NCECA 2017 in Portland

The arrival of the 51st NCECA Conference this March puts a spotlight on Northwest clay.

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“All is Flux,” 2016 Hsin-Yi Huang. NCECA 2017
“All is Flux,” 2016, Hsin-Yi Huang, Porcelain, dimensions variable
Photo: courtesy Guardino Gallery and the artist

As anyone who knows and loves Portland, Oregon, will tell you, the city is in the midst of enormous change. Long-beloved restaurants, watering holes, parks, and other landmarks are vanishing, replaced by boxy new condo buildings, office spaces, and an ever-trendier assortment of artisanal boutiques. The rapid growth is simultaneously alarming and encouraging: alarming to old-timers nostalgic for the gritty Portland of old; encouraging to those who know that without development, cities stagnate. It’s more than fitting, then, that Portland is playing host to the 51st annual conference of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA), whose theme this year is “Future Flux.” That phrase neatly encapsulates what’s happening in Portland, as well as in the physical and thematic potentialities of ceramics: the mutability of forms, whether city blocks or artworks, being actively shaped; and the beauty and fragility that result when once-fluid forms are fired and fixed.

Work in clay embraces the history of craft and design even as it advances new manifestations drawn from critical theory, sociopolitical critique, and the day’s headlines. Apropos to the conference’s theme, it is a discipline very much in flux, riding the rollercoaster of contemporary art as a whole. In the eleven years since Portland last hosted NCECA (and certainly in the 29 years since the first time the conference visited the city), the pace of innovation in ceramics has accelerated with a caffeinated, kinetic energy not unlike the buzz coursing through the Northwest’s celebrated coffee shops. Adding to Portland’s appeal to conference-goers and organizers is its proximity to scenic landmarks such as Mount Hood and the waterfall-dotted Columbia River Gorge. “The fact that the region’s surrounding areas have some of the most awe-inspiring natural features of North America,” says Josh Green, NCECA’s executive director, “also helps highlight the critical concerns we face in environmental and cultural sustainability.”

“Blue Blood,” 2016, Ronna Neuenschwander, NCECA
“Blue Blood,” 2016, Ronna Neuenschwander
Ceramic mosaic, 12″ x 12″ x 5″
Photo: Kevin McConnell, courtesy Froelick Gallery

This year’s iteration of the conference will be held March 22-25 and will feature some 65 exhibitors, many of which are mounting shows in multiple venues. In addition to commercial galleries, nonprofits, and collectives, several Portland-based academic institutions are running clay-centric exhibitions, including Lewis & Clark College, the University of Oregon, Portland Community College, Portland State University, Pacific Northwest College of Art, and the Oregon College of Art and Craft. Unconventional venues in Portland mounting shows include N.W.I.P.A, a brew pub; Catlin Gabel, a private K-12 school; the Buddhist Henjyoji Temple; the perennially hip Jupiter Hotel; and the Mexican Consulate’s Office. Ceramics will be also be the focus of March shows in settings outside Portland, such as Clackamas Community College (Oregon City), Mt. Hood Community College (Gresham), Linfield College (McMinnville), George Fox University and Chehalem Cultural Center (both in Newberg), Clark College (Vancouver, WA), Lane Community College (Eugene), and Imogen Gallery (Astoria). This galaxy of auxiliary exhibitions will orbit around the main program of lectures, demonstrations, and workshops at the Oregon Convention Center, located on Portland’s fast-developing east side.

“I think the culture of our arts community here is very receptive to being involved in the conference,” says Brett Binford, founder of Eutectic Gallery, which for the past four years has exclusively showcased contemporary ceramics. “Our educational programs have a strong presence nationwide, and some of the who’s-who of the ceramics world live in the region: Thomas Orr, Ted Vogel, Victoria Christian, Chris Antemann, and Dylan Beck, to name only a few.” Eutectic’s contribution to the programming surrounding the conference is “Duet,” a show of collaborative sculptures by Seattle-based Doug Jeck and Flagstaff, Arizona-based Christine Golden. For this series of ceramic busts and heads, the artists holed themselves up for two weeks last year in an old schoolhouse in Zanesville, Ohio. They intended all along to work collaboratively but thought they’d trade the works-in-progress back and forth only a time or two. Instead, Binford relates, “a much more intensive dialogue happened,” with the works changing hands as many as half-a-dozen times. Filmmaker and educator Doug Swift filmed a documentary about the collaboration, which will be part of the exhibition.

