You might think, walking the aisles separating large cases of ceramics at the ASU Ceramics Research Center, that ceramic works are simply objects. Grouped by decade, they appear to be mere artifacts from bygone days. Some are functional, decorative, or both. But few beckon viewers to consider the fluid nature of the craft, or the processes undertaken to render their final forms.
Most folks seldom consider ceramics within their context — which includes the artists who’ve made them, the historical and contemporary cultural milieu, and the processes used to effect change in organic or man-made materials. The exhibition “Recorded Matter: Ceramics in Motion,” the first curated for the Ceramics Research Center by its new curator Garth Johnson, has the potential to change our perceptions.
When we arrived at the Ceramics Research Center to talk with Johnson last month, we found him taking two longtime CRC supporters through the exhibition. They stayed for more than an hour, listening intently as he explained with measured passion the various works featured in the show.
Johnson, who came to CRC in December of 2014 from a curator of artistic programs position at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia, clearly feels called to champion the cause of contemporary ceramics and other craft. In addition to creating and curating ceramics, he’s spent many years as a writer and educator. You'll find a portion of his own body of work on the Extreme Craft website.
For his first exhibition at the Ceramics Research Center, Johnson selected four works with accompanying videos, plus several additional videos that run on a continuous loop. We’ve seen far too many exhibitions that incorporate videos or other technology merely as an appendage meant to up the hip or trendy factor. But “Recorded Matter: Ceramics in Motion” features technology that’s useful in demonstrating several of the points we gleaned while listening to Johnson talk shop.
Contemporary ceramic art is diverse, just like the artists who make it. Ceramic artists incorporate technology into their practice in inventive ways, with intriguing results. And the field has a long tradition of what Johnson calls “humor and subversion.” Most people don’t see that in their grandmother’s favorite figurine, or the ceramic vessel that adorns their dining room table. But it’s evident here, making this exhibition truly revelatory for those who’ve never seen the full measure of play within the clay.
Cheyenne Rudolph, who says growing up in a small Tennessee town inspired her to find ways to express her individuality, created a work she calls Center-Peas with Personal Pea-Eaters, comprising small scoops that make the eating of peas a less messy affair. It’s exhibited with her Center-Peas infomercial, which delivers helpful tips for avoiding pea-mess with a humorous dash of sexual innuendo.
Joseph Kamm crafted four porcelain juggling clubs, which are exhibited with his Dangerous Games video featuring members of the Kansas City Juggling Club working with clubs, balls, and other objects created by Kamm. Forrest Sincoff Gard created four ceramic hats and wall-mounted posts that conjure memories of ring toss-style carnival games, which are exhibited with a video showing people throwing the ceramic hats as if playing such a game.
A final ceramic and video pairing, by artists Thomas Schmidt and Jeffrey Miller, shows the process of crushing porcelain plates with a steamroller and a mixed media work created with some of the pieces. In several cases, viewers see works of art – including porcelain skate decks by Man Yau – get destroyed. One video, Percolation Theory by Ben Harle, shows the slow erosion of an unglazed terracotta vessel exposed over time to a steady stream of water.
For Johnson, incorporating video into exhibitions is both artistic choice and practical matter. “It’s a way to show artists from other countries without shipping their work in.” And that, he says, saves money.
Johnson says six or seven works featured in “Recorded Matter: Ceramics in Motion” were part of an exhibition proposal he submitted for the 2014 Taiwan Biennale Ceramics, which was a finalist but not ultimately selected. He notes that several themes are reflected in this exhibition — including time, process, and the use and abuse of materials.
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Our favorites include Eva Vogelsang’s My Wall, which depicts the artist wrapping herself inside a tower of clay coils, and Roberto Lugo’s Ghetto is Resourceful, which shows the artist working amidst graffiti-laden walls to create his own pottery wheel using found objects. Accompanied by the soft soundtrack of Lugo describing his own troubled youth, it’s a moving testament to art’s power to save lives.
“Recorded Matter: Ceramics in Motion” also includes Sam Brennan’s MOIRÉ video, in which a clay form seems to behave in an unexpected way, and Jason Lee Starin’s This Amorphous Moment showing two hands working a piece of clay. You’ll need a good hour to watch every video included in this exhibition, but it’s time well spent. The exhibition is filled with insight into materials and processes, but there’s something more profound at play: the potential to awaken viewers' primal sense of connection to the earth, and appreciation for the many ways this connection serves to sustain individuals and communities.
“Recorded Matter: Ceramics in Motion” continues through July 11 at the ASU Ceramics Research Center located at the ASU Art Museum Brickyard. Find more information on the ASU Art Museum website.