Contemporary ceramic artists combine craft tradition with boundary-pushing creativity.
Punk ceramicist Takuro Kuwata fits quite nicely into the world of contemporary art. His works are mysterious, both visually and technically. They hold the secret of the artist’s methods within them (Kuwata does not completely reveal the techniques he utilizes to achieve his unique results), finding a clever, rhyming dimension in a medium that often took the form of vessels and containers. The young Kuwata studied with masters of classical Japanese ceramics, but his works represent a mutation of the traditional into a new, hybridized state that learns from the past while embracing the experimentation, and sometimes chaos, that progress requires. “He is playing off of very traditional ceramic practices,” says Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, owner of New York’s Salon 94 gallery, “but he goes to huge extremes. There is something in his work that is a kind of magic work, which everybody knows happens in the kiln, but they don’t know how it happens. So there’s an alchemy with his work that people are amazed at and a secrecy of how he achieves his results.”
Indeed some of Kuwata’s works explode in the kiln, the result being an almost Futurist freeze-frame of violent action as well as a postmodern document of object as record of its own making. There are elements of Kuwata’s work for both the eyes and the mind to chew on. A porcelain, glaze, pigment, and steel Tea Bowl from 2017, featured in a current exhibition at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, seems to melt before the viewer’s eyes like pink ice cream, unstable and soft yet holding its form. Its appearance is far from the slick and gleaming surfaces of many ceramic works.
Contemporary ceramicists such as Kuwata are keeping alive a craft practiced since humankind got into the business of making things out of the materials that constituted their physical world. Ceramics are maybe the most fundamental of all humanity’s physical, intellectual endeavors—a direct transformation of raw earth into something new born of human hands and the human mind.
These artists’ sculptural works however, position themselves at a unique crossroads of design utility and fine art. Ceramics might not be the first thing that comes to mind when someone says “contemporary art.” However, one of contemporary art’s most iconic works, Judy Chicago’s mixed media installation The Dinner Party, places ceramics in a privileged place. This feminist masterwork celebrates and problematizes ceramics’ historical identity as craft or “women’s work.” The fine and laborious craftsmanship associated with the medium, as well as its basic utility, seem at first glance anathema to the heavily conceptual and didactic works that are considered under the rubric of “contemporary art.” However, once the fundamental nature of the material and process are taken into account—its balancing of the historical and the experimental along with its three-dimensionality and uniquely tactile character—the ceramic works of today begin to appear right at home on the cutting edge.
In fact, ceramics have been on the cutting edge of American art for several decades now. Jeffrey Spahn, a Berkeley, Calif.-based specialist in studio ceramics, cites Peter Voulkos and John Mason, two key ceramicists who started out in the 1950s, within the context of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Mason showed at the legendary Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, which was at the forefront of several important art currents of the late ’50s and early ’60s. Spahn says, “It’s only now, in the new millennium, that the fine-art world is recognizing that ceramics was part of that mix right from the very beginning, that it was and always will be part of the fine arts.” In the past decade, rising prices in the market have reflected that recognition; in December 2017 at the Phillips auction house in New York, a piece by Voulkos—who Spahn says “has always been considered the leader in contemporary ceramics”—sold for a record-breaking $915,000.
At the art world’s top international fairs, visitors may encounter contemporary ceramic works from New York’s Jason Jacques Gallery. These fairs, with their high volume of visitors and collectors, have helped introduce the gallery’s artists and their works to a wider audience. “We participate in about a half dozen fairs internationally,” notes director Jason Busch. “Some of them are art fairs, some of them are design fairs, and some are more a combination of the two and have a historic element, like the Winter Antiques Show in New York or TEFAF in Maastricht. But we’re participating in Frieze in New York, and it’s one of the best contemporary art fairs in the world. There’s certainly clay that finds its way there, but we’re really proud to be a gallery that really focuses on clay and ceramics.”
