"Genre Bending" in Modern Craft

 

 

Exhibition review: Maya Muchawsky Parnas: “By the Wall“, The 2013 Andy Prize for Contemporary Crafts, Israel. Curator: Meira Yagid Haimovici

Written by: Orly Nezer

I do not know what museum visitors expect when entering the space of “The Gallery for Architecture and Design” at “Tel Aviv Museum of Art”, to an exhibition of a winner of “Andy Award” for Contemporary Crafts… so many genres under one gallery roof!

Based on some evidence I can assume that after entering, many of them felt confused, or just “didn’t get it”. I would like to review the exhibition by implementing the “Genre bending” approach I will introduce below. This approach engages knowledge and training that enables recognizing of themes and nuances. I find the approach helpful for better apprehension and enjoyment of exhibitions of artists invested in the crafts. By implementing the approach on the “By the Wall” exhibition, I hope to show how the artist’s engagement in ceramics leads to complex and layered with meanings works.

 

General View

Gallery 2 has a large space (170 square meters) and the serial objects of Maya Muchawsky-Parnas do not take up space, rather running-meter: They are attached to the walls on shelves, leaned on the wall or laid next to it. Though I wrote “serial” – a concept related to industrial design or pottery workshops – this exhibition draws away from both these practices, rather, “the serial” defines space, marks the horizon and as we will see, makes time present.

Indeed, M-P begins with marking her territory, “claiming her space”. But the bright objects by the walls, with their pastel hue, expand the space while blurring its boundaries. All objects have a quiet presence, and their installation stimulate a reaction similar to the awe feeling in front of a spectacle view, a kind of sublime. These pale lines positioned to define an area, do not function as an unambiguous divider between interior and exterior, rather a dim, penetrable one.

So Far

 

Maya Muchawsky Parnas 'So Far', 2013, stoneware dipped in limewash, 77 units, various dimensions, installation length 18 m; photo by Orly Nezer

Maya Muchawsky Parnas 'So Far', 2013, stoneware dipped in limewash, 77 units, various dimensions, installation length 18 m; photo by Orly Nezer

Maya Muchawsky Parnas 'So Far' (detail), 2013, stoneware dipped in limewash, 77 units, various dimensions, installation length 18 m; photo by Orly Nezer

Maya Muchawsky Parnas 'So Far' (detail), 2013, stoneware dipped in limewash, 77 units, various dimensions, installation length 18 m; photo by Orly Nezer

M-P lays out in front of us an artificial landscape. She has placed, on top of 18 meters of a whitewashed shelf, seventy-seven objects, lump forms that can be seen as rocks, each one dipped up to 17 cm in same whitewash. 17 cm above the shelf, a grey strip is painted on the wall, so that the naked tips of the objects, with their off-white tint, outstand in front of the gray background, resonating mountain peaks. For the viewer standing at the entrance of the gallery the experience might be similar to one in front of a “post – minimalist” installation: the work appears at first-sight quiet, with minimal joints.

But when viewer walks towards it, the work turns out to be an offer of at least two polar visions. If the long-view offered a clean, uniformed view of latitude, thus presenting a unified narrative, the short-view, the “close-up”, offers a variety of details, thus, multiple non-chronological narratives.

An intentional look at the objects reveals a shoe trail, fingerprints and pulling marks. There is no theme or chronological relation between the appearances of these marks, and they do not add up to a complete, structured story. The artist offers us a broken, contingent story, based on the affected views, and on the spatial relationship between the visible components.

 

Self Reflexivity

The closer look reveals the craft, the making. The slapping of the material in different directions to achieve form, and thereby the creation of wrinkles, sags and folds. The objects become a documentation of a process. The artist uses the familiar property of non-glazed ceramics, that, more than any other material commemorates soil and landscape.

The principle of “self reflexivity” is important to understand the “Genre Bending” approach I am demonstrating in thus review. It means that the actions of the artist “bends back on” and expose the means and effects of the artwork. In other words, it exposes the artificial nature of the artwork. M-P’s place of departure is the Ceramics with the commitment to material, process and techniques that the medium enforces, while thinking in concepts of contemporary art. By exposing the pressing, the fingerprints, the bulky lumps of clay which were just pulled out of industrial packaging, she is performing a self reflexive practice, exposing the artificiality of the objects, and thus reminds us that the medium is clay. Indeed in ceramics this reflexive practice is used repeatedly, as such it is so easy to fall into a cliché. However this is not the case here, for the cliché is shattered by borrowing a context of multiple visions from contemporary art. So, the artist is not telling a story about ceramics or a biography, but a story left open for composition.

