Pot Bust

Ceramics exhibition won't bowl you over

"Domestic Pottery," the title of the current show at the Joanne Rapp Gallery, seems less a holiday sales pitch than a lesson in how far the reputation of useful, handmade pottery has sunk in the past 50 years. Praised through mid-century as the art of the people, it was gradually pushed aside by a flotilla of ceramic "vessels" and sculpture made to be seen exclusively as art.

An ironic turn, considering the humble pot, as romantics call it, was once widely viewed as just about every culture's most revealing product. Attached as it was to daily needs, it offered more than a touchstone of a civilization's standards of craftsmanship and design. It often provided the most telling and enduring proof of distant lives, beliefs and values. The ancient Greeks and Mayans invested their ceremonial pottery with pictorial narratives of social and religious events. The ancient Chinese, Native American and many other civilizations buried their eminences and loved ones with wares that would serve them in their afterlife.

Yet good pottery also offered plenty for the living. The distinguished British art historian Sir Herbert Read once called it "the most abstract of all the arts." Presumably, that's why, up until shortly after the War, such institutions as New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Baltimore Museum of Art and Minneapolis' Walker Art Center regularly exhibited functional works by modern studio potters.

Then, poof: Newness and novelty swept into the art market. And handmade pottery came to be seen by many as an artsy-craftsy throwback--too nostalgic to be avant-garde, too small and sensual and preoccupied with being useful to carry the rigorous, oversize concepts expected of highfalutin art.

It would be easy to attribute this change to the drab meniality our culture attaches to housework, or the assault contemporary art is expected to mount against all remnants of tradition. But the more complex reason is the dramatic chasm modern culture has opened between practical and spiritual things.

Somewhere along the road to the present, objects made to serve everyday food and drink were deemed unworthy to serve the soul. Peter Voulkos, leader of the Los Angeles ceramic vanguard that altered the postwar character of American ceramics, said as much in 1956, declaring, "When you come right down to it, I have a very selfish attitude--I don't really make pots for people, but to satisfy myself."

Many craft historians and critics say this shift in emphasis from what the urban and cultural historian Lewis Mumford once smartly tagged as "things of use with no other meaning" to things of meaning with no other use has marked pottery's leap from craft to art.

However, Rapp's small representation of works by some of today's better potters shows that useful pottery continues to offer the same subtle opportunities for art and expression that it always has.

This is the second year that Rapp has devoted a holiday show to functional ceramics. And this show is as odd as the first one. It contains some ceramics having little to do with practical use. Some of the potters aren't represented by their best work. And the pottery is jammed into one room with the hodgepodge carelessness you'd expect from an outfit that doesn't know any better.

Works that deserve to be seen in the round, for example, are stuck against walls. Others that need to be viewed above the waist, where you'd ordinarily carry and use them, are displayed below the knee. What better way to convey the message that exhibiting functional ware is more a matter of boosting holiday sales than aesthetics?

Many of the better works here reveal that the modern effort to infuse old forms with new thinking has led potters to focus on the quiet visual and actual ceremony--diminishing yearly--attached to serving, drinking and eating.

Val Cushing, a leading proponent of functional ceramics who has several fine pots in the show, says a key consideration in good functional ware is its tactile impression. "We're a very visual culture. There's no doubt about that," he says, "but I've often found that what you look for and value in pottery is not always what you see. A lot of its pleasure and meaning comes from what's implied."

He sees the subtle architecture and coloring of forms--the way their walls undulate, and handles, flutings and other features interact--as "things that can connect strongly and in the broadest sense with the meaning of touch and sensuality. And not just the erotic connotations of sensuality, but the way the hand uses and connects with beautifully done objects."

You can feel that in the well-balanced weight of Cushing's own tureen and bowls, or the way the elliptical handles of Elisa Helland-Hansen's pitchers greet the hand, or William Brouillard's cups and plates on trivets and stands elevate drinking and eating to a ceremonial or contemplative pause from the day.

The truth about most ancient pottery seen in museums is that it once lived more or less the same life as your morning coffee mug. Long before it was reduced to a visual object in a showcase, it was held and used and reused. And that intimate contact helped to determine the pottery's appearance.

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