This past March, Sacramento hosted the annual National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference for the first time in its 56-year history1 and this, paired with the nearby “Candy Store” exhibition centered on ceramics-dominated Funk Art of the 1960s and 1970s at the Crocker Art Museum, provided an allusive backdrop to “No End in Sight,” a group exhibition curated by artist Daniel Alejandro Trejo, who grew up in Stockton, California. The exhibition, which was on view from March through May at Verge Center for the Arts in Sacramento, features the work of five artists who live and work outside of Sacramento (they live in Oakland, Los Angeles, and Mexico City).
For those of us who maintain studio practices in Northern California but are not native to the region and are not ceramic artists, Funk Art is an often confounding but ever-present context framing ceramic work that may have strong, irreverent energy and bright discordant colors, regardless of whether or not it is the intention of the artist. In Peter Selz’ 1967 essay, “Notes on Funk,” he writes of a group exhibition that included many of the artists that would dominate the Funk Art movement, “If these artists express anything at all, it is senselessness, absurdity, and fun. They find delight in nonsense, they abandon all the straight jackets of rationality, and with an intuitive sense of humor they present their own elemental feelings and visceral processes.”1
No End in Sight definitely does not seek delight in nonsense. Much of the work presents a playful veneer but has running through it a current of deep insight, experience, and reflection focused on material culture, identity, trauma, and belonging. The artists here share a vulnerability usually absent in the dominating egos of the Funk movement.
Upon entering the gallery, the works with the most visceral immediacy are Cathy Lu’s two ceramic wall-mounted sculptures titled Peach 4 and Peach 7. The two are surprising in the physical depth of their relief and intense chromatic impact. Peach 4 combines cast golden peach pits scattered against a blood-red, hollowed-out center, a bulbous outer texture and a sinuous blue form that frames its outer edges. In contrast, Peach 7 creates a more external topography that feels like the complement to the internal textures of its counterpart. With a pink papule-coated surface, undulating contours, and a deep fleshy centerfold, one can’t help but feel a writhing, corporeal presence. Part of Lu’s practice includes “cast[ing] fruit from Chinese-American markets as a way to talk about the struggle for immigrant communities to belong in the US.”2 The energy, freedom, and formal qualities of these pieces, along with Lu’s roots in the region, invite a positive if unintended nod to Funk art, but the content driving her work opens a depth of questioning that effortlessly shatters any potentially binding aspects of that association.
The peach is a suggestive and inviting subject that would be right at home in nearly any Funk artist’s work. But it is also a symbol of immortality in Chinese art and mythology and has regional ties that go past its literal agricultural connections.3 Lu’s peaches are at once attractive and repulsive, open to being a purely visual experience but capable of much deeper contextual consideration.
While Lu’s peaches are rooted in recognizable forms, Paulo Mentasti’s smaller and more monochromatic ceramic sculptures—carefully displayed on a large table in the middle of the gallery—push further toward anti-forms that feel universal but at the same time wholly unfamiliar. The arrangement and scale of this work is appropriately reminiscent of an academic museum display, complete with a map key on the wall placard. With the matte, glossy, and multi-textured surfaces, this feels as though it could be a collection of objects excavated from a fire cleanup in a far-distant, dystopian future. Mentasti himself characterizes these forms as “records of future botanical specimens germinating from spent nuclear rods . . . .”4 Similar to Lu’s peaches that both invite and repel, Mentasti’s idiosyncratic sculptures delight, yet speak to a foreboding future planet bereft of recognizable inhabitants.
While sifting through the ashes and debris from Mentasti’s projected future, one might find Debra Broz’ folkloric sculptures that fuse forms from kitsch animal figurines into jarring but materially delicate ceramic chimeras. These pieces confound easy understanding in terms of their production, which complicates a clear commentary on disposable material culture as well as the relationship we may have with beloved figurines. The work has a universal strength in being peculiar and delightful, but like the other works in No End in Sight, it contains an amorphous doubt that complicates them and keeps the viewer in a state of exploration. One particularly memorable collaged animal sculpture, Predator & Prey, combines an off-putting, ferocious rabbit with a similarly strange, muscular owl reaching out with splayed talons in mid-action. It combines a fairytale and horror-show aesthetic into a singular, plinth-mounted object that embraces and repels a natural material desire to collect.
Cristina Tufiño’s pastel-colored sculptures feel comparatively airy and imbue an irrepressible but haunting feeling that everything might be okay with contemporary consumer culture—where a wireless keyboard mysteriously stops working and a new one arrives on our doorstep in 24-hours with nearly the same level of mystery. A rich sense of satisfaction exudes from the ceramic keyboard remnants in Mr. Sister being discarded in the quiet geometry of the ceramic bucket, from which a lovingly sculpted set of anonymous facial features emerge. Noticeably absent are the eyes, which gives the distinct feeling that no judgment is rendered from this silent but vaguely pleased waste receptacle.
Switching gears, Jordan Wong’s large-scale ceramic tile piece and video installation Hopefully You Remember This was the highlight of No End in Sight. Installed along three of four massive walls, it encompasses the exhibition without suffocating the rest of the artists’ work. Walking into the gallery, the intimate voice of Wong’s mother fills the space. It can be a challenge sometimes to sit in a gallery and watch an entire video piece; we are all guilty of not being drawn in sufficiently to a time-based work and glancing at our phone or wandering away before the natural conclusion, but no such distraction was possible with Wong’s main video installation. Wong’s mother—clearly speaking directly to her son with a natural and unrehearsed cadence—recounts her short marriage to her husband before his decision to pursue his ambitions in New York City, leaving her and their two young sons in San Francisco. While this quiet and heart-wrenchingly vulnerable narrative unfolds, we see what at first seem to be simple geometric forms in three-dimensional spaces as they form into the patterns silkscreened on the tiles of the opposing walls. As Wong’s mother recounts the places and events that constituted her and her husband’s marriage and individual lives after his departure, what they did for work, and her sons interactions with their father, images from within the geometric tiles emerge quickly and the viewer is gently allowed to realize that the geometric forms are in fact lovingly rendered overhead views of a kitchen space, a subway platform in New York, a staircase, a bathroom, and other softly familiar vignettes. The work is a powerful and moving portrait of the strength of the human heart, and of families’ complex love and resilience.
Almost as an afterthought, the show leaves the overall impression that there is a vibrant potential in ceramic work not only to express itself in colorful, tactile forms, but also to engage with the most contemporary subject matters and intimate personal narratives. The broader context of what it has meant historically to think about contemporary ceramic work in this region can be dominated in a limiting sense by the well-trodden visual motifs and well-celebrated figures of Funk Art. But No End in Sight seems to invite a reminder that Funk Art was from some perspectives first and foremost about freedom. Freedom from formal, social, financial, sexual, political, and historical constraints. The work in No End in Sight is free in all these ways and more, and it is a celebration of ceramic work’s continuing ability to push its boundaries as a medium.
the authors Erin Kaczkowski and Tom Betthauser are artists living and working in Sacramento, California. Both are current participants in the Verge Center for the Arts residency program. For more information, visit www.erinkaczkowskistudio.com and www.tombetthauser.com.
1 Peter Selz, “Notes on Funk,” University Art Museum, University of California Berkeley (April 18, 1967).
2 Cathy Lu, No End in Sight exhibition wall text.
3 “Peaches of Immortality,” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, accessed January 21, 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peaches_of_Immortality.
4 Paul Mentasti, No End in Sight wall text.