Despite the brutal cold, a few hardy ceramicists made their way up to the Lynden Sculpture Garden here in Milwaukee for the January 26th, 2014 soft opening of our NCECA exhibition, The Mingei Tradition in the Midwest: Warren MacKenzie and Beyond   The exhibition design by Michael Mikulay is stunning, and we are all training ourselves to walk through the gallery with our hands in our pockets to resist the call of so many beautiful, tactile objects.

I knew very little about Midwestern ceramics when Lynden artist-in-residence Linda Wervey Vitamvas came to me back in the summer of 2012 to suggest that we plan an exhibition in conjunction with the NCECA conference. After discovering a common interest in the work of Bernard Leach, Linda explained that Leach was connected to contemporary ceramic practice in the Midwest through Warren Mackenzie. Sitting on a bench in the sculpture garden (hard to even imagine that right now), we decided to build the exhibition around the work of MacKenzie.

From its inception, Mingei ceramic practice has had an ambivalent relationship with the notion of the master. The early Mingei manifestos drew on the belief of John Ruskin and William Morris in the transformative power of simple, beautiful, functional, objects, but they located these essential forms in an anonymous folk memory. Nonetheless, master potters like Shoji Hamada and Bernard Leach—who served as a conduit between British and Japanese potters—were extremely influential and the individuality of their work was highly prized.

Warren MacKenzie left Minnesota for St. Ives in the late ‘40s to apprentice himself to Leach, and on his return established a ceramics program at the University of Minnesota, and a pottery of his own, that became the nucleus of a Midwestern Mingei tradition. An undisputed master, MacKenzie has hewn closely to many of the original Mingei ideals, living a simple life, sitting at his wheel every day, producing an infinite series of variations on a small repertoire of functional forms.

MacKenzie, who turns 90 on February 16, was not interested in a solo show, simply agreeing to give us “a few pieces” for the exhibition. (In addition to the twenty-three works he ultimately loaned us, there are five pieces from the Milwaukee Art Museum.) He suggested that we focus instead on his students, and in the end–we have limited gallery space–we narrowed the field to Randy Johnston, Jan McKeachie Johnston and Mark Pharis, three ceramicists trained or influenced by MacKenzie who have made creative adaptations to the living tradition as it continues to thrive in the Midwest. Thus began a series of visits to the area that straddles the St. Croix River–Stillwater, Minnesota, and Roberts and River Falls Wisconsin–some in delightful June conditions, others in the dead of winter.

The historical thread connecting Leach with the Midwest remained important, and MacKenzie generously identified work in the collection of the Weisman Museum in Minneapolis that enabled us to extend the exhibition into a three-generation survey that included work by MacKenzie’s teachers, Leach and Hamada. The exhibition is organized into a series of four islands and two vitrines (for the museum works). In the center is work from MacKenzie’s latest firing: cups, bowls, covered jars, a platter. One island explores the sculptural tendency in Randy Johnston’s work, while Jan McKeachie Johnston’s installation resembles a futuristic cityscape of predominantly vertical forms. Mark Pharis is showing early and recent work, as well as a collage from 2009: a mini-survey of the concerns with form, surface decoration, and modes of production that have been his preoccupation for decades.

If it is clear that Mingei has become an inadequate term to describe the practices of the third-generation artists, the physical proximity of the work in a single gallery space is as illuminating about commonalities as it is about differences. And the location of that gallery in a sculpture garden sparks additional dialogues. Although there are obvious parallels between the concerns of some of the artists in this exhibition and the sculptors whose work is on display outdoors–Lynden’s permanent collection of more than 50 monumental sculptures dates almost entirely from the ’60s and ’70s–we are just beginning to discover some of the subtler resonances. One only has to look at Randy Johnston’s stacked box with its rich turquoise glaze and ruddy lines between the layers to think about the varied patinas on Barbara Hepworth’s bronze sculpture, Sea Form (Atlantic), visible through the window.

The festivities surrounding the exhibition will take place in March during NCECA: a visit by the collectors’ tour; a reception on March 20 (Mark Pharis, Randy Johnston, and Jan McKeachie Johnston will all be in attendance at various times that evening); a stop on the bus tour. But if you’re in spitting distance of Milwaukee, I urge you to stop in to see the exhibition ahead of time, when the gallery is peaceful and the light that reflects off the snow illuminates this room of simple, beautiful objects.

The Mingei Tradition in the Midwest: Warren MacKenzie and Beyond: January 26-March 30, 2014

Lynden Sculpture Garden

2145 West Brown Deer Road

Milwaukee, WI 53217

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