 

Craft Theory and “Genre Bending”

From the Craft-theory perspective, many theoreticians might agree that using craft methods while ignoring function or decoration is not considered Craft but (whether good, or bad) art. For instance, Howard Risatti in “a theory of craft”[1] warns his readers:

“…Such sophisticated handling of material and surface reflects traditional craft practices and encourages one to see such works as craft rather than sculpture, even though their forms are obviously more sculptural than craft-like. One must resist this temptation, for these works clearly belong to the realm of sculpture and not craft”.

Many other theoreticians are interested, as Risatti, in objects that can be identified as coming from a particular practice. There is Louise Mazanti’s “Super-Object”[2], Anna Fariello’s “Socially Integrated Object”[3] and others.

On the contrary, Glenn Adamson in his book “Thinking through Craft”[4] puts aside “traditional” craftspeople, while thoroughly examine artists that use, what he considers as, the “inferiorities” of the crafts, as a starting point for their artistic expression:

“…each in his or her own way, take their strength as artists from some aspect of craft’s intrinsic weakness. Each occupies what seems on one level to be traditional studio environment, operating within the tightly defined parameters of certain activities in order to make discrete objects. Yet they also undercut the stability of these fixed points in the artistic equation. For them craft is not only a way of thinking: it is also a foil”.

Adamson believes that

Craft is not a defined practice but a way of thinking through practices of all kinds, and there is no reason that any one medium or genre of production should be more conductive to this way of thinking than another[5]. A few years earlier Paul Greenhalgh in his book “The persistence of Craft” wrote in somewhat a similar perspective:

Craft is presented in this book as a fluid set of practices, propositions and positions that shift and develop, sometimes rapidly[6]

The “Genre-Bending” approach fits all perspectives, and I believe helps understand different approaches to craft, while putting no practice or genre higher in hierarchy than the other. In any event, it takes literate spectators to recognize and appreciate the bending of genres.

With regard to artistic practice, M-P joins other Israeli women artists (Talia Tokatly, Hadas Rosenberg Nir etc.) as they share a starting point of a deep commitment to material, from there, they “bend” genres, that is, harness to their favor properties of other genres of visual culture, especially the arts. This practice causes sometimes unease or confusion to viewers who find it hard to decide how to approach and understand the work.

The term “Genre bending” is adapted from the term “Gender Bending”[7] (drag, Fem, Butch), which applies to the borrowing of expected gender roles, or external effects from other genders, thus undermining the reductive, dichotomous approach “man / woman”. The term “Genre bending” reflects the use of external or internal features of other genres, when no genre is placed over the other. The “Genre bending” perspective illuminates and expands the meanings of the artworks as I will further exemplify. I need to remark though, that the “Contemporary Art field” is wide enough to accommodate these artists, and we could set them free to fly in these provinces without pinning them with the “weight” of the Crafts, thus, while in the art-world their reception may be with suspicion, for spectators engaged in the crafts, their great competencies and loyalty to ceramics, gives their art extra layers of meaning. (Let’s now return to the exhibition)

“1985-2013”, 2013

Maya Muchawsky Parnas '1985-2012', 2013, slip-cast earthenware, 18 units, various dimensions, installation length 540 cm; photo by Orly Nezer

Maya Muchawsky Parnas '1985-2012', 2013, slip-cast earthenware, 18 units, various dimensions, installation length 540 cm; photo by Orly Nezer

Maya Muchawsky Parnas '1985-2012' (detail), 2013, slip-cast earthenware, 18 units, various dimensions, installation length 540 cm; photo by Orly Nezer

Maya Muchawsky Parnas '1985-2012' (detail), 2013, slip-cast earthenware, 18 units, various dimensions, installation length 540 cm; photo by Orly Nezer

A white shelf, 5.4 meters in length, is installed on another wall, and on top of it a peach-colored strip, narrows and whitens gradually from left to right. This is the long-view, in which, once more, the “post minimalist” practice is implemented, creating direct spatial relationships: spectator-space-work. When approaching the work, the peach colored stripe becomes clear, and appears populated with duplications of an old radio-tape.