Jason Jacques offers some ceramics by late 19th-century French masters such as Ernest Chaplet and Pierre-Adrien Dalpayrat, as well, but the focus is on contemporary works. Some of the offerings may be accompanied by a hefty price tag. Contemporary ceramic works however, offer an entry point for beginning collectors looking to enter the market. “We’re selling things that are in the six-figure sums, but there’s plenty to buy for less than $50,000,” Busch points out. “Of course, we want to be able to promote artists, and raising their reputation also means prices tend to rise, as well, but we help to nurture those careers and give them the exposure they really need—at the gallery, at the art fairs, potentially even with a museum exhibition, and we’ve been a part of all three.” This approach helps foster an environment that benefits emerging artists by giving them greater visibility and collectability, and collectors who are looking to buy something that fits their budget.
In the gallery’s recent show, “In Focus: Eric Serritella,” the artist makes a telling statement about the medium and its deep connection to the natural world. The works on display are large-scale ceramic sculptures of weathered logs and birch trees, creating a frozen forest in the gallery space. There is something magical and pointed about earth or clay being transmuted into a representation of another natural, living thing. These sculptures have a simple, philosophical beauty. The ceramic birches evoke a Taoist perspective on the relationship between the parts and whole that makes up all things, and the inevitable, illusory changes that constitute what we see as “form.” Earth becomes wood in the heat of the kiln and under the pressure of time, but in the end, the exhibition points to a single, indivisible one which produces endless manifestations.
The Boca Raton Museum of Art’s current exhibition, “Regarding George Ohr: Contemporary Ceramics in the Spirit of the Mad Potter” (through April 8), creates a bridge between the work of the self-professed “Mad Potter” of Biloxi, Miss., and the current avant-garde of contemporary ceramicists. Ohr’s experimentation and innovation with clay forms at the turn of the 20th century have led some to see his work as a precursor to the Abstract Expressionist movement, and artists such as Kuwata and the late Betty Woodman can be seen as his spiritual successors. The museum’s show presents 24 of Ohr’s works (some on public display for the first time) along with a cross-section of contemporary ceramic works by artists including Ron Nagle, Gareth Mason, Brian Rochefort, Ken Price, and Peter Voulkos, building a bridge from Ohr, the legendary iconoclast, and his boundary-pushing work to the artists of today. Like Ohr, many of these walk a tightrope, keeping the knowledge held in tradition alive and in practice, while dismissing or and reinventing it when their vision necessitates something new. The balance is fascinating, bringing forms to the very edge of visual coherence and physical stability.
Ohr’s fired and painted clay Tall dark incised vase (1895–circa 1900) stands like an alien plant form waiting for an unsuspecting insect to land. The greens and dark brown are veined and pervade what might be called the “stem,” yet the base is almost Near Eastern in its cupola shape and symmetrical perfection. The work is a vessel pulled straight from the imagination, strange and yet at the same time conforming to some inner sense of form. Ohr’s fired and painted clay Very tall, mottled two-handled vase (1895–circa 1900) also appears to live. Its handles do not conform to the rule of symmetry, and the because of this, the work seems to grow and stretch before our eyes. There is a pull to the shape, a visual elasticity that is an almost perfect illusion of stretching.
More and more contemporary ceramicists continue to emerge today. “Magdalena Suarez Frimkess and Michael Frimkess were virtually disregarded in the art world eight years ago, and now they are some of the most highly collected,” says Jayson Lawfer, the director of Chicago’s The Nevica Project, a gallery specializing in ceramic works. “Branan Mercer is a potter who makes simple and exquisite forms. Lauren Mabry makes simple forms with painterly surfaces that find themselves in the craft and fine art collections. New Zealand potter Aaron Scythe is doing some exciting functional works that really cross traditions and have a heavy influence from his extensive training in Japan.”
The world of contemporary ceramics appears to differ from the contemporary fine art market at large, to some extent. “The widely noted ceramic market differs because it is particularly based on craft and technique.” says Lawfer. “The fine-art market does not care about the kiln firing, the amount of grog in the clay or the glaze layers you apply. They care about the piece as a concluded creation.” The history folded into each ceramic work sustains its connection to its heritage but may not appear to the naked eye of most viewers. This is what constitutes the unique double life of contemporary ceramics—they are wildly sensual, visually exciting tactile objects, but each new creation stems from a learned set of traditions and processes that lend them their immense value as art objects. This is the magic of contemporary ceramics—the mingling of the past and future, the visible and the invisible.
By Chris Shields