DIALOGUE: Ceramics in the 21st Century


What does it mean to be a ceramic artist in the 21st century? It’s a good question, and one big enough that we didn’t feel we could answer it ourselves. So for this special, ceramic-themed Dialogue, art ltd. approached five figures deeply committed to the field of ceramic art: three leading artist/educators who run ceramic programs in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago, a curator from Tempe, AZ, and a museum founder in Pomona, CA. We asked: what do you think of the state of contemporary ceramics? How is the field changing, and how is your own program and practice reflecting that reality? What does it mean to work in ceramics in the 21st century?

Some Guests are Better Than Others
Nathan Lynch
Ceramic, glaze, charcoal
20″ x 18″ x 14″
Photo: John Janca courtesy Rena Bransten Projects

Nathan Lynch (Chair, Ceramics, California College of the Arts, San Francisco)

It’s an energetic, magical and chaotic time for ceramics. Everything is open. There’s no distinction for an artist between art and craft, unless they find that language useful in defining their territory. There’s no problem making sculpture and making pots or making pots as sculpture or writing a story about the shards. Everybody and their mother want to pinch their own coffee cup now. It’s a two-part phenomenon-one part is the back-to-the-hand movement (see knitting nation and handcrafted whiskey). The second part is that the art world loves clay. I like that Sterling Ruby, Shio Kusaka and John Mason were all in the Whitney together. Why? It complicates the visual field for this material. I am proud Ron Nagle took his tiny wonders and dominated the big space at Matthew Marks. I want ceramics to be as wide open, strange and far reaching as possible.

At California College of the Arts (CCA) we take the West Coast tradition of rule breaking seriously, crafting a distinctive ceramics program that is often more experimental, interdisciplinary and performative than others. As the most intellectually promiscuous program at the college, we will partner or collaborate with everyone-the painters, sculptors, social-practicers, architects, designers, geologists and writers. We welcome them all into the studio to pinch and tell stories and reframe the field. I am currently most excited by work from Matt Wedel, Julia Haft-Candell, Michael Rey, Ehren Tool and Del Harrow, but there is plenty of other work that is equally strange and wonderful. For East Coast love, dig into the exhibition program at Greenwich House Pottery including shows by Paul Sacaridiz, Mathew McConnell and Linda Lopez. I have deep gratitude for my mentors Ken Price and Ron Nagle, but also to my contemporaries Theaster Gates and Michael Swaine who stretch us, stretch ceramics in a whole new direction. I know we are doing well when someone says, “That is not ceramics.”

Radiance & Abundance series
Tony Marsh
23″ across

Tony Marsh (Program Head, Ceramic Arts, California State University, Long Beach)

Much of the ceramic art created in the 21st century being celebrated widely is made by artists who were not trained in the field. Artists using clay today no longer need to reference the history of ceramics or to run all of their ideas through one material, the way we did much more routinely in the 20th century. Artists whose work is based in socially relevant themes can see that ceramics is a loaded device with a deep cultural history to draw on. Clay is simply a unique material that records beautifully and possess its own, very unique aesthetic language, making it a very attractive material.

De-skilling is a strategy employed by some working with clay to remove the look of care, to shift the discussion and the price tag that is frequently associated with Craft. To be a crafter is to pursue the betterment of culture, to look back lovingly and to reassure. To make art is to critique, subvert, question, to create doubt and move forward. These two forces at play in our expanding field are often being engaged side by side, with similar materials, processes and equipment in the same studio, where they frequently crossover.

The field of ceramic art is not widely practiced as a highly intellectual artistic pursuit. Many people are drawn to working with clay because it offers a physical, sensual experience. It is both a natural and mysterious transformational art-making material.

The Ceramic Arts Program at CSULB is a beehive. Faculty, students and professional artists all come together to create within the footprint of our facility. We help each other. Altogether, it models assorted artistic behaviors for our students in real time-all teach, all learn.

The Subjective Meadow
Katherine Ross
Video still

Katherine Ross (Professor/Chair, Ceramics, School of the Art Institute of Chicago)

The boundaries of ceramics in the 21st century are permeable and fluid, equal to, influencing, and influenced by all other forms of art. Many young ceramic artists are letting go of the traditions (rules) of Craft and taste: perhaps out of boredom, but often irreverently and boldly embracing humor, materiality, or color, and taking cues from everything around them. These new artists no longer hesitate at challenging the boundaries of content, discipline or media.

