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Welcome: A view of the field by 5 emerging artists

Mary Drach McInnes, New York State College of Ceramics, Alfred University


[The field] kind of shuffles along, it lurches. There is a lot of space that is created when you move in clumsy ways. Interesting things happen. It makes space for things to happen that aren’t predictable and aren’t circumscribed. There’s not even a clear trajectory. I think the field is really open in that way but, it’s also slow and disjointed. There’s so much disjointedness. Even in our discussion this morning, and we’re pretty close thinkers actually, there are huge gaps that are hard to address in this time frame.

One of the things I find interesting is that we all think pottery can fit into the contemporary art dialogue. So, right there, what kind of animal is that? Can collaborative, community-based work fit into the contemporary dialogue? Can it really? The kind of criteria that are emerging are shifting, and changing, and unstable.

Linda Sormin, College Art Association panel discussion, New York, 16 February 2007

The five emerging artists who gathered in New York this year for the College Art Association panel on contemporary ceramic art interrogated the wet space of ceramics. The panel, chaired by Walter McConnell, articulated a generational ‘snapshot’ of the field. The participants were Linda Sormin, Michael Jones McKean, John Byrd, Anders Ruhwald, and Sanam Emami. This small group of practitioners share educational training and professional choices—all received their MFA degrees within the last decade and have been steadily building professional careers. Further, all have taught at the university level, and most currently hold tenure-track jobs within the United States. Yet they are also a diverse group. They vary in their studio pursuits — their practices include collaborative work, multi-media installations, object-based sculpture, design-inspired art, and functional pottery — and they vary in ethnicity and nationality.

Each of the panelists gave a short presentation on their work and discussed their practice in relation to the broader issues in the field of contemporary ceramics. Following these papers, we had a roundtable discussion that concluded the morning conference session and then proceeded to have a lengthy, in-depth conversation on various issues. While our talk was wide-ranging, a handful of key concerns and conditions emerged. These include: an occupation with rupture, dissonance, and multiplicity; an incorporation of postproduction methods; a disregard for early post-modern debates; an inquiry into the domestic sphere of the familiar; and an articulation of the potter’s contemporary role.1 The panel introduction, artist papers, and an edited conversation based on our extended discussion are published here. These artists, I believe, give a palpable sense of the energy in the field at present and give insights into the future directions in ceramic art.

One of the foremost issues that emerged was that of multiplicity — multiple languages, multiple materials, multiple collaborators — within a given artistic practice. The collision of languages within ceramics was raised initially in Linda Sormin’s talk. Cheh-ae Siah, the title of her recent installation, is an amalgam of Asian dialects. Cheh-ae is drawn from Karen, a Southeast Asian dialect for ‘to giggle’, Siah is a Thai word for ‘lose’. The artist’s ethnic identity has played a significant role in her evolution as an artist. The daughter of an Indonesian father and a Chinese mother, she was brought up in Southeast Asia and Canada. This biographical montage merges seamlessly into her increasingly performance-based work. Her raw material includes shards from past exhibitions, found objects, and disposable material; her practice now includes videotaping. Sormin has also expanded the boundaries of her installations by involving community members. Not surprisingly, Sormin revels in the array of languages available to artists and joyfully characterizes the field as ‘unruly’ and ‘unkempt’. In her practice, the role of bricoleur emerges as a central identity within the ceramics community.

Formal dissonance and conceptual rupture are also pronounced in the work Michael Jones McKean. Like Sormin, this artist works across material boundaries, sometimes using little or no ceramics. In such sprawling installations as The Deep Valley (2005), he combines paper-mache, MDF, a rug, lemons, a light diffusion screen, ceramic tile, houseplants, porcelain, and a florescent light. Yet for all this material cacophony, his practice is fundamentally grounded in the field of ceramics. In his commentary on the field, there is an unexpected pairing of an inexhaustible opportunity within ceramics and a profound mistrust of its established values. For McKean, clay is both ‘a rogue element’ and a conservative one for contemporary artists.

