Spotlight: September 2016

Photo: Tom Story. Courtesy of the ASU Art Museum.

Ceramics Monthly: How do you engage audiences with the exhibitions you curate?

Garth Johnson: Every exhibition at the Arizona State University (ASU) Art Museum Ceramics Research Center (CRC) merits a different approach. The first show that I mounted at ASU, “Recorded Matter: Ceramics in Motion” (opening in October at the American Museum of Ceramic Art, in Pomona, California), was a collection of ten videos (and a few accompanying objects) by young ceramic artists. It invited viewers to engage in different ways—a series of six videos projected in a space that could envelop viewers, while other videos ran on more intimate monitors with headphones. It was a pleasure to watch visitors spend nearly an hour interacting with the exhibition, which included everything from identity politics (Roberto Lugo) to a video by Finnish artist Man Yau, who makes functional porcelain skateboards that are astoundingly resilient (until they aren’t).

The CRC’s galleries are exceptionally flexible, allowing me to showcase work in our white cube gallery while surrounding the exhibition with work from our unrivaled permanent collection to add context. We recently showed a series of photographs of artists in their studios by legendary curator Paul J. Smith. The photographs related to objects by the artists from our permanent collection, but were exhibited separately to let the viewers create their own connections.

For an upcoming exhibition of work by Cranbrook Academy of Art faculty and alumni from the past 25 years, we will surround the show with pieces by Jun Kaneko, Maija Grotell, Graham Marks, Richard DeVore, and others who have shaped Cranbrook through the years.
It is also important to expose community members to working artists—whether through lectures, demonstrations, hands-on class visits during installation, or, as in the case of Iraq War veteran Ehren Tool, making cups in the middle of our gallery space.

CM: What excites you about the field today?

GJ: The field of ceramics is only starting to get the credit it deserves for embracing a broad range of approaches. My personal and professional research focuses on historical ceramic artists who have embraced performance and references to material culture, and it is gratifying to see a new generation discover this.

One artist that I marvel at is Courtney M. Leonard, whose work revolves around her heritage in the Shinnecock nation. She has created a network of indigenous artists using social media, and probes how to explore an indigenous identity in a global world. In her work, she does three things that I hold dear: She conveys a message (examining the threats to the resources Shinnecock culture is based on); she communicates an innate grasp of the cultural meaning that clay as a material can hold; and she has a deep love of ceramic process and pushes technical boundaries.

With obstacles to building a career in ceramics that include rising student debt and a shifting landscape of galleries and collectors, there seems to be no shortage of artists with the courage to take on the risk of creating something new. Community building comes as second nature for ceramic artists. I admire their fluidity—the ability to juggle commercial, conceptual, and technical pressures. I see it as my duty to maintain the ASU Art Museum CRC as a platform to support their unique voices.

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