Ceramics in the Expanded Field, 17-19 July 2014

The three-year AHRC funded project at the University of Westminster, Ceramics in the Expanded Field, culminated with an international conference from 17 – 19 July and an accompanying exhibition in Ambika P3 gallery by the three lead researchers of the project: Christie Brown, Julian Stair and Clare Twomey. Over the course of the last three years the project has explored the new contexts for ceramic practice, whether through the participatory, reciprocal artwork of Clare Twomey (see Exchange at the Foundling Museum) or Christie Brown’s collaboration with the Sigmund Freud Museum, where her inquisitive figures were placed in and around Freud’s personal effects. What are the potential and limitations of the expanded field, when clay moves beyond the plinth and studio in to different artistic, pedagogical, museological and performative contexts.

The conference opened with a keynote by the widely acclaimed Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates. With the aid of a flip-board, and the lantern slide collection depicting the ‘minor arts’ of the University of Chicago’s collection – shards of Minoan, Greek and Roman pottery – Gates questioned whether the field needed to expand, and whether instead, ceramic practice needed to make sure it did not forget ignored parts of the field that already existed.

Gates gave a precis of his work in Chicago’s south side, critiqued the often staid, middle class contexts of ceramic practice, and toyed with the idea of ‘making fields plastic’. His call was for a socially orientated practice and the development of knowledge, not through conventional forms of instruction but through material itself, which he characterised as ‘knowledge gained through the back door’. These calls for action to prevent the ‘field’ from collapsing in on itself was skilfully presented through constant analogies back to familial contexts of agricultural production.

Gates’s keynote was earthy, a plea for community production, and chance to express his love of of bricks (‘I just love bricks’). His energies intensified after a slow start where Gates seemed to be gauging his audience. The best was saved for last: two mini exegeses, one on his adoption of a Japanese pseudonym to promote his work, and the other on money, showed Gates jumping about and engaging the audience. Energetic and dynamic, Gates is turning heads and directing attention towards economies of production, artistic and otherwise, and both his analysis and his fame will help keep the elastic that demarcates where the field of ceramics ends and begins well and truly stretched.

Listening to craft in dialogue

I would like to thank everyone on Facebook’s Critical Craft Forum for so many thoughtful, useful contributions on my last set of, and expand upon some of my remarks.

My concerns have to do with the fact that craft and material culture histories have only VERY recently (last ten years or so) been taken up by critically-oriented scholars and curators. Much of our field’s history is mired in a half-century of connoisseurship and object-driven analysis. Now, I may get people jumping down my throat regarding this last—object-driven analysis, but I would like to point out that singular objects—seemingly the raison-d’etre for craft history—are no longer driving the field.

Wendell Castle Music Rack, 1964, photo: John Ferrari

Wendell Castle Music Rack, 1964, photo: John Ferrari

Let’s take, for example, a classic object like Wendell Castle’s music stand, or even Garth’s rhapsodic commentary on a singular Peter Voulkos stack. I too could go on and on about the significance of the music stand, its biomorphic punning, its significant melding of form and function, etc etc., what I would be missing is the object’s circulation in the wider world of ideas. How, for instance, the music stand is made of stack-laminated wood, circa 1964. Castle’s essential plasticking of wood and his later coated fiberglass pieces are sculptural, exploratory, and reject traditional techniques, opting for new and clever materialities alongside a more well-known and more lavishly celebrated, but lesser craftsman, Donald Judd. As an art historian, it is this comparison that is much more important to make, than a stand-alone interpretation. Further, Castle’s music stands have never been put in dialogue with the avant-garde or experiments in electronica, atonality, and avant-garde music that was so prominent throughout the 1960s in the Northeast (where Castle was located) and Western Europe, ie, John Cage, Pierre Boulez, David Tudor, Morton Feldman, Alvin Lucier.

What I am getting at, is that Castle’s music stand reconsidered within this context is so much more interesting than its hand feel and its shape alone. Castle—and a host of other craftspeople-have never been complexly or richly re-situated in their own place and time. This is the work to which I am referring—the serious, scholarly pursuit of relational situations, ideas, zeitgeists, and circles of influence. This is the kind of work I mean, when I say that the writing in our field has not yet caught up to the sophisticated conceptual work being made now, in 2011.

More than ever, I believe, artists are invested in their current conception of place and time, because they continually evolve forward in their own trajectories and oeuvres. But good scholarship and brave writing traces a path less backward than sideways, making multiple footpaths alongside each other, so that there isn’t just one path with two directions, but infinite concurrent and disparate routes—some more direct, others more circuitous, and still others dead-end. But this is the spirit of research—process. Who but an artist could relate?

Creating a new craft culture

As expected, the recent American Craft Council conference Creating a new Craft Culture, generated much lively debate. This event seemed to provide a stage for the confrontation between two very different craft cultures: the older studio model of individual craftsperson contributing unique works to the field of craft, versus the new renegade model of craft collectivities engaging with the issues of the day. It may be too early to find a clear outcome for this encounter, but it sets up an important argument about contemporary craft in years to come.

The opposition between craft and DIY relates quite closely to the current issue in the Journal of Modern Craft, which considers how the current politicisation of craft engages with the history of the craft movement.

As a flavour of the new position, here’s a reflection on the conference written especially for JMC by craft blogger Harriete Estel:

The D.I.Y. movement is reinventing the American Craft scene in its approach to the marketplace.  The D.I.Y. ‘ers grew up with the Internet and know how to connect with a wider audience.  They engage their community and the general public with their accessibility and enthusiasm in the making of handmade objects.  By empowering artists to reach out and be found by any person interested in their media or work, the Internet demolishes the monopoly of the traditional gallery and the limitation of available pedestal space.  Art and craft no longer needs to be a rarified environment.  All studio craft can benefit from this new dynamic and all should embrace this new potential.   The Internet and the D.I.Y. movement have forever expanded the art and craft universe.

That’s quite a challenging position. It resonates well with Faythe Levine’s contributions to this site. You can read more of Harriete’s views from her blog here.