The 2016 National Student Juried Exhibition (NSJE), organized by the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) and curated by Liz Quackenbush and Lee Somers, not only marks a specific time and place, a tick on our yearly cycle, but also a beacon of student and field achievement. A mixed homage to formalities and figures of the past, and leaps forward in the field. Taking place at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, the 2016 NSJE demonstrated a fierceness in which clay is central, but the artists also charge ahead and move beyond materials to express ideas.
In celebration of the diverse qualities of clay, Jonah Amadeus Skurky-Thomas’ videos The Collapse (houses) and Childhood Home utilize the material’s ability to hold form until submerged into water, facilitating a slow, sloughing decomposition. The looped videos evoke feelings of mass destruction, where the infrastructure of humankind collides with the forces of nature, and it becomes an open canvas to explore emotional, political, and actual climactic cataclysms. Likewise, branching from wall to pillar, Carly Slade’s stratified melding of high wires and structures titled Quonset and Bay (two pieces from the series Blue Language) becomes her own world of industry and junction. It’s a three-dimensional miniature playground where some of the rules of nature apply, but not all. The building materials fit Slade’s scale and taste—clay for wood, glue for embroidery—rather than the assigned child’s fantasy world of the pink plastic doll house.
Man-Ho Cho’s White-Teapot-Construction-Base includes a tumbling mass of cups sunken into a dark rich base of clay, like ice cubes left to melt in their own pools. It’s a hurricane in contrast to Iren Tete’s salt jar. Thinly scrawled bouncing lines crawl along the edge of this amber banded lidded jar, replicating the tall arch of the handle, small but certainly not diminished in size.
The fineness of line also appears in Sharon Norwood’s work, Guess who’s coming to dinner? Norwood uses the imagery of hair on her displayed plate in a high-contrast composition to explore the weight of culture, gender, and race. Much like Meret Oppenheim’s Object (fur-covered cup, saucer and spoon) from 1936, Norwood evokes emotion and response by pairing the imagery of fur or hair with objects meant for consuming food, including overtones of sexuality, identity, and discomfort. Norwood delicately places her tangled drawings on the surface of vintage wares, indirectly referencing the surface appearance of raku traditions like horsehair firing, but using the line qualities in a much less abstract and much more intimate way.
Likewise in the political space, Michael Ballew’s sculpture, America: A Trump Story/A Xenophobe’s Wet Dream, uses comic devices to talk about divisive issues. Drawing the lighthearted format aside uncovers critique delivered with a giggle. The foresight of creation, considering when students applied to this show, as well as the sly curatorial positioning of the head of Donald Trump near the menagerie of ceramic animals permits a short small jab at politics.
Organizing and associating groupings of objects or items informs many pieces in the show. Andrea Denniston’s egg basket and egg tray provides a different orderly solution from the traditional carton. This work of slip-cast porcelain is a lovely sprawl of crisp line and vibrant blue. The idea of nestling eggs into each nook is delightful. Similarly enjoyable, Stuart Gair’s pitcher and tumbler set announces itself—with an erect billed spout, graceful body line, and specked surfaces—like a type of proud avian parent and fledgling.
The neutral colorations provide balance to the clean, non-traditional shaped nesting forms in Adrienne Eliades, Family Style Server. Eliades embraces the formation of new styles of family eating in the forms’ ambiguity. The work generates connection to the serving of bento boxes in its mobility and compartmentalization. Each thoughtful design element reinforces the idea that this work is formed to be a part of active life.
Chris Drobnock’s Still Life (Numen) uses terra cotta, a material immersed in a long history of utility, to make both forms we would expect, as well as those usually made from wood or metal. While rendering the forms useless, Drobnock also draws attention to ideas of aesthetic and the presence of domestic and emotionally weighted items. The smudged pastel surfaces unify the components of the still-life composition.
In Emily Chamberlain’s work, Containment, the intensely colored sculpture serves to conceal. The biomorphic forms and colors shift depending on perspective. Looking through the outer clay lattice work evokes the same wonderment as discovering the bright sprouts and grubs under overturned stones. Containment shares a use of negative spaces with Stephanie Kantor’s Bush Pot, whose topiary like form and runny color becomes reminiscent of the egg and spinach glaze on Tang-dynasty sancai ware.
In the realm of the exquisite, Lily Fein’s white handbuilt teapot assumes a quiet, mottled white surface with small, finger-sized indentations and an approachable side handle, creating an understated beauty. Katherine Marotz’ ewer set is pleated, braided, patterned, distinctly ornate and feminine. The set nestles itself with ease into the accompanying carrier like two yolks in an egg. Voids and glaze slide downward on the surface like runny wax. Also fluid, the heavy-set ewer by Greg Palombo settles into itself like slag from iron. Its heft and volume, combined with the natural and aged surface, leads the viewer to references of ancient stone commodities. Quartz-like, Shiyuan Xu’s crystalline structure Through the Lens interprets chaotic clusters on a molecular level, drawing attention to the tiny and commonly unobservable. It is a joy to behold the fragility, intricate construction, and visual complication Xu created using limited shapes and materials. In fine aesthetic contrast, En Iwamura’s, Dear my Heroes, assumes a painterly, voluminous, and ambiguous form. The soft globular forms are rolling hills of imagery tucked into a convulsion of color. Disjointed but expressive inked figures form crowds of observers and subjects. In a similar mass, Stephanie Galli’s bb, shows an oily seepage crawling slowly over the matte surface. The texture coupled with the hint of human sensuality provides an organic entity in the aseptic space.
Michelle Laxalt’s lithe couple titled, Praying to St. Anthony (Saint Anthony Praying to Himself), depicts segmented bodies and grasping searching hands straining toward each other. The listlessness of expression and segmented adipose tissue forms lean farther toward medical model than formal nude. An intensely personal dose of familiarity and femininity appears in Donut Goshorn’s Body Map. Crunchy, butter-slathered pink toast resting on a Pepto-pink hued plate provides a small taste of a larger narrative of recontextualizing family tradition and the non-mainstream personal experiences of the artist. In another domestic-focused work, Ashley Bevington’s I’ll Get Around To It: Hanger Pile prizes the unceremonious life, using a pinched texture and a color palette of cutesy, chalky, Smartie candy. Absurdity recontextualizes the hardtack of domestic life into a playful, more child-friendly bite; adult items transformed as if they were designed to represent the kids we still are.
Mary Cale A. Wilson’s more transparent hand-painted renditions of people titled TV Tray Family, showcase the gluttony only practiced fully in the privacy of one’s home. Loose outlines of the unhealthy indulgences we rarely present to the outside world connect to the many varied lives we live. Cale Wilson coyly chooses the high-class vehicle of the table service to depict the antithesis of the imagery placed on it.
Rather than a time line, the work at the NSJE presents pinched morsels from a buffet of old and new, convention and liberation, double dipped and mixed together to form a fusion of what is to come. The exhibit’s continuation remains significant as an opportunity to inform and showcase talented artists and successful academic programs.
the author Sarah McNutt lives in the San Francisco area and works as art faculty at the Community School of Music and Art. She received her MFA from Kansas State University and her undergraduate degree from Buffalo State College. Learn more at www.sarahmcnutt.com.