Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

InCiteful Clay at the Woodbury Art Museum


Across the room, Nuala Creed’s “Lament for Fukushima” looks like a child’s well-worn doll, but up close he’s seen to be an adult: one so rounded and smooth as to be mistaken for a child. He sits on the ground with his legs folded in front of him in the familiar lotus position. His right arm bends at the elbow, his hand held up next to his face, with the thumb and index finger touching in a circle—what Westerners might read as the sign for “O.K” His left arm is relaxed, resting on his knee, where his hand makes the same sign. Standing behind him and shading him, as he sits in this classic pose of meditation, looms a cloud-like shape that suggests either a tree or a very large mushroom. It is, of course, both. The composition refers to Buddha beneath the Bodhi Tree, the traditional story of the first human enlightenment. Yet something is not right, and to understand what it is necessary to examine the materials and their treatments more closely.

The Buddha is made of stoneware. In spite of the popular belief that the best ceramics are made of porcelain, which is used in making high-end consumer goods like teacups and bowls, Japanese artists have shown stoneware to be a more expressive and evocative material. They generally rely on techniques that foreground the human hand, the processes of making, and so encourage accidents that commercial manufacturers strive to avoid. To that end, Creed first stained and casually glazed her figure, then raku-fired him. This resulted in a timeless feel: old and weathered here, new and pristine there. As a final touch, she dunked his face in red glaze, producing a circular shape that recalls the way it was made, complete with an ambiguous drip. This red circle crosses the eyes, and dramatizes, in the restrained, formal manner of Japanese performance art, how this Buddha cries tears of blood. That, combined with the title, permit identifying the tree-like form above him as a mushroom cloud, symbol of the nuclear disaster that followed the tsunami at Fukushima. That the cloud is represented by roughly shaped and unglazed clay completes the allegory: the ancient, refined lives of the Japanese (and by extension of civilized peoples everywhere) are threatened by the unrefined, inchoate force of unleashed nature. It is the kind of artwork that, once seen, can never be forgotten, but grows in awareness day by day.

Probably the oldest known artistic medium, clay sculptures survive in European caves alongside painted animals and mysteriously carved bits of bone and stone. At the same time, as our contemporary artists demonstrate, clay can be as new as any other medium. Its plastic versatility allows it, in sufficiently creative or knowledgable hands, to mimic—or at least disappear into—seemingly anything, including the most antithetical materials. How many viewers will notice that the pitcher of Shalene Valenzuela’s “Purchasing Power II” isn’t, as it appears, reverse painted glass, with its embossed measurements floating over the imagery, but is actually earthenware? The title of the series it comes from—Blending In—describes the medium as well as the message.

There are two dozen artists here, each with a major object or, in one case, a body of work commenting on issues that particularly bedevil us today. The works are divided among five categories: Environment, Popular & Material Culture, Social & Human Conditions, War & Politics, and Gender. The last, perhaps because of its controversial nature, or simply because it’s so new to broad recognition, is represented by a single work. In “Ignorance is Bliss,” Carol Milne projects a naive, almost clumsy quality perfectly suited to the reality of gender: that there are no clear precedents, no stable absolutes, but each person—especially when young—creates an identity without recourse to objective categories. While making thousands of largely clueless choices that add up to a unique identity, each of us must also function within other, far less nuanced roles. Compared to a similar pose carved, say, by Canova, and primarily concerned with the erotic response it creates in the viewer, this distinctly hand-made figure speaks volumes about a conflicted interior life spent in an intimidating world. Sensitive placement, alone in a large, otherwise empty gallery, emphasizes the isolation and, too often, the accompanying alienation.

The problem of solitude isn’t reserved for adolescents, however. Richard Shaw’s “Great Divide Jar” adapts the conventions of wedding cake for a witty comment on the too-frequent reality of adapting a compound connection to a one-size-fits-all institution. Here bravura manipulation of porcelain serves up the bride and groom figures as well as the cut sections of cake on which they stand, only to find themselves drifting apart like castaways on flotsam, or like newlyweds who find that hard work, not just romance, follows their happy event.

