Oolong Story

Tempe Tea Party steeped in tradition

There was an angry one in Boston harbor, a Mad one in Alice's wonderland. Now comes the Tempe Tea Party--a diverse assembly of artworks related to tea. It is the third such bash hosted by the Tempe Arts Center in the past six years. Its cups, saucers, jewelry, books, sculpture and teapots--lots of teapots--are more Mad Hatter than revolutionary. And their blend of invention and whimsy tells as much about the visual and practical traditions of tea ware as it does about how contemporary artists view them. Patty Haberman, the art center's curator, says the show originally grew out of her own interest in teapots: "I've been collecting them for quite a while, and in the early 1990s, I began to notice that more and more artists were experimenting with different forms for the pot."

Haberman says that since the first show, in 1992, the teapot shows have attracted between 100 and 200 applicants from all over the United States. This year's selection showcases more than 50 works by 28 artists, chosen by Heather Lineberry, head curator at Arizona State University's Art Museum--which has its own substantial collection of teapots and other ceramics--and Kurt Weiser, an ASU professor of ceramics. It's hardly surprising that most of the works are teapots made from clay. Since its invention during the Chinese Ming dynasty (14th-16th centuries), the teapot has been among the most interesting and vital ceramic objects. Weiser attributes some of that to the fact that "it's obviously a very familiar, easy-to-recognize form. But it's also pretty versatile and complicated. The size, shape and proportions of the body, lid, spout, handle and foot give you a lot to consider and balance. And by changing any one of those elements, you can change the character of the whole form."

Up until fairly recently, artists and craftspeople tended to view this balance as both an aesthetic and a practical matter. The parts not only had to look right, but feel right. Handles had to fit the hand. Pots couldn't be so large as to be unwieldy. Lids had to fit and provide a sure grip. And spouts had to flow with dripless perfection. But in the past 30 years, many artists have abandoned such utilitarian considerations. Too large, too small, too delicate and occasionally too goofy, with handles and spouts not designed to function, most of the teapots in this show wouldn't be terribly handy around the table or kitchen. Containers for ideas, their primary purpose is to catch the eye.

They succeed in varied ways. Some take the form of cartoons, people, animals and vegetables. Others were made to look like machines, paint tubes, fuel cans and abstract configurations--such as Jim Connel's combinations of odd-shaped lobes--which aren't so easy to categorize. It's tempting to say that George Parker's several utilitarian teapots--among the very few truly useful works in the show--represent the "more traditional" version of tea ware. But the only tradition in the 600-year history of teapots is the wide range of innovative examples made to look like anything and everything.

Miguel Alarcon's brown, unglazed "Radial Teapot" and "Lunar Teapot," for example, are takeoffs on Chinese Yixing pottery, which dates from the 1500s (the Phoenix Art Museum hosted a fine show of it in 1990). Like the Yixing potters, Alarcon has a model-maker's eye for the miniature scene. The Chinese craftsmen used their precision to mimic bundles of bamboo, magnolia and lotus blossoms, chrysanthemums, and a host of other natural and everyday forms. Alarcon applies his in the cause of subtle humor and irony. The lid for his "Lunar Teapot" is an upended satellite, and the pot's moony surface is meticulously detailed with craters and tracks from skidding meteors.

An even more riveting piece of precision is Keisuke Mizuno's gourd-shaped teapot covered with snails. A mix of Yixing, Salvador Dali and the outlandish novelty teapots made by English potters in the 18th and 19th centuries, it is a complete botanical and zoological fantasy. Mizuno's fanatic effort to make every detail of the piece believable aims to convince you that this is one fantasy that's come to life. He's overlooked nothing. The colors and pattern on the underside of the large leaf beneath the gourd, for instance, have an almost cellular accuracy. And he poked and scratched the very end of the leaf's stem to give it the raw, woody appearance of one torn from a tree.

Betsy Rosenmiller and Lisa Mandelkern take a slightly less fanatical approach to botanical reality. Rosenmiller's tea set is in the form of rolled leaves. Mandelkern's art-nouveau-style teapots are filled with floral patterns. Although there are obvious differences between their approaches, they are focused on the subtle interplay of surface and form. They underscore the organic affinity teapots share with the shapes and forms of living things. This affinity appears wherever pots in this show mimic animals, plants and people. Yet it also shows up in the show's machine-related teapots. As in Alarcón's "Radial Teapot," the various elements of Margaret Realica's "The Pump" and Steve Gamza's fuel-can teapot have a beautiful fit--as if they actually grew into place.

What emerges from these works is a sense that the teapot is to potters and other artisans what the human figure has been to painters and sculptors: a form whose structure and proportions permit almost limitless renewal and variation.

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