A generational shift in critical discourse is apparent in the current appropriation of ‘low’ material. John Byrd, like many contemporary sculptors working in the medium of clay, is enamored with mining the ‘low’ culture of modern ceramics and quotes the curio, the tourist souvenir, and the craft collectible. However, his appropriation underlines how the terms of engagement have moved in the last quarter century. In the 1970s and 80s, artists used kitsch to undermine the established hierarchies within ceramics and the art world. In contrast, Byrd’s practice takes for granted this vertiginous pairing of high and low. His work moves into a new avenue of exploration. His sculptures, meticulously carved and hand-built, reflect his southern upbringing and capture a new, rural inflection of his popular sources. As reviewer Elizabeth Reichert notes,

To look at a Byrd piece is to see drugstore Americana, state fair memorabilia, educational hobby models, and, in some pieces, grandmotherly figurines that turn out to be, upon second glance, darkly awry and symbolic of a certain violence underlining the vaguer rural aura Byrd seems to be conjuring. 2

His humorous imagery combines his own skilled modeling with commercial products, many of which are purchased over E-Bay. In his paper and later commentary, there is a fascinating—and continuing--negotiation between craft virtuosity and commodity cleverness.

The investigation of the craft object is a central theme for the Dutch artist Anders Ruhwald. In his recent exhibition, ‘The State of Things’, Ruhwald’s work is both physically emphatic, yet conceptually elusive. His sculptures continually remind us of familiar things - their forms recall domestic fixtures; their surfaces resemble plastic objects - yet they are not anything known. His work swings conceptually between the sterility of the white, modernist gallery and the disarray of everyday life. Louise Mazanti addresses this oscillation in his work: Ruhwald’s works show that it is possible to rethink these antinomies as something rather less polar. The archetypal character or pure concreteness of the things is in fact asking to be ‘let out of the cage’ and into reality. They show us that it is possible to rediscover a kind of authenticity amidst the monolithic consumer culture by coupling the suggestion of utility with reflection at a level that is not intellectual but associative and sensual.3

Ruhwald is engaged in the interstice between autonomous art and functional commodity. His objects are not easily consumed, and our frustration in encountering these works lead us to think of Modernism in a way that no longer involves a polarized perception of ‘art’ and ‘craft’, but offers a more porous state.

Despite the complexity, and indeed contradictions, in the field of ceramics today, all panelists acknowledge a place within the discourse for functional work. For Sanam Emami, a potter of Iranian descent, her practice is a traversal of geographies and cultures. In speaking of the historical evolution and current potential of the tulip vase, she passionately urges a rethinking of pattern and a retrieval ornament. Recognizing Modernism’s distrust of the past, Emami suggests replacing the term ‘history’ with ‘knowledge’. In her own work, she resolutely persists in making functional work even while acknowledging the detrimental effects of globalization on contemporary studio practice; she openly wonders at the continuance of functional pottery in the 21st century.

Emami’s passion for tradition does not extend into an appeal for a new standard. Likewise, Byrd’s dismay over a current lack of discipline by students does not expand into a call for a new program. Nor does Ruhawald’s critique of craft carry over into a plea for a new agenda. Each panelist shares an emphatic distrust of a single standard, specifically critiquing Leach’s Song ideal that buoyed so many in the ceramics field after the World War II. Indeed, these five emerging artists show a profound reluctance to create a new ideology; they were careful to phrase their responses to questions as personal replies and not public declarations. In a world of internet browsing, they work on multiple pathways and keep their options emphatically open. This reluctance to demarcate the field, however, does not diminish their vibrant nature or their ardent fervor for their chosen discipline.

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  1. For a discussion of current artistic appropriation of cultural objects and forms, see: Nicolas Bourriaud, Postproduction, Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World, New York, Lukas & Stenberg, 2000. back to text
  2. Elizabeth Reichert, ‘John Byrd, Indeterminate Histories,’ Ceramics Art and Perception 67 (2007), p.61. back to text
  3. Louise Mazanti, ‘The State of Things’, in Anders Ruhwald, The State of Things. Trondheim, The Danish Museum of Decorative Arts, 2004, np. back to text

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Introduction from
Walter McConnell

Welcome from
Mary Drach McInnes

On Function and Content

by Sanam Emami

Courting Risk

by Linda Sormin

Conspicuous Consumption

by John Byrd

Functional Languages

by Anders Ruhwald

Towards Incongruence

by Michael Jones McKean

Edited conversation, discussion panel

Listen to the speakers presentations (mp3 files)

Walter McConnell

Linda Sormin

John Byrd

Michael Jones McKean

Anders Ruhwald

Sanam Emami

The complete recording of session number CA07-054 (“Ceramics: Five Emerging Artists Survey the Discipline”)and other sessions from the 95th Annual Conference of the College Art Association may be purchased online by going to the Conference Media web site.

Eddie Hopkins
(obituary by Ron Wheeler)

Welcome • Issue 9