Archive for the ‘contemporary ceramics’ Category

Let It Be

September 8, 2019

“European ceramics were forever indebted to superior Chinese efforts, once exposed to those wonders.”

This nugget of received wisdom, initiated by a continent-wide, 200 year long porcelain recipe hunt, permeates the study of European ceramics from roughly the 16th century onward. That perspective even percolated down to the Fine Arts studio ceramics narrative after Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book (1940) put celadon, tenmuku, and other Sung Dynasty (960 – 1279 CE) stonewares on unimpeachable pedestals; many of these glaze types remain to this day (in name at least) routine options in European and American studios.

But what drove the West’s China obsession during the centuries preceding Leach’s book were not Imperial Sung jewels, but hybridized, prosaic Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 CE) export porcelains. Few westerners even knew of those exquisite Imperial examples before the Middle Kingdom’s late 19th century implosion, just decades before Leach began his pottery career.

More to the point, export production was almost from the start led by aesthetic and functional dictates of the “devils of the western ocean.” These dictates stemmed from a highly refined Iberian, Mediterranean, and ultimately Islamic enameled earthenware tradition – which, incidently, also heavily influenced initial Chinese blue and white development. This earthenware tradition, plus a mature northern European understanding of high temperature materials and kilns, had already established ceramics as fine art worthy of Europe’s idle rich. China’s inspiration could not have been absorbed and acted upon without these pre-existing conditions.

Now consider post-China trade Europe, ie; the Industrial Revolution. Porcelain was by then widely produced throughout the continent. But the masters of the Industrial Revolution instead ran with earthenware clay and glaze materials combined with scientific analysis, increased machine power, and efficient transport of bulky supplies and fragile finished products (and a heavy dose of child labor, but that’s another story). Chinoiserie was certainly a popular decorative option, but one of many. The Industrial Revolution transformed earthenware into fine art and fine dining utensils available to nearly every level of society – a truly revolutionary development.

Interaction with China over the centuries has left an enormous and indelible mark on European and American ceramics. But leaving it at that is almost like writing a 300 page book on the history of Rock and Roll, 250 pages of which are about the Beatles. Yes, of course the Fab Four were musical geniuses who cast a long shadow.

But 250 pages? Really?

Readings:

A Potter’s Book. Bernard Leach. Transatlantic Arts/New York. 1940.
The White Road. Edmund DeWaal. Chatto and Windus/London. 2015.

Letter to the Editor

July 23, 2017

an example of how the mind rambles during long drives home from shows…

Pushing the Envelope. The Cutting Edge. That’s the ultimate goal. Quite a bit of energy is consumed in that quest. In being out there. But a simple math question offers fodder for further examination: if everyone is out on the cutting edge, is it really the edge?

I can’t recall a time when someone who’s into “pushing the envelope” actually defined what the “envelope” is. What does it encompass? How did the boundaries get set? When? What’s the purpose of boundaries? Before venturing to the rim of what people expect, or understand (Or like? Or need? Or want?), maybe it would be good to pause for a moment and ask “Why?”

A lot of assumptions go into the desire to challenge the envelope. It’s equated with boredom – been there, done that. Perhaps. But if you aspire to earn your living making art, you should ponder these assumptions carefully. On a very basic level, art is communication. Communication implies reaching out to others. It requires at least a modicum of common ground. Is common ground “the envelope?”

This is a good question for makers of traditional crafts, although it might not seem so at first. After all, the canon has been established long ago. The style is set. The forms are defined. But just under that stern, utilitarian surface lies a deep vein of quirky, flamboyant, ironic, piercing playfulness. It’s fun. It’s challenging. It’s a trail that’s hard to resist, and it quickly leads to a boundary; When is it no longer “traditional?”

It’s nearly impossible to be a “traditional” purist today. Or at least to expect to make a living as a purist. We have to push it. Market forces, in part, dictate the boundaries of our envelope. But pushing the envelope is just one part of the job description for making pottery (and most especially – showing my bias here – for “traditional” pottery). There’s also consistency, empathy, and skill. What’s the ultimate point; making something different that looks kinda neat, or making something that’s the best you can make?

In the end, I can only say that it really isn’t that hard to push the envelope. The envelope is a pretty fragile thing.

The Hit Parade: The Beat Goes On

May 10, 2015

Central Mosque Djenne 1984 Once again, a big thanks to Rob Hunter and his inspired Ceramics in America 2014 ‘top ten’ issue. 

If my "Hit Parade" were to be about looks alone, I might have included the creative slip applications of English Mocha ware, or the bizarre, twisted explorations of George Orr, or the brilliant cobalt blues of German Westerwald salt-fired stoneware, or the wood-fired stoneware of Richard Bresnahan with whom I did my apprenticeship, etc, etc. etc.

But the genius of this exercise is to explore pottery’s intimate walk with humanity through the ages.  And it invites musing on one’s own relation to this incredible field as well.  Narrowing that down to ten entries is challenge enough!

For example, I could have easily included the Absalom Steadman stoneware jug c. 1823 which received the highest price paid at auction for early American pottery, thus illuminating the status of historic pottery in today’s art economy.  The 1840 William Henry Harrison transfer print pitcher by David Henderson speaks volumes about the part ceramics played in the development of our national politics.  The 11th century Central Mosque in D’jenne, Mali is the world’s largest adobe clay structure.  (But what’s that silly tourist doing there?)  Potters for Peace’s Filtron water purifier project highlights the enormous contributions of pottery to rural community development efforts.  The black pottery of Maria Martinez offers a classic example of pottery and cultural revitalization.  And the curious parallels between Richard Bresnahan’s unique wood firing process and astro-physics is fodder for an entire book in itself.

Every picture tells a story.  So does every pot.  The thing is, when it comes to pottery history’s ‘top 10,’ the story itself is quite often where it’s at.

And the beat goes on

The Hit Parade #6: Pete Volkous

March 22, 2015

Volkous It’s hard to avoid the obvious when compiling any sort of greatest hits list.  There are ceramic items, and ceramic artists, who would be obvious choices for almost any pottery list.  One such artist would (should) be Pete Volkous and his famous forays into ceramic Abstract Expressionism.

To be sure he didn’t work in a vacuum.  Many other ceramic artists of his generation also defined the course of contemporary ceramics (Garth Clark’s Ceramics in America, 2014 list only grudgingly acknowledges Volkous.)

Pete Volkous appears here for another reason.  His touch was incredible, but what really hit home was how crazy he was.  He was a real bohemian pottery Rock Star – in the most “Rock Star” meaning of that term.  Pete was like a singular personification of the Beatles, leading an invasion into a world of ceramic Elvis Presley’s

A generation of pottery students were ga ga about him.  He showed us that not only was it possible to do whatever you wanted – the mold was shattered – but you could have a blast doing it.  This was a potent brew for any young, aspiring, and barely responsible art student back in the day…

And like the Beatles, way too much has been written and said about Pete Volkous, to the point that summoning his name has almost become a cliché.  That hardly matters, of course.  After Pete, the cat was out of the bag.