“Flower Tree,” 2014 Matt Wedel, NCECA
“Flower Tree,” 2014, Matt Wedel, Ceramic, 383⁄4″ X 601⁄2″ x 64″
©Matt Wedel
Photo: courtesy LA Louver, Venice, CA, Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Portland

The range of thematic approaches being taken by participating galleries covers a diverse spectrum. At Guardino Gallery, a longtime fixture of the bustling Alberta Arts District, artist Hsin-Yi Huang riffs on the conference’s theme of change with “All is Flux,” a suite of porcelain pieces that address the changes we face in our daily routines and in the process of aging. These changes need not be threatening, Huang feels, as “change is the very essence and raw material for growth… My hope with this work is to seed the possibility of change.” Guardino will also feature sensual and highly allusive earthenware by Lisa Conway and works by Dan, Laurie, Iver, and Jen Hennig, a California family of clay-workers. Marin County, California-based Bean Finneran will debut a new body of hard-edged work at PDX Contemporary Art. Finneran (who was profiled in art ltd.’s Jan/Feb 2010 issue) will combine these works with the hand-rolled clay sculptures for which she’s best known in her exhibition “Orbits.” Meanwhile, works by acclaimed Seattle-based sculptor Jeffry Mitchell (profiled in art ltd.’s Jan/Feb 2016 issue) will also be on view at PDX. At Redux Boutique and Gallery, the exhibition “Put a Bird On It” features 17 artists incorporating bird-themed motifs into their work. The show’s title references a notorious phrase popularized in the IFC series “Portlandia,” which has a cult following around the globe, although it is far from universally loved in the city it parodies.

Elsewhere across Portland, several shows, including “Ritual Unmoored: Works by Seven Jewish Ceramists” at Portland State University’s Broadway Gallery, highlight religious or geographical bonds. “360 Degrees of Inclusion” at Third Room Gallery, for example, links 13 artists who participated in residencies at the International Ceramic Research Center in Guldagergaard, Denmark, while “ Imaginary Border: Ceramics As Transcultural Language” at Lewis & Clark’s Ronna and Eric Hoffman Gallery features American, Chilean, Brazilian, Venezuelan, Jamaican, and Japanese artists, all of whom have been instrumental in the evolution of the Curaumilla Art Center in Valparaíso, Chile.

“Deep Blue Discs and Bars,” 2016, Bean Finnegan, NCECA
“Deep Blue Discs and Bars,” 2016, Bean Finnegan, Acrylic stain and ceramic, dimensions variable

Photo: courtesy of PDX Contemporary and the artist

Froelick Gallery is devoting each of its three display spaces to ceramics shows: Whitney Lowe’s “Scape Scope,” Joe Feddersen’s “Flotilla,” and Ronna Neuenschwander’s “Bloodsport: Bluebloods and Mudbloods in the Era of Magical Thinking.” In studio visits with the artists, gallery owner Charles Froelick saw commonalities across the three bodies of work: “Whitney’s show definitely has a playful, erotic edge. Ronna’s also has a playfulness, although it’s addressing really tough social issues. And with Joe’s work, he’s emphatic that these pieces are about a casual daily ritual of going on a walk or a canoe journey—the idea of a flotilla as a point of pride, joy, and celebration in a community.” Froelick believes that Northwesterners’ love of all things natural factors into an affinity for clay-based artwork. “Collectors from a broad range of backgrounds respond to that hand-wrought, malleable quality of clay,” he observes. “Whether it’s rough-hewn or finely honed, it almost always shows the mark of the hand.”

That material flexibility, and the formal and conceptual nuances it can afford, lies at the heart of Bruce Guenther’s thesis for “BUILD: Sculptural Ceramics” at Elizabeth Leach Gallery. Longtime chief curator at Portland Art Museum before his 2014 retirement, now active as an independent curator, Guenther has themed his exhibition around contemporary ceramicists who have followed in the footsteps of the influential and profoundly innovative artist Peter Voulkos (1924-2002). The artist, Guenther holds, was so pivotal within the evolution of ceramics because, beginning in the 1950s, he “moved clay from a traditional modeling medium and the constraints of utilitarian ceramics to the status of avant-garde sculpture.” Clay became “an open and permissive medium,” equally suitable to “monumental abstraction and a poetic delicacy that reveled in the material’s capacity to record the creative working process.”

From left: “How Many Times?” (Hill Jar Series), 2016, Richard Notkin, stoneware, glaze
13 1⁄2″ x 11 3⁄4″ x 11 3⁄4″ Photo: courtesy Russo Lee Gallery
“Covered jar,” 2016, Kristen Keiffer, Porcelain 9″ x 5 1⁄2” x 5 1⁄2”
Photo: courtesy Butters Gallery

Several other exhibitions will highlight the medium’s history, among them Pigeon Toe Ceramics’ “50 Years of Pottery Northwest,” Russo Lee Gallery’s “Northwest Perspectives in Clay,” and Butters Gallery’s “Progression: 25 Years of Functional Form.” Meanwhile, Blackfish Gallery takes the opposite tack, giving the floor to emerging artists in “Legacy Emergent.” PNCA and OCAC’s joint masters-of-fine-art program in applied craft and design blazes even farther into thesci-fi present and future with curators Heather Nameth Bren and Michael Arnold’s “A Tipping