. Appearing on 5 of 4, are simple line drawings depicting prominent cartoon women. Stereotypes of women portrayed through cartoons is a critique of the incipient indoctrination of girls to their perceived role in society. Powell is not original in her critique of this propaganda. Disney is occasionally scrutinised for the way they portray women. Nevertheless, her visual manifestations of that critique are unique in ceramics and aesthetically brilliant.
Where art serves a therapeutic function, Bonnie Seeman's Teapot 1 is pure virtuosity; beautifully portraying what is otherwise grotesque and concealed. Seeman's work, with function and decoration having no apparent connection, is another example of a work that elevates the product over utility. Seeman is not attempting to convince the masses to return to the handmade. Instead, she privileges her own cathartic experience, and offers the viewer a visual manifestation of her existential angst.
Addressing eurocentrism, Steven Thurston's Myopia Series no. 7 of Io: Jamaica, is visually bizarre. Compositionally, the piece feels strangely disjointed, yet conceptually poignant. The double helix of DNA suspended from the surface as if a lens to view the narrow focus of the landscape, which the title implies is Jamaica--a paradise because unindustrialised--and an expanse of white ceramic framing the work. All of the individual components lend themselves to a sense of nearsightedness, reinforced by the title, while simultaneously suggesting that the Western conception of life through the lens of science is decidedly shortsighted.
These are only a handful of the works that fulfill the urgency of the contemporary, while others seem incommensurate with it, representing neither the artworld nor characteristic of craft. The NCECA Biennial can achieve significance by exhibiting the urgency of the contemporary, not just its existence. This Biennial is the vehicle with which the field and others judge the past, present and future work of ceramics, defining the field within the public sphere.
The ceramic sphere is larger than the Biennials' perspective leads one to believe, for that reason it needs to be made explicit through exhibition practice how the field is to be perceived. In the 'artworld', exhibitions enfranchise works of art authenticating them within that public. Works shown in exhibitions become art, a coronation. At the least they be come representatives of that practice. The marginalised practices that do not fit under the prevailing canon are constitutive of ceramics and should be encouraged to participate. NCECA needs to publicly affirm its role in shaping the visual and philosophical perception of the field.
There are several reasons why the NCECA Biennial should become the ceramic exhibition. NCECA is a major institution with a significant operating budget and far reaching renown. The exhibition is already an established event, held in major metropolitan cities with multitudes of ceramists in attendance. If the theme of the Biennial is to survey contemporaneity, then a broader net needs to be cast. Participation in the allure of art world events has its pro et contra--gaining prestige in the public sphere at the expense of losing innocence. Biennials inherently purport the history of art as a series of upheavals overturning what came before. This attitude is aligned with consumer culture's abundant appetite for the new. Suggesting that every two years there will be new works that document the upheaval of the last Biennial participates in the pursuit of novelty for its own sake. However, the Biennial need not perpetuate this model. The diversity of the medium and its complex history suggest that there will always be room for the 'old' alongside the 'new'.
Adam Welch is an artist living in Brooklyn, New York. He is currently the Assistant Director of Greenwich House Pottery in New York City. All images courtesy of NCECA.…
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Publication information: Article title: Reconsidering Exhibition Practice: NCECA Biennial. Contributors: Welch, Adam - Author. Magazine title: Ceramics Art & Perception. Issue: 70 Publication date: December 2007. Page number: 94+. © 2007 Ceramics Art & Perception Pty. Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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