Well, for centuries Ceramics replicated vases, figurines, tiles, but what has Ceramics to do with a radio-tape associated with the electronics and plastic industry? In addition, the choice to cast an entire object, shell and push-buttons in one piece, and, adding to that, the selection of faded silky/ floury color, foreign to plastic, all together and separately, cause a dissonance. The objects are unresolved, parted from the “large picture”, of the long-view. But by applying the “Genre-Bending” approach, much more information can be drawn out of the work, and thus add layers of context and meaning to it.

The artist makes use in this work of an essential attribute of Ceramics – the shrinkage of clay. She makes a new plaster mold for the shrunk object, repeats that process and creates a series of similar objects, each one smaller than the one before in fixed ratio. Eighteen radio-tape clones growing smaller, fading and blurring respectively. Each object has its particular nuances and hue. M-P bends the genres “Craft” and “Art”, borrows characteristics, and by doing that, performs four shifts: One, the color-drippings on the objects are promoted with courtesy of the art world from “defects” in craft terms, to “particular expressions and nuances”. Two, by applying the art “installation” concept, the common serial production of the workshop becomes a meaningful multiplicity. Three, the intrinsic shrinkage factor of clay transforms a set of “growing smaller objects”, in any other material, to a self-reflexive statement, and therefore makes the work witty, while visualizes time through intrinsic change of material. The objects literally evolve one from the one before it. Four, making a mold and using stained casting clay for the reproductions of a plastic, industrial radio-tape, by the hands of the artist-craftswoman, may resonate the original one and prominence themes such as surface aesthetics and the implications of material projections.

“40 hula hoops”, 2012

Maya Muchawsky Parnas '40 Hula Hoops', 2012, slip-cast earthenware, 40 units, d. approx. 60 cm each; photo by Orly Nezer

Maya Muchawsky Parnas '40 Hula Hoops', 2012, slip-cast earthenware, 40 units, d. approx. 60 cm each; photo by Orly Nezer

Four clusters of hoops, each 60 cm in diameter, leaned on the wall as if marking territory. From the distance the installation looks like four scribbled circles, drawn again and again while “getting out of the lines”. Approaching the work reveals clusters of soft-pink, yellow and baby-blue hoops, with silky texture of casting-clay. Well, these hoops could be “ready-mades”, plastic strong-colored kindergarten accessories, but the artist M-P chose a material out of her personal preference and mastery, to create forty silky, bright, and most important, fragile hoops, distancing them from original function. Riding on the fragility of ceramics, without fixing or supporting the leaning objects, she generates suspension, and, once more, visualizes time (to the potential shattering). In addition, important themes intrinsic to craft are added to the artistic installation and add meaning to it: “Function” and “Decorative”. The malfunction hoops become decorative elements in the gallery space.

A suffix with “Pola and Lazer”, 2012

Maya Muchawsky Parnas 'Pola and Leizer', 2012, plaster cast, 4x244x160 cm; photo by Orly Nezer

Maya Muchawsky Parnas 'Pola and Leizer', 2012, plaster cast, 4x244x160 cm; photo by Orly Nezer

So far I have implemented the “Genre-Bending” approach on the spatial, multi-view-pointed installations. However, in a smaller defined space of the gallery lay a floor-piece which brings us indoors, to the domestic. It is a flat textured plaster object, few strings stuck to plaster and some parts are dyed with absorbed pigments. A careful observation, maybe some knowledge is needed, brings an understanding that this object is a mold, a textured “negative” of a home-made hairy carpet. With this information the object becomes more interesting, for the touching artistic object is revealed as the common technical instrument, the byproduct object of the crafty process. And it goes also the other way around: the byproduct of the crafty process, with the help of some borrowed additions from contemporary art, such as the context of the gallery, the placing on the gallery floor (versus the workshop table), the demand for attention from the gallery spectator, is converted, to a fine and full of sensitivities artistic object. It resonates time, wear and tear and much more.

As I have written previously, I find the “Genre bending” approach helpful for better apprehension and enjoyment of exhibitions of artists invested in the crafts. Hopefully I was able to demonstrate it.