The School of the Art Institute of Chicago has never required study majors. Ceramics students have always and often combined disciplines. Recently, many painters, sculptors, performance artists, and film/video/new media artists have heavily involved ceramics in their practice. New interests in ceramics examine the failures of poorly functioning vessels as content. Social practice and site-specific work address the histories of place and allow others to find a voice through the use of clay. Ceramic artists are using color conceptually as developed in the painting traditions.

Artists commonly question taste, the art market, skill, and even how we see and accept objects in our world. For example, Sterling Ruby has introduced a level of rudeness in ceramics that challenges craft tradition. Ben DeMott’s work questions both taste and permanence, while Nicole Seisler and Charlie Schneider embrace the social and cultural implications of memory and place. My own work incorporates a comparison of the psychological and behavioral function of objects within our social construct to the survival behaviors of animals, such as a mule, when confronting ceramic objects. The traditional ceramic process, its form and function, appears to be less important to many current ceramic artists than the materiality of the earth-borne material, and its poetic, subconscious, or overt psychological relevance.

Untitled Platters
Robert Sperry
Ceramic Collection of David Armstrong and Randall Welty as seen in the current show at AMOCA, “Lineage: Mentorship & Learning”
Photo: courtesy AMOCA

David Armstrong (Founder, American Museum of Ceramic Art, Pomona, CA)

Recognition of ceramics in the field of fine art in the United States has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. A major influence to this change took place in the latter half of the 20th century, when th
e medium of ceramics was chosen by a few artists as a vehicle for fine art expression. Peter Voulkos and Robert Arneson were two of the American artists that pioneered the field, and carried ceramics beyond Craft, into the realm of fine art. Today, artists who express themselves using ceramics as their chosen art medium can work in a field that is more broadly entwined with other fine art fields than ever before. At the same time, more and more museums throughout the United States are now recognizing that ceramics can be used as a legitimate art medium. Most of these museums have very nice collections of ceramics, but unfortunately many of these collections are stored away and, in the past, were very seldom put on view. Now that lack of recognition is changing and many of our country’s museums are bringing out their collections of ceramics for the public to enjoy, embracing them both for their own traditions and as part of a broader cultural discourse.

The American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona, California, is dedicated to the exhibition, preservation and creation of ceramic art. Since its opening 11 years ago, the museum has used its programming to examine the range of practices that make up this ever-evolving fine art medium. In exhibitions of artists such as Paul Soldner, Don Reitz, Robert Sperry and Patti Warashina, AMOCA has highlighted the artistic talents of some of the many artists who are pushing the field forward, contributing to the medium’s diversity. Truly, ceramics has become a significant fine art medium for artists of the 21st century, pushing it to new inspiring and unexpected directions.

Installation view, MUCK: Accumulations, Accretions and Aggregations
ASU Art Museum, curated by Peter Held.
The 2014 exhibition featured ceramic sculpture by Susan Beiner, Nathan Craven, Michael Fujita, David Hicks, Annabeth Rosen, Meghan Smythe and Matt Wedel
Photo: Craig Smith

Peter Held (Former Curator of Ceramics, Arizona State University Art Museum)

As artists strive to make sense of an increasingly complex world, contemporary ceramists have increasingly engaged with the wider world. Globalization, coupled with economic and political upheavals, cannot help but influence today’s cultural landscape. These factors force the artist to redefine the role of the studio ceramic artist in the 21st century. Younger generations of clay artists are tech savvy; they control their markets by promoting their art through websites, social media, and crowdsourcing. They erect their own structures of communication and distribution, with horizontal rather than vertical hierarchies. Many seek connectedness through working with collectives, DIY communities, and alternative sales outlets.

During the last decade, the world of ceramics has expanded at warp speed. Increasingly it escapes the rigid boundaries of Craft. The field is being redefined and engaged with the wider worlds of visual arts and design. The medium of clay has witnessed dramatic swings in studio practice, the marketplace, academia, collecting, and presenting since the advent of the postwar craft movement. We have valued our histories and embraced our successes. But with each successive generation of artists, new ideas and technologies rewrite our future. Amidst innumerable challenges and opportunities, artists awaken paths towards new discoveries, foreshadowing increased individual and collective stability.

Artists’ sensitivity towards clay, infused with intellectual substance, allows them to become effective communicators who shed light on our past, present and future. The trajectory of their forward path is inextricably woven into their lives outside the studio. Although in a state of flux, often thrown off-center, the ceramics field resides in a fertile moment. What is it about this material that bonds us all today, with all its historical and cultural connotations and closeness to our everyday lives? It is bewitching, revealing itself in many guises. The medium, with its manifest historical and cultural connotations is transformative. Unencumbered by language, reaching across civilizations, clay reveals to me the possibility of a more linked humanity.