I am excited to announce that next week (Friday, February 26th), The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, MO, will open NCECA’s 2016 Invitational exhibition “Unconventional Clay: Engaged in Change.” Co-curated by the museum’s Director of Curatorial Affairs Catherine Futter and myself, the exhibition will feature the works of 24 artists who are pushing the boundaries of the medium and exploring connections between clay, art, process and social issues. The exhibition is being installed as I sit here in my Clay Art Center office in Port Chester, NY, and I find myself wishing I were a fly on the wall of the Project Space and adjoining galleries, where the exhibition is taking shape.
When I came onto NCECA’s board as their Exhibitions Director in 2013, I was excited yet nervous at the prospect of working with Catherine Futter and the Nelson-Atkins. While I have been curating exhibitions for 19 years for galleries and arts organizations, I had not yet had the opportunity to curate an exhibition of this stature for a museum. But my apprehension was quelled in our first meeting well over a year ago, when we met at the Marriott during one of NCECA’s board meetings in Kansas City. Right away we were in sync – wanting to focus on artists who were using clay in unconventional ways, and whose work had not been overexposed in the field or at NCECA. We both came to the table with names of artists that we wanted to consider, and found ourselves immersed in process – arriving rather quickly with a theme that brought together artists whose approaches fell outside of the traditional realms of “making” in clay.
so much is happening with this versatile medium: in form, function, process, engagement and, even, permanence.
We have strived to include artists who are using clay as a material, not an end in-and-of itself. Unconventional Clay allowed us to think about how the material is being used in dynamic, interactive and innovative ways. Our challenge was that there is so much exciting work being done—how could we narrow down our choices? How could we indicate all the different manifestations of something that is ‘unconventional’?
“We started by identifying works that are avant garde in the process of production, from 3-d printers to digital programs employed to design forms, molds and decals. We also looked for artists who are investigating unconventional ideas about clay as a material. Bryan Czibesz, together with Shawn Spangler, are using 3-d printers to fabricate works that would be impossible to throw, manipulate by hand or create with molds. Thomas Schmidt and Andy Brayman each use digital programs to design forms and decals, with Brayman exploring notions of mobility, history and technology.
Mika Negishi Laidlaw with her partners David and Steve Ryan incorporate video with clay in an otherworldly installation that interacts with the public. Abstract ceramic hands adorn the wall. On each hand is a video projection of an eye. As you walk closer the eyes will follow your movements. And then the eyes will close as you walk away. Also working with video is Ben Harle, who “constructs, destroys, reforms and captures on video the ephemeral nature of ceramics and ideas of permanence.”
We chose several artists because of their incorporation of unusual materials and media into their works. “Ensconced in the predicaments of our political present, Adam Shiverdecker awes us with life-size ceramic deconstructions of a Lear Jet using wire, slip and glaze.” You will find it hanging from the ceiling in the center of the gallery. “Anthony Stellaccio, on the other hand, materializes the past, using earth from personally significant locations to fashion memento mori. Dylan Beck and Adams Puryear each introduce unfamiliar media, such as goo, to expand the notions of what is ceramics today. While clay has been used to create musical instruments for millennia, Joey Watson transforms the pot into a vessel for the breath and multisensory experiences like nothing we have heard before.” Joey Watson will give a live performance the night of the opening during the conference. I can’t wait.
A highlight of our investigation was a visit to Tom Sach’s studio in SoHo Manhattan. As we meandered through his 3 story complex, outfitted floor to ceiling with works of art, a multitude of machines and tools for various mediums, and even more books and found objects, Tom Sachs captured the theme of the exhibition in the statement: “I want porcelain to be one of my iconic materials like plywood and duct tape.” In the exhibit, you will see his “hand-worked tea bowls ironically emblazoned with a NASA symbol and the rendering of an 18th-century French ceramic vase in paper, screws and shoelaces.” They’re exquisite, they’re playful, they’re fresh.
We were equally entranced when we visited the high-ceilinged bright Brooklyn studio of Beth Katleman, whose complex wall installations recall and re-create children’s storybooks, English 18th-century wallpapers and ceramic figurines. In her studio were bins and bins and shelves and shelves of dolls, figurines and toys that she had collected over the years. From these fanciful objects she creates molds for slip casting, then re-defines their existence as she places them amongst each other in her elaborate sculptural wall configurations.
Other artists who enjoy using an overabundance of objects and parts are Trisha Coates, Zemer Peled and Robert Harrison. “Trisha Coates constructs complicated, layered panels of cast porcelain objects that invite us to create our own narratives. Zemer Peled painstakingly builds dazzling sculptures made of porcelain shards. Robert Harrison configures industrial ceramic pipes with found ceramics to create a dialogue between fine and low art. Nathan Mabry uses the opposite approach. He plays with art history, simplifying and re-interpreting pre-contact Mezo-American ceramics by unifying them with pedestals inspired by the “stacks” and “boxes” of Donald Judd.
Another unconventional approach that we wanted to be sure to include in the exhibition was found in Ehren Tool. Ehren, a Marine veteran of the Gulf War uses the material of clay to reach out to the community to start conversations about war. He makes cups with a mission, and gives away every one of them as part of his process. Tool says of his own work, “The images on the cups are often graphic and hard to look at. You may be for or against a particular war but I think it is too easy for us to look away. I think we as a country and as humans should look at what is actually going on. … I would like my work to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the world. That is a lot to ask of a cup…” Ehren will be in residence at the Nelson Atkins March 5-6, making cups and engaging local veterans. He calls each of his residencies around the country an “Occupation.” Brilliant.
Tool’s approach to the medium through community outreach encouraged Catherine and I to consider other art-activists, whose works are intentional platforms to expose important political and social justice issues. We found this in the works of Simone Leigh, Dustin Yeager and Carrie Reichardt.
While I would have loved to criss-cross the country to visit everyone’s studios, most of our research was done online, and seven artists were chosen from NCECA’s call for entry. One of those artists was Chase Grover. Right away his delicate works captured our attention. How did he make this work? We began conversations with him, and he agreed to make a new work for the exhibition. I was so focused on his work, I did not take the time to learn more about Chase himself. Come to find out, he has been struggling with a life-long heart condition, and he was as delicate as his work. I was shocked to learn that a few days after shipping his piece off to the Nelson Atkins for our exhibition, he had succumbed to his illness. It seems ironic, now, that we had chosen a detail of Chase’s work to represent the exhibition on the cover of the 2016 NCECA Invitational catalog. We chose him because his work captured everything that we were looking for in this exhibition – it made you ask questions.
I have only just touched on all that you will see in “Unconventional Clay: Engaged in Change” and have to thank Catherine Futter and her team at the Nelson-Atkins, who took on the lion’s share of the logistics for this exhibition. I hope you are as excited to explore the exhibition as I am. Join us for the opening reception at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art on Thursday, March 17th from 6-8pm, with a brief welcome and gallery talk at 6pm. See you in Kansas City!