This is an extended version of ‘Claiming Space – About genre bending and technique as meaning’, 1280ºC Magazine for material culture, vol 27, summer 2013 p. 11-15

 

[1] Risatti, H. (2007). a theory of craft – function and aesthetic expression. The University of North Carolina press, p. 290

[2] Mazanti, L. (2011). “Super-Objects: Craft as an Aesthetic Position”, in: Extra/Ordinary. Buzek, Maria E. (ed). London: Duke University Press, p. 62

[3] Fariello, A. M. (2005). “Redeaning” the Language of Objects” in: Object & Meaning. Fariello, Anna. M and Paula Owen (eds), Plymouth: SCARECROW PRESS, INC., p. 149

[4] Adamson, G. (2007), Thinking Through Craft, Berg Oxford UK, p. 168

[5] Adamson, 2007, p. 7.

[6] GreenHalgh, P., (2003). “Craft in a Changing World”, in: The Persistence of Craft. GreenHalgh, Paul (ed) NJ: Rutgers University Press, p. 1

[7] Gudith Butler mentions “gender bending” in her book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity (1990).

Fire It Up: Ceramic as Material in Contemporary Sculpture

Essay written for Fire it Up! Ceramic as Material in Contemporary Sculpture at Dienstgebäude, Zurich, May 30-July 6, 2013 by Olga Stefan

“I am a sculptor, not a ceramicist. I have never thrown a plate on a wheel nor painted a vase. I detest lacy designs and dainty nuances.“ Lucio Fontana

“One should project the imagination, not just expose the material. This is what makes it art…creating into the material, art beyond technique, beyond life.” Paul Valéry

The status of craft in the world of fine art is hardly a new subject: it has been famously debated and discussed by 19th century thinkers like John Ruskin and William Morris, but also by modernists like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg.  Since the early 1800s when the separation between craft and fine art took root with the development of the division of labor in industrial production, this subject has been at the core of much economic, social, and cultural inquiry.  Perceived as having the potential not simply to substitute but also improve the quality of man-made objects, and doubtlessly increase output and profit exponentially, the automation of industry demoted craft’s importance, which until then had been essential to cultural as well as economic production.  This demotion paved the way for fine art to take a superior position.  Ironically, from an etymological perspective, craft (from German Kraft for power) ended up once again where it had started in antiquity, and where all art (from the Latin ars) began – in the realm of pure skill at the exclusive service of function.  And this skill was just no longer needed since machines did things so much better and faster.  So art of the modern period needed to be other than skilful – it needed to be cerebral.

But if we try to really separate the two fields we see it’s not so simple.  However, we can quote Rose Slivka who defines craftsman as he who “incorporates acknowledgement, however implied, of functional possibilities or commitments (including the function of decoration) – as long as he maintains personal control over the execution of the final product, and he assumes personal responsibility for its aesthetic material quality – it is craft.”[1]Meaning that if the maker alludes in any way to function, and is in charge of both design and production, and leaves nothing to chance (artists should not be so controlling…), then we have to see the object as craft.  But if one of these is not part of the equation, then we are free to call it art.  So by outsourcing the production of his pots and by pointing out that through the firing process he lets chance have its way with the work, Picasso’s decorative pots and plates become high art, although they look very craft-like to the contemporary viewer.

Pablo Picasso, Owl with Feathers, Madoura, 1951, Earthenware, decorated with oxides with knife engravings, edition of 300, 12″x9″x7″

Pablo Picasso, Owl with Feathers, Madoura, 1951, Earthenware, decorated with oxides with knife engravings, edition of 300, 12″x9″x7″

But unfortunately many sculptors using materials traditionally associated with the crafts, specifically clay, don’t have the same advantages as Picasso.  They are called potters or ceramicists, not sculptors, or not even plain old artists.  Even Peter Voulkos, the artworld’s token ceramic sculptor, is often still referred to by art critics and historians as a potter. Why this special categorization which smells of contempt?  What is it about clay that still makes the art world sceptical?

Peter Voulkos, Noodle, 1996, Stoneware

Peter Voulkos, Noodle, 1996, Stoneware

Well, history plays a very important part, and unfortunately it follows us even now.  Clay, more than any other material, has been used for tens of thousands of years in the creation of functional objects, from bowls to religious figurines and everything in between.  It is the most available and reliable of materials, transforming from a malleable paste to a durable solid through firing, humanity’s first technology.  And in the last century and a half, with the dramatic expansion of the leisure class, ceramic has become closely associated with the hobby creativity of the housewife, “the trophy who attests to a man’s socio-economic success”. [2]

Anonymous, from Imari’s International Amateur Ceramics Contest

Anonymous, from Imari’s International Amateur Ceramics Contest

Clay comes directly from the earth and is therefore inherently associated with our dependence on the land – it evokes a pre-industrial romantic past that to many is out of sync with the realities of the modern western world.  Contemporary sculpture’s materials have to come out of the contemporary world: refuse or found object, technology, plastics and metal – all these materials point to their own contemporaneity.  Contemporary sculpture must be big and it must be tough, just like the world. Not fragile and precious as clay can seem to be.  And for it to be really contemporary, without any touch of quaintness, sculpture really should be made by hired labor, not by the artist’s hand.  The real artist just comes up with the concepts to be made by craftspeople, highlighting and utilising modern production processes. So because clay is easy to find, relatively easy to use, somewhat easy to control, it is therefore also easy to dismiss.

