The “2015 NCECA National Student Juried Exhibition,” which was on view in Providence, Rhode Island, at the Sol Koffler Graduate Gallery (www.risd.edu/About/Galleries_Exhibitions/Sol_Koffler) on the Rhode Island School of Design’s campus, showcased a well-balanced blend of functional, sculptural, minimalist, abstract, figurative, and conceptual ceramic works by 27 graduate students, 8 undergraduate students, and 2 post-baccalaureates.
One of the things that struck me as I experienced the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference this spring, was a possible trending in engagement with geometry and patterning. The student exhibition was a case in point. I was fascinated by the preponderance of what I perceived to be Islamic decorative motifs. James Mitschmyer’s I Fight Fire with Words and Sarah Heitmeyer’s A Slice of Ups and Downs both could have been architectural details lifted out of a modern-day mosque—elegant in form and balance, and demonstrating mastery of technique.
Margaret Gormley’s Wall Piece #1 of slip-cast, interlocking, three-dimensional tiles pushed the boundaries of this geometry—the form giving way to its regal explosion of abstracted color. Even Abby Nohai’s Topographical Recollections could be grouped in this subset, with its obsessive attention to the repetition of pattern and the unadorned. I realize that this interpretation rooted in Islamic culture is merely my own skewed projection. If there is a trend, it is the result of centuries of cross-cultural pollination that had its roots in the ancient Silk Road dating back to the 8th century. Andrea Denniston’s cheerful lime and grass green salt and pepper set seemed equally acclimatized to Venice or Istanbul, as did Andrew Castaneda’s untitled twisted architectural spire. The visual syncretism between East and West throughout the ages has culminated in cyberspace image ubiquity in the 21st century. As viewers today (and with only the titles to hint at the artists’ intent) we can surmise as to, but we cannot extrapolate beyond these emergent artists’ delight in the aesthetics of pattern, form, and texture. Even Abby Nohai’s Topographical Recollections could be grouped in this subset, with its obsessive attention to the repetition of pattern and the unadorned. I realize that this interpretation rooted in Islamic culture is merely my own skewed projection. If there is a trend, it is the result of centuries of cross-cultural pollination that had its roots in the ancient Silk Road dating back to the 8th century. Andrea Denniston’s cheerful lime and grass green salt and pepper set seemed equally acclimatized to Venice or Istanbul, as did Andrew Castaneda’s untitled twisted architectural spire. The visual syncretism between East and West throughout the ages has culminated in cyberspace image ubiquity in the 21st century. As viewers today (and with only the titles to hint at the artists’ intent) we can surmise as to, but we cannot extrapolate beyond these emergent artists’ delight in the aesthetics of pattern, form, and texture.
Just as I was struck by the penchant for pattern and geometry, I was moved by the students who chose to revisit the minimalism of Modernism. In an age where Post-Modernism and Post-Humanism are all the rage in cultural theory classes, and with their manifestations quickly filling contemporary art institutions on a global scale, there is a bold earnestness in the decision to address form for form’s sake with a simplicity of line and motion. Foremost is Wen-Dan Lin’s dyptich Iron Skin and White Curl. The ebb and flow of static motion in these works draw the viewer into another world, a different landscape where the urban noise cannot disturb. I’m also referencing Scott Steder’s In Play that allows the wood-fire and salt process to make its marks on a simple slab and block of clay. Similarly, Excavation (#1 and #2) by Sara Catapano has a purity of essence, the black clay mirroring the white stoneware hovering above. Michael Gesiakowski’s piece Ebb & Flow harkens to geometry and pattern, but with steadfast minimalism of repetition and simply stacked brick. Even Brent Pafford’s matching black and white pinched skillets taunt the viewer, “see me for what I am, nothing more.” Minimalist, though eschewing the boundaries of Modernism, is Christina Warzecha’s monumental work of 169 squares and cubes equally spaced in a grid, that tantalize the viewer with the play of shadow and light. A Spatial Conversation is a clever idea, and in my mind the most successful sculptural ceramic works are ceramic ideas, just as all artworks are really ideas. This work bears a predictability that leaves the viewer wanting something more.
The figurative featured prominently in the exhibition as well. Two pieces in particular still haunt me as powerful expressions of a “lost generation” struggling to find its voice. From an emotional impact point of view, I felt the strongest work in the show was Kelly Stevenson’s Groundless Disengagement. Her androgynous hoodie-clad youth, crouched against the blackened graffiti-like chaos of the world, is solemn and drained of color except for the hot-pink stains that encircle its eyes, like a mask or some kind of bruising. With a similar message at its root, Sara Morales-Morgan’s Sara, (clearly a self-portrait) rails against what one can interpret from her skirted canvas, upper-middle class decorum and entrapment. The cross-bone and skull on her T-shirt are symbols of her misery, yet poignant with the possibility of rebellion.
The third figurative piece that warrants special note is Ivan Carmona’s Royalty. The work captured the NCECA Undergraduate Award for Excellence 3rd place prize and the Studio Potter Undergraduate Merit Award. It is chilling in its realism, enigmatic in its subject (given its title), and evocative of the work of internationally celebrated Canadian-based multi-media artist, Evan Penny. I see politics and angst inside this work from an undergraduate artist who clearly has a lot more to say.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is the mechanized white and blue work of Austin Wieland, Replicator III. I felt this piece was trying too hard to hit a cultural Post-Humanist note, but I’m curious to see where Wieland goes next. Another work clearly in a category unto itself was Trisha Coates’ organically woven hanging wreath, Every Moment Always Changing. The piece displays technical prowess while the delicate bareness of the translucent porcelain gives a nod to the complex arena of the Postmodern.
Functional ware was not underrepresented in the exhibit—most of which showed innovation in a field where it is increasingly difficult to do so. There was a definite leaning towards the stripping away of design, and allowing the material and marks of process to speak their truths. Stuart Gair’s work was featured in more than one NCECA exhibition and the narrow neck of his liquor set honors the tradition of the great Lucy Rie, among countless others in her wake. Also atmospherically fired, William Harning’s mizusashi (water jar)—displayed an understated beautifully executed lidded pot. Nicholas Danielson’s wood-fired allusion to the 17th-century monteith (a type of punch bowl) is clever and aesthetically pleasing, as is Louise Deroualle’s Seed Tray, which starkly juxtaposes porcelain cups and wood-fired stoneware in a pod-like construction.
While I cannot comment on all of the artists in the exhibition, I have left discussion of one of possibly the most outstanding pieces for last. Wansoo Kim created a vessel that literally stopped the predominantly ceramic-savvy viewers during NCECA dead in their tracks. Reversal presents itself as a puzzle upon first approach. It’s only when one crouches down and peers at the underside of the classically formed, round-bellied porcelain form, that it’s possible to notice the false bottom and begin to piece together the process Kim must have undertaken to achieve his finished product. The inside of the pot is hand-painted in typical Chinese cobalt blue-and-white motifs and finished with a clear glaze, while the exterior of the pot is mottled raw porcelain. Appropriately so, Reversal garnered Kim the 2nd place NCECA Undergraduate Award for Excellence.
I would be remiss if I did not give credit to the jurors of this exhibition, Magdalene Odundo and Ryan LaBar, who selected from over 550 submitted works by 326 undergraduate and graduate artists from across the US. Their choices breathed life into the show’s remarkable alchemy: the contrast of culture, generation, worldview, ethnicity, pedagogy, and stage in life between LaBar and Odundo I’m sure were contributing factors that ensured the exhibits overall resounding success.
the author Heidi McKenzie is a ceramic sculptor and arts journalist based in Toronto, Canada. Visit www.heidimckenzie.ca.