In addition to the exhibit’s thematic categories, several works share references in common to functional form. University of Utah art professor Maryann Webster was inspired by Renaissance basins, decorative works that invoked the forms of dinnerware to present idealized views of nature, in her exquisitely detailed “Dioxin Sea,” in which meticulously rendered undersea life surrounds a fish with a chicken-foot fin. Michelle Erickson’s “Paradise Lost” similarly starts with the model of a 16th-century French fecundity dish, which would have featured a reclining venus and putti as symbols of fertility. Only Erickson’s skeleton woman and her retinue all wear gas masks, while their surroundings refer to weapons of war, death’s heads, and various symbols of nationalism and religious intolerance. Both works, in addition to their shocking details, contain underlying visual puns, references that add weight to their corrosive judgments.

Webster’s basin and Erickson’s dish pay homage to the subdued, realistic colors of both their ceramic models and their updated subject matter. Not so Patti Warashina, whose “Drunken Power Series” invokes sentiments understandably—if mistakenly—ascribed to Mark Twain, though they were actually expressed by Laurence Peter in his 1969 book, The Peter Principle: ‘Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it.’ Warashina criticizes the disappointing incompetence with which humanity continually confronts its challenges; her “Seeing Red” sake set metaphorically indicts those who, drunk with power, afflict the future with erroneous political, social, and environmental choices and actions. The five bright red-orange cups (Japanese sets inevitably contain an odd number of vessels), shaped like rockets, surround a pitcher shaped like an intoxicated plutocrat, who wears a nosecone for a hat and cradles a bomb while he smokes a chimney-like cigar. Ehren Tool also works with functional wares, but he evidently wants those who receive his cups to actually use them. Into the malleable clay sides of these practical vessels he stamps the logos of today’s major economic corporations, alongside images of the consequences he believes their actions produce. Even while he disseminates his recriminations in practical, useful forms that may spread far and wide, he gambles on something more; archeologists have shown that clay vessels are the most durable of human products to date, surviving effectively forever, even when broken. Tool trusts that, should pride or greedy deeds destroy our society as it has so many others, his art will remain among the ruins to identify the culprits as he sees them.

Ehren Tool’s explicit references, including petitioning President Obama through his art, which elicited a disappointingly political response from the White House, bring viewers up against fundamental questions about the role of art in society: in particular, whether the artist properly manipulates the visual world in pursuit of specific reactions from, or even actions by, the viewer. In centuries past, influential writers like Thomas Aquinas argued that the proper role of art should be limited to helping viewers apprehend creation’s beauty, not to moving them to emotional or political action. Yet today’s critics could reply that such scholars didn’t really object to advocacy in the arts, so long as they agreed with what was advocated. Think of all those artworks depicting saints and sinners: can there by any question they were meant to influence their audience? Every artist then, here and elsewhere, could presumably make an argument for his or her work based on the principle of religious freedom, for each of these aesthetic statements also makes an ethical claim that dates from the origin point of spiritual identity. They urge their audience to behold creation under assault and challenge those responsible: even ourselves. The universal notion of human responsibility for the husbanding of living things and resources lies at the core of our cultural, social, political, and religious traditions.

There is still a role in art for self-expression, if only in an artists choice of tone, or voice. While Judith Schwartz, the NYU art professor who initially curated InCiteFul Clay, includes “caricature, parody, satire, obscenity, erotica, and the grotesque” among an artist’s options, she reserves the more extreme voices for her book, Confrontational Ceramics. In this exhibit, meanwhile, she offers a gentler, what might be called a “user-friendly” introduction to the potential for art to stimulate understanding, reflection, and philosophical mindfulness. Like the creamy hand grenades in Adrianne Crane’s “Artillery Field,” artworks are less likely to explode than to open into multicolored lotus blossoms, the international symbol for peace.