But clay is not at all easy to master, and many important sculptors, like Lucio Fontana in the 1950s and many Futurists before him in the 30s, undertook the task of learning the “craft” of the ceramicist, fine art’s contemptible second-cousin once removed, to create more expressive, more physically engaging sculptures.  Mastering ceramics, or reintegrating craft – the concept of “power over material” – is a complex process comprised of not only repetition and practice but of all the contemporary technologies needed for the transformative process to take place, including kilns, tools, glazing, etc.  Maybe this process-intensive investment associated with mastering ceramics is the reason that concept is sometimes secondary to form.  But should that be viewed as a handicap or an advantage?

Lucio Fontana, Battaglia, 1947, Ceramics, varnish, h: 15 x w: 39 x d: 21.5 cm / h: 5.9 x w: 15.4 x d: 8.5 in

Lucio Fontana, Battaglia, 1947, Ceramics, varnish, h: 15 x w: 39 x d: 21.5 cm / h: 5.9 x w: 15.4 x d: 8.5 in

In A Critical History of 20th Century Art, Donald Kuspit writes that “Conceptualism and Minimalism eschew unconscious fantasy and intense feeling…” and “Conceptualism’s hierarchy, which privileges concept over medium, collapses.”  Kuspit champions a new art form that he calls New Old Master art, a “return to the more complete, balanced idea of art offered by tradition…. In the new traditionalism, the material medium and the artist’s concept are re-integrated into an organic whole.”[3]

The medium and the concept need to become partners in art making once again rather than remain in opposition and conflict.  And precisely this collaboration is explored to different degrees by the artists exhibiting in Fire It Up, whose production processes range from the typically contemporary using outsourced craft labor, to traditional techniques applied to contemporary subject matter and critique.

On one side of the “artist-made vs. hired labor” discussion are the garbage bags by Mark Divo, known for his Dada reinterpretations and events.  Made of porcelain, that very valuable clay material associated with the decorative arts in wealthy homes (kitschy objects and bibelots), these humorous sculptures at once elevate the Zürisack to the status of precious object (not too far from the truth considering its price and important role in Zürich life) while poking fun at the fetishization of the medium in objects that are ultimately no more than junk, as bibelots ultimately are viewed in the modernist tradition[4].  Collaborating closely with a master craftsman (porcelain is a truly difficult material to create), Mark took the position of artist as conceiver in the true tradition of Dada.

Mark Divo, Kein Sack ist illegal (No Bag is Illegal), 2013, porcelain

Mark Divo, Kein Sack ist illegal (No Bag is Illegal), 2013, porcelain

Also the result of a collaboration with a potter are Pascal Häusermann’s Panoptical Portraits, a series that channel Bertelli’s iconic 1933 portrait of Mussolini but give it a contemporary twist: the continuous profiles are of Europe’s contemporary right-wing leaders.  But whereas Bertelli was keen to camouflage the ceramic quality of the material and instead gave it the metallic/machine look so glorified by the Futurists, Pascal prefers to accentuate his sculptures’ clay features and highlight their vessel-like form by painting them the beige of regular china and keeping their surface somewhat rough and rugged. The Panopticon, to which Pascal’s title refers, was an architectural solution to the prison crisis at the end of the 18th century.  It offered a way to oversee the inmates from any point in the building without their knowledge, thus minimising the need for staff.  Under the veil of “security”, in the last ten years right-wing politicians have pushed for more and more monitoring of the public sphere, which has led concerned citizens the world over to criticize the ever-more controlling governmental systems.

