The 2016 National Council on Educational for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) Invitational, “Unconventional Clay: Engaged in Change” took place at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (www.nelson-atkins.org) in Kansas City, Missouri, from February 26 to June 12, 2016. Co-curators Leigh Taylor Mickelson, NCECA Exhibitions Director, and Catherine L. Futter, Director, Curatorial Affairs at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, brought 24 artists into conversation across two adjoining gallery spaces, pitting unconventional processes and media against unconventional ideas.
In tackling how to review an exhibition of such varied scope, my mind set about grouping works into thematic categories: confrontational; community engagement; combinations and permutations; art activism; and curiosity cabinets. For me, at the core of this curation, and what holds this show together as both mind-blowing spectacle and intimate encounter, is one unifying element—high impact.
It would be impossible to give all 24 artists their due, so I am paraphrasing and highlighting, touching on those works that stood out to me as astonishing, ground-breaking, or improbably perfect, i.e. virtually the whole show. To begin, I need to point out that I believe the piece by local war veteran William Arthur Ehren Tool, who worked with the community in pre-conference workshops to develop the imagery for his installation of nearly 300 thrown and locally inspired decorated cups, is a story worthy of its own telling.
From an art as advocacy or art activism point of view, I was struck by the quiet, subversive nature of Beth Katleman’s Hostile Nature that explores proportions of old Wedgwood motifs into larger than life, mural-like patterns embedded with quirky contemporary figurines. Less subtle is Dylan Beck’s Cloud Fracula that upon first glance looks like a cheerful candy-land dreamscape, but upon inspection, is a masterfully executed stark reminder of the consequences of mankind’s brash relationship with the earth and our eco-system. On the other end of the subtlety spectrum, is Dustin Yager’s Conversation Piece: Lips & Legs. The public was invited to sit on the two ceramic benches that screamed gay rights activism by superimposing past with present. I felt this work exploits the inherent qualities of the medium—strength and fragility, and begs the question, are we sitting on our laurels with respect to LGBT and human rights now that the AIDS crisis is more controlled? Equally as prescient were the questions posed by Adam Shiverdecker’s Lear—a life-size skeletal fragment of a luxury learjet. How can we reconcile economic disparity? What is of lasting value in a human being’s life? And Paul Scott’s Scott’s Cumbrian Blue(s), Palestine, Gaza that layers contemporary war-torn Gaza onto a 19th-century passive colonialist depiction of the same geographical region. The questions are unspoken, yet distressing and profound.
These works definitely fall within the thematic of confrontational—as does Zemer Peled’s work New Year’s Best Dreams. Her work recalls glass artist Dale Chihuly—there’s a sense of wild abandon in this work. Peled publicly talks about having come to clay through art therapy, and you can sense the emotional impact fraught in the work. It’s unsettling, pitting beauty against brutality. The pieces that most strongly pulled me off my center were Simone Leigh’s Cowrie pieces. These anthromoporphic large-scale sculptures of the female body have an eerie quality to them. The representation of torso and head as massive ceramic cowrie shell supported by what is evocative of an underskirt hoop-dress brilliantly confronts the viewer with the angst of colonization, slavery, as well as centuries of enduring racism and misogyny. These dresses harken to a multiplicity of antecedents: the 17th-or-18th century European bustle, the Herero in Namibia and other African countries as well as across the Caribbean and Brazil.
Technology was showcased with prevalence within Unconventional Clay. Andy Brayman fashioned a functional cell-phone out of a digitally designed, geometrically poised porcelain vessel, and positioned it on a backdrop of computer-generated tiles. The effect of Mobile Phone Vase No. 1 is once again other-worldly, like something you might expect to see hanging around a space station. Vigilants was conceived and executed by collaborative team of ceramicist Mika Negishi Laidlaw, video artist Dave Ryan, and neuroscientist Steven Ryan. The piece seamlessly combines clay with video art technology, as the viewer is challenged to see foreign eyes on mutated porcelain cast hands—a chilling tableau that speaks to the distortion of humanity within our times.
Ben Harle uses video and LED lighting to mask the reality of the decomposition of slaking unfired clay in Moments of Impact. The stacked columns of virtual clay echo the disappearance of ancient ruins—and by extension the artist asks us to consider the durability of human culture within a cosmic context. For me this is the work that alludes to renowned American minimalist Donald Judd, rather than the one self-identified as such because it is placed on a minimalist aluminum base by artist Nathan Mabry. Shapeshift (Snake) parallels the universalism of Leigh’s Cowrie works that embody the pan-African experience. Similarly, Mabry’s work represents aboriginal art, and is geo-located to South America through its terra-cotta medium. The massive man-snake confronts the viewer with past in present. Its sheer size and volume loom large as a testament to the maker’s craftsmanship.
Robert Harrison and Trisha Coates employ ceramic collage in varying degrees of combinations and permutations. Coates’ work, The Ongoing Moment–Footpath to Marsh Pond, was mesmerizing, soft and subtle like the shimmering waters of a Manet painting, while Harrison’s was brash and confidently incongruous.
My favorite work in the exhibition was quietly housed on a raised platform behind a glass casing. Thomas Schmidt’s Map Series, #6 reads like some otherworldly digital, underwater coral life form. It is a composite of cast-porcelain, geometric multiples assembled into tentacles of structure that lend the work a sense of static motion. The positive form was designed using 3D modelling, printed, then cast, and its intricate decals are computer generated.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the other works comprised in what I’m grouping as the curiosity cabinet pieces—based on the fact that they were encased in glass within pre-existing gallery cases. Schmidt’s work was flanked by Bryan Czibesz and Shawn Spangler’s 3D-printed ceramic fantasy forms, and Chase Grover’s painstakingly handbuilt, Second Chance. Grover’s work looks like two macrocosmic beehives, a positive and a negative, tenuously attached. It’s almost impossible to imagine the process of its making.
Coupled with Scott’s above-mentioned work is one of Brendan Tang’s Manga Ormolu series, a hybrid mishmash that links his own ethnicities to an international fusion of time and space; Jessica Brandl’s hand-painted, offbeat tableaux; and Joey Watson’s musical Drone Aerophone—an ungainly yet funky kaleidoscope of colored porcelain. In yet another glass case, the political satire of Carrie Reichardt’s decal-decorated plates hangs over the chem-lab-like encased memorabilia samples of Anthony Stellaccio.
In the words of the curators, Unconventional Clay cast “clay as a springboard for innovation, rather than an end in-and-of itself.” An uncommonly interactive visual delight for museum goers, the show closed on June 12th.
the author Heidi McKenzie is an artist, author, and curator living in Toronto, Canada. Learn more at http://heidimckenzie.ca.