Ellice Taylor, a UVU student who was invited to contribute to what is primarily a traveling exhibition, celebrates the beauty of sunsets in her “Night Skies,” a set of tiles across which bold arabesques alternately rise and fall like dawn and dusk. While her statement recalls that rich colors in the sky sometimes result from pollution, her work leaves this fact for consideration by viewers. In his “Cows,” Chad Curtis admits the increasingly artificial pressures on nature: his neon-colored animals live in an inverted space, where artificial illumination underlies natural light, yet his assemblage holds forth the hope that their original splendor may as well be enhanced as destroyed. And a few feet from Patti Warashina’s cartoon outrage, the figures of two men stand calmly, side by side. Akio Takamori’s “General and Emperor” distills the outcome of a century of conflict in the Pacific down to two familiar visages and an increasingly familiar image. Here the winner, tall in his casually efficient fatigues, dwarfs the loser, whose mistakenly adopted costume suits him poorly. Like those meetings between former belligerents that have become a staple of formalized recollection, animosity is here replaced by inevitable resolution.

InCiteFul Clay is, first and foremost, an exhibition of the state of ceramic art, and in addition to the high caliber of works discussed so far, there are several which might have been chosen as much for their supreme artistry as for their comparatively subtle content. First among equals is Bonnie Seeman’s “Untitled Bowl,” which uses human and marine anatomy to plunge us deep into the beauty and struggle that characterize life. Arthur Gonzalez’s “What Tool Must I Use to Separate the Earth from the Sky” uses some of the most accomplished, bravura craft to lend an appropriately realistic quality to a story about a story-teller’s preparations to tell the tale of Pinocchio, a nineteenth century fable that has provided one of the most popular metaphorical images of the twenty-first century.

Earnest intentions alone can’t make a work of art good: craft and content must connect well and, if possible, powerfully. “Schwitz” (“Sweat” in German) suggests that Verne Funk, the sculptor, hasn’t yet made up his mind where he’s going, an impression his statement confirms. There is more to ambiguity than not having thought a project through. Linda Cordell’s “Choke the Chicken” is also technically competent, but feels tepid in addressing its likely topic—industrial farming—and bears as title a rude phrase she fails to connect to the work. Charles Kraft’s “Spone Forgiveness Beauty Bar” suffers from the bane of so-called Contemporary Art: without the accompanying text, it fails to say what the artist means it to.

In “Gods and Designers,” Reinaldo Sanguino raises a host of issues that, again, fail to make the leap from statement to art work. When Tom Wolfe argued, in The Painted Word, that art was increasingly the illustration to critical texts, he failed to foresee that those texts might one day be provided by the artists themselves. By comparison, I found J.J. McCracken’s “Deformation is Permanent” compelling, but unlikely in this context to draw viewers in far enough to appreciate its science-fiction frisson. Then again, if there is to be something for everyone, a dense, challenging work like McCracken’s belongs alongside “Debt Monster” in which Cheryl Tall recaptures the playfulness of childhood, when clay was the powerful, protean toy that could provide both the castle and its inhabitants.

It’s at this point your writer discovers he may have saved the best for last—if ‘best’ means anything in art so layered in subjectivity of both form and content. What looks like a second Buddha turns out to be Tip Toland’s “Avadhut,” which belongs among the truly remarkable achievements in clay. An approximately life-sized human figure, he is covered everywhere except his teeth and the soles of his feet with gold leaf. His open mouth is not the first clue that this is no ordinary Buddha. As for the soles of his feet, where the ground he walks on has worn the gold away, one sees the texture of his soles meticulously captured in clay.

And in case one final proof is needed that clay can do anything, the Woodbury staff invited a second ceramic student to participate in this show. Not long ago, disturbing photographs appeared in the environmental press, showing baby albatrosses—close relatives of the sea gulls considered nearly sacred in Utah—that had starved to death. Their decaying carcasses had broken open to reveal the cause: gullets full of plastic trash the parents had mistaken for food. UVU student Larry Revoir has re-envisioned this nightmare in “Monster,” in which the same horrid fate has befallen an iconic children’s celebrity figure: a furry friend stuffed with deadly delights. Contemplating this horror, I felt an unexpected gratitude to its maker, and remembered why art matters.

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