Pascal Häusermann, Panoptical Portraits, 2011-ongoing, various dimensions, glazed ceramic and wood pedestals

Pascal Häusermann, Panoptical Portraits, 2011-ongoing, various dimensions, glazed ceramic and wood pedestals

Moving away from the material limitations of ceramic, Mickry 3 nevertheless simulate its aesthetic and utilization: its shine and beauty, but also its tradition of replicating the appearance of yet other materials.  In their installation, a life-sized rocking chair that appears to be of fired clay painted to look like wood, is missing a piece, as if broken.  In a corner, a broom, also made from the same material, rests on the wall.  It seems that it was used to sweep up the shards of what might have been another ceramic chair, now just pieces gathered in a pile.  This work takes us into the home, where this domestic action would take place, and where ceramic objects were most likely to decorate bourgeois interiors.  It offers a humorous comment on authenticity, materiality, aesthetics, and social class.

Mickry 3, Verschaukelt (Conned), 2013, life-size, Mixed media

Mickry 3, Verschaukelt (Conned), 2013, life-size, Mixed media

Another work that alludes to the home is Aubry/Broquard’s installation of souvenir-sized replicas of modernist sculptures.  The duo photographed themselves with these public works on their international travels.  As tourists, Aubry/Broquard tried to understand what made these public sculptures, which so often become tourist “sights”, attractive or decorative.  Through the process of recreating them on a small scale, to fit on a shelf as a memento, the artist duo engaged in a personal investigation of the modernist approach to sculpture and its motivations.  This led them to also expand the concept of souvenirs, those items that function as reminders of past experiences, while making miniature replicas that are actually original sculptures in their own right.  Their ongoing project comments on the notions of public and private space, original vs. copy, function vs. decoration vs. art, social class, and the nature of art as commodity.

Aubry/Broquard, Les Modernistes, 2012-ongoing, glazed ceramic, each piece: 10″x5″x5″, installation size variable

Aubry/Broquard, Les Modernistes, 2012-ongoing, glazed ceramic, each piece: 10″x5″x5″, installation size variable


detail

detail

Christian Gonzenbach’s series of classical busts, molded in silicone then turned inside out – as their titles suggest – are reproduced in ceramic with bronze tones to reveal unexpected shapes and contours. If Hercules retains all of his massive posture, his face nevertheless appears less recognizable. Carved out noses, inversed ears, sinuous forms that might not have been obvious at first glance come to light as the precious coating of the patina and the reflections on the surface yield more information upon careful inspection[5]. This series points to the tradition of portrait sculpture (a glorified face usually made of expensive materials such as bronze or marble), which was directly linked to the wealthy, influential, and powerful.  But Christian turns this tradition upside down literally and metaphorically, and creates deformed faces that question the limits of beauty and aesthetics as a whole.

Christian Gonzenbach, from right to left, Elucreh Esenraf, 2011, glazed ceramic, Ollopa, 2012, glazed ceramic, Rehtab, 2012, glazed ceramic (all titles are spelled backwards)

Christian Gonzenbach, from right to left, Elucreh Esenraf, 2011, glazed ceramic, Ollopa, 2012, glazed ceramic, Rehtab, 2012, glazed ceramic (all titles are spelled backwards)

The ability of ceramic to replicate the appearance of other materials is further explored in Maude Schneider’s installation Concrete, a wall similar to many low-lying fortifying structures in the countryside of Biel dating back to the 17th century.  In this installation, Maude also tackles the ever-present association to functionality that ceramic never seems to shake off. She recreates a fragment of this local construction used to support the agricultural land, but once this structure is recontextualized in the gallery, it loses all utility and collapses entirely into art.  The title of the work presents a duality: it refers to the material the artist used to form the moulds for her pieces, which highlights a tension between the natural (clay) and the manmade (concrete and ceramic), but also points to the perception of fired clay’s fragility in comparison to other more modern building materials, despite its long history in construction.

Maude Schneider, Concrete, 2012, Glazed ceramic, sizes variable (wall in foreground)

Maude Schneider, Concrete, 2012, Glazed ceramic, sizes variable (wall in foreground)

Modernism is once again cited, this time by Guillaume Pilet, whose amorphous ceramic forms allude to Jean Arp and refer directly to Giacometti.  Influenced by the social nature of hobby ceramicists, Guillaume’s technique owes much to these creatives, while his references are the modern artists that mostly scorned the material.  In his work, Guillaume questions the boundaries of “fine art”, and attempts to democratize the field, expanding our notion of who can and cannot be an artist and what constitutes real contemporary art.

Guillaume Pilet, left: Nature, 2011, glazed ceramic, wood, right: Giacomelting, 2011, glazed ceramic, wood.

Guillaume Pilet, left: Nature, 2011, glazed ceramic, wood, right: Giacomelting, 2011, glazed ceramic, wood.

Ceramic’s complicated relationship with femininity, class, and aesthetics is thematized in Mai-Thu Perret’s Ah Marvelous! Ah Marvelous!  Her bumpy, unruly bright yellow wall sculpture is expressive and gestural.  It cites abstract expressionism’s rough painterly surfaces (a male dominated  movement), but alludes to the traditionally female occupations of handicraft and decoration through its materiality.  The title also recalls the affectation of the “upper classes”, especially the high society women who are so closely associated with the consumption of art and culture.  As an object, it points to beauty and its negation, and questions the boundaries between amateurism and professionalism, and craft and fine art.

Mai-Thu Perret, Ah! Marvelous, Ah!Marvelous, 2011, Glazed ceramic

Mai-Thu Perret, Ah! Marvelous, Ah!Marvelous, 2011, Glazed ceramic

The confrontation between nature and culture is strongly evoked in the work of Fabien Clerc, who mixes natural and synthetic materials to present mysterious and aesthetically engaging forms.  Fabien’s pieces combine references to vodou, Africa, and black magic to conjure disparate cultures in which pottery and other fired clay objects still play central roles in cultural production.  Identity and beauty are important subtexts in his work, where symbols of death are aestheticized and human intervention into the natural environment is also seen to be the point of departure for the artistic act.

Fabien Clerc, Hougou Badari, 2012, Porcelain, wood, rubber and feathers (foreground)

Fabien Clerc, Hougou Badari, 2012, Porcelain, wood, rubber and feathers (foreground)

The assemblage technique used by Loredana Sperini is prevalent in much contemporary art and was a subversive method first innovated by modernist artists.  She uses fragments of found ceramic figurines and recombines them in absurd, often quite unsettling configurations.  Suggestions of memories and anonymous personal histories are then transmitted through the components as they are reassembled and given new lives. This collage method allows the artist to mix craft and concept to reach a perfect balance that doesn’t overshadow the importance of either.  Loredana’s fragile and delicate work also alludes to the feminine association with ceramics, as these figurines are clearly the sort of miniatures that one might find in a vitrine.

Loredana Sperini, Untitled, 2012, porcelain, paint

Loredana Sperini, Untitled, 2012, porcelain, paint

In the work of the artists of Fire It Up we see a concern with craftsmanship, the interest in making objects that have an aesthetic force.  And yet none of the artists collapse into pure aestheticism, functionality, and decoration, but rather insist on balancing skill with concept to create contemporary sculpture that is relevant and apropos, and whose medium is embraced as the equal of other contemporary materials.

Olga Stefan is a curator and art lecturer based in Zurich, originally from Chicao.  Her projects and writings can be found online at www.olgaistefan.wordpress.com

Fire It Up: Ceramic as Material in Contemporary Sculpture, Dienstgebäude


[1] Slivka, Rose, The New Ceramic Presence, Craft Horizons,1961

[2] Adamson, Glenn, The Craft Reader, 2010

[3]Kuspit, Donald, A Critical History of 20thCentury Art, Chapter 10, Part 2, , 2006

[4] Adamson, Glenn, The Craft Reader, 2010

[5] Gonzenbach, Christian’s website

Medium as the message in craft

In the feature article for 5.1, Ann-Sophie Lehman argues that successful representations of craft highlight their own materiality. Here she writes about Simon Leach’s video demonstrating the the Japanese kikuneri wedging technique

Leach walks up to the running camera and adjusts it to the table he is kneading on (Lehmann 2009).  The resulting close-up cuts off his head and shows only his hands and arms engaged with the clay while he is talking outside the frame.  Yet it is exactly this casual mode of recording, done by Leach himself, that helps the viewer identify with the material engagement documented here. By creating an almost too close visual contact with Leach’s body and the clay, the video images—a bit shaky and not quite in focus— create a distinct impression of the force and smoothness of the kneading motion.  As a consequence, the “hand in the brain” is triggered and the demonstration of Leach’s wedging becomes very effective.

Like the hand-colored Japanese photographs, the video images of kneading clay can better be understood if their own materiality is considered alongside the material processes they show.

Here is the video:

So what’s going on here? What is this ‘hand in the brain’ that is triggered by the medium as message?