Encountering Hybridization: Avant-Garde Ceramics and Mixed Media
Reichert, Elizabeth, Ceramics Art & Perception
AT THE JUNE 2006 SOFA (SCULPTURE, OBJECTS and Functional Art) show, Mark Dean, of the Manhattan-based DEAN PROJECT, brought together several artists whose work defines and eschews the nature of ceramics today. Of the 12 artists represented--10 from the United States (Adelaide Paul, Michael O'Malley, Reinaldo Sanguino, Chad Curtis, John Byrd, Nicole Cherubini, Doug Jeck, Timothy Berg, Julie York, and Sinisa Kukec) and a team from the Netherlands (Liet Heringa and Marteen van Kalsbeek)--not one in the group should be called a ceramist.
This is an interesting distinction given that most of these artists are well-rooted in the ceramics world; they have received MFAs from ceramics programs, have gone on to teach at such programs, and have been shown through clay-specialty platforms like the Garth Clark Gallery, the Clay Studio in Philadelphia, and the SOFA shows, among others. However rooted in the ceramics world they may be, though, each artist here is using clay as only one element among many, combining their porcelain and stoneware with materials as diverse as photography, taxidermy and faux fur. It is the message that clay is not enough--buried not-so-deeply within Dean's mixed media platform--that had the power to provoke once again that seemingly recurring issue of status within the ceramic arts.
Writing about Dean's One Part Clay show in their SOFA catalogue essay of the same name, critics and gallery owners Garth Clark and Mark Del Vecchio did indeed suggest that these artists' works were "threatening to a ceramics world that is wrestling with a rapid destruction of the place of ceramics in art". In the same breath, however, Clark and Del Vecchio described the work as risky and exciting. Suggesting it would be the charge of a younger generation to propagate this new advance in the field (nearly all the artists in the group are under 40), Clark and Del Vecchio nonetheless collaborated with Dean to later mount One Part Clay in 2006 at their more experimentally-focused Long Island City Project Space.
One Part Clay: Ceramic Avant-Garde & Mixed Media had an extended and well-received run in Long Island City, New York. Several pieces were sold during opening night despite a few whispers about what to make of Nicole Cherubini's large vessels decorated with doorknocker-sized nose rings and John Byrd's anatomy study with the ferocious taxidermic fox head. Words I overheard were 'heavy,' 'unique,' and 'perhaps I'm too old to understand,' the latter implying not the calm contemplation a piece of pottery might give us, but something difficult to apprehend: an idea, an argument with which to contend.
Many of the One Part Clay artists are indeed exploring arguments, whether it is the idea of breeding animals that lurk in Adelaide Paul's androgynous beasts, or the playful sense that the collector renders clay brand-worthy found in Sanguino's Gods and Designers series of shiny black crowns. Cushioned atop Tiffany's boxes and encased in plexiglas, these crowns are photographed on the heads of the collectors (or Gods) who buy them. Without this final photograph and the robin egg blue that is now interchangeable with everything Tiffany's represents--glamour, wealth, Audrey Hepburn, a nostalgic sense of elitism and romance--would Sanguino be able to link ceramics with patronage and celebrity-worship? Likewise, would Adelaide Paul be able to reference the sexual regulation involved in animal consumption in a piece like (Be)Witch without her mixed media elements: the sexy leather, the naked skull, the cold surgical table? "Material as content," she says, "and material in the service of content are not mutually exclusive ideas."
Paul's statement points us to the crucial difficulty on display in such mixed media clay work. Ceramics and the dialogue that surrounds it--which deals most generally with the object as functional, figural or formal--is defined by material; the object is clay, and therefore it is ceramic art; the object holds tea, and therefore it is functional. …