Clay on the Wall Invitational Exhibition
Landmark Gallery (January 26 – February 24, 2013)
Clay on the Wall: Context and Content
On the 20th anniversary of Clay on the Wall, discussion of specific works should properly be secondary to reflection on the context in which these works are presented. Gallery walls, after all, are signifiers that actively limit certain meanings and proliferate others, especially where clay is concerned. Perhaps most obviously, walls of any sort awaken in clay associations with its own history as a medium, particularly its role as ornament in relationship to architecture. No doubt this relationship is as old as the earliest carved mud-bricks of the Mesopotamian plain and the ancient Nile valley. It inheres in the glazed reliefs of the palace at Persepolis, the spectacular tiled surfaces of the Alhambra, and the glistening ostentation of the 18th-century Capodimonte Porcelain Room. It is not by chance that many of the works in this exhibition allude to the history of bricks and tiles or even embrace that history openly. Contemporary ceramics has a deep and complex relationship with the past. Ceramists themselves generally recall it to some degree in their work, and viewers tend to discern it in the forms and materials.
In this, the latest version of the Clay on the Wall exhibition, a lineage in ceramic architectural elements is frankly acknowledged by such works as Adam Welch’s NZKCCI #26/2012, which takes the form of the ordinary building brick – complete with personalized frog (beveled concavity) – and subjects it to a transformation ambiguously suggestive of both emergence and disintegration. An impression of metamorphosis is also conveyed by the earthenware and fritware forms in Cary Esser’s Untitled Diptych 1, which employ fissures left by the forming process to suggest aged masonry walls but also to provide glimpses into interiors in implicit refutation of the superficiality of bricks and tiles. In a similar vein, Cameron Crawford’s Bedtime Story juxtaposes trompe-l’oeil representation of weathered architectural fragments with a pictorial tile, suggesting that narratives flow equally over both. History marks the surfaces of individual bricks and tiles, but these, in turn, speak abstractly of the long history of the utilitarian and aesthetic forms that they exemplify.
It is noteworthy that Del Harrow, though a pioneer in exploring the potential of digital technologies for production of ceramic art, orients his untitled work to the wall through the same vertical-and-horizontal grid employed by masons to lay Delft tiles in the 17th century. Neil Forrest’s Tectonic Sutra, an implicit cybernetic fusion of lungs and steel girders, has evolved partly from an interest in the curved spaces defined by muqurnas, decorative Islamic corbels that drip like honeycombed stalactites from the bay ceilings of historical mosques and mausoleums. Nick Kripal, who has spent much of his career integrating quiet site-specific sculptures into the interior architectural spaces of churches and synagogues, arrays the wall-oriented porcelain multiples of W. S. Variation #4 – each molded unit suggestive of a hexagonal Gothic baptistery – into a decorative pattern derived from the sacred geometry underlying religious architectural design. David East’s Gingham Palimpsest and Through This Field, reference architectural design of quite another sort: American suburban dwellings whose walls bear the traces of aesthetic descent from homespun charm to the anonymous rusticity of Martha Stewart corporate hominess.
Walls are clearly key to meanings conveyed by works that incidentally or tendentiously call up the history of clay’s relationship to architecture, but what of those works that seem indifferent to bricks and tiles? In what way do the gallery walls affect meaning in those instances? One frequent answer relates not to physical location but rather to conceptual orientation. It involves an issue that has little or no relevance to media such as painting, but which is central to questions of identity in the field of contemporary ceramics. It is significant that the gallery wall conceptually negates utility and guides the viewer to adopt a particular mode of reception toward objects: the “art mode,” as it were. Mathew McConnell’s Between One and the Same I, for example, cannot be misconstrued as incorporating vessels for domestic use, not simply because of the deliberately rough execution of those vessels but rather because they are pointedly carried into the space of painting: the wall as a site that confers on objects a specific status, both aesthetic and intellectual. This is crucial for McConnell’s work, which is not about the utility of certain forms but rather the relationship between concepts of originality and copy in the context of art.
Dirk Staschke’s Premonition could hardly be mistaken for a utilitarian form, but its intense naturalism and potential for interpretation as a macabre product of dismemberment calls for a positioning in the rhetorical space defined by the gallery wall. This contextualization immediately illuminates Staschke’s links to baroque vanitas paintings, with their melancholy reminders that ephemerality is endemic to the human condition. Jae Won Lee’s Blue Mountain is a similarly contemplative piece that utilizes the white, shadow-softened expanse of the gallery wall to transcend material concerns and evoke philosophical, cultural, and autobiographical allusions, in this case stemming from musing over the nature of Chinese characters as aesthetic abstractions of the physical world.
The gallery wall lifts Linda Lopez ‘s One Day the Draft Will Blow it All Away out of the everyday context in which objects are defined by their empirically discernible qualities. In her work, the still life inhabits an alternative world of psychological resonance in which objects seem to quiver and metamorphose into loci of energy. In contrast, Jeff Mongrain’s Habemus Papam inverts this order of energy and matter, rendering a physical object from a wave of compression and rarefaction. The ostensibly non-objective sculpture materializes a sound wave corresponding to Cardinal Felici’s 1978 announcement of the election of Pope John Paul II: “Habemus papem! (We have a Pope).”
If many of the works in this exhibition exploit the liminal space of the gallery wall (in effect a threshold between the material and the purely conceptual) to reflect on abstract ideas or immaterial phenomena, other works openly engage contemporary issues of pressing material consequence. Jessica Knapp’s Thirst, for example, addresses the severe drought conditions that currently grip the state of Texas, especially the Panhandle region. Delicate porcelain flowers in which blue glaze pools up like playa lakes are dispersed over a map of the state’s rivers and streams rendered in raw clay that desiccates, shrinks, and cracks like the mud of a dry creek bed. A water crisis of another sort, the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, is referenced by Nan Smith’s Summer’s Over II, which washes up a school of dead minnows around a pictorial tile that rings with echoes of Munch’s archetypal The Scream of Nature.
The degree to which nature has been overrun by human aspirations is suggested by Dylan Beck’s Domestic Conglomerations, which deploys a fleet of miniature slip-cast airplanes to metonymically invoke the roughly 87,000 flights that occur across the skies of the United States each day. Employing gallery walls primarily for their receptiveness to expansive, multipartite installations, Beck has in some exhibitions dispersed many hundreds of the tiny aircraft in vast configurations that remind one of the scale of energy consumption today. In this context, Amy Santoferraro’s BaskeTREES – bright hybridized flora of salvaged plastic and metal and thin, slip-cast porcelain stems – seem to weave issues of recycling and, consequently, energy conservation into the practice of bricolage. Like Santoferraro, Chad Curtis includes an artificial tree in his Dis•location but juxtaposes that to living moss encased in a terrarium. Suggestive of the fragility of the earth’s ecosystem, the piece simultaneously sounds a cautionary note against the wedge driven between human beings and nature by the virtual realities conjured from digital technologies.
New technologies, both as topics and as tools, have become integral to much of contemporary ceramics, raising questions about distinctions and reciprocity between craft and design. The recent work of Alex Hibbitt initiates a deliberate dialectic between the handmade and the computer designed, synthesizing forms from these ostensibly antithetical formats. For Exercise #1 she began by hand building ceramic objects in a baroque style, then scanned these into digital form, mapped the contours as schematics, digitally fabricated these in felt and pinned the results over hand-built porcelain interpretations of the digitally simplified originals. Bryan Czibesz and Shawn Spangler have also taken note of the complexities arising from a synergy of craft and computer-aided design. In their thrown-porcelain and CNC–cut urethane-foam Tectonics and Dross: Remarks on the future archaeology of objects, they play similarly with the products of encounter between hand and digital technologies and reflect on the benefits and liabilities incurred in the transition between these.
The works of Hibbitt or Czibesz and Spangler might, of course, convey their reflections on craft and technology as effectively off the wall as on, and this observation raises an important point for this exhibition in both its current and previous manifestations. There are as many distinctions as similarities between the works on display, and the walls that tie them physically together, far from unifying them in the level space of a neutral ground, are in a sense bent variously to the wills of the works they bear. Clay may compel walls to conjure history, invoke art-mode conventions of seeing that negate perceptions of utility, or simply yield the advantages of broad, open space. What ultimately emerges from these differing interactions between clay and wall is a picture of heterogeneity that is immediately recognizable as reflective of the great diversity of contemporary ceramics in general.
Glen Brown, Ph.D. | Professor of Art History at Kansas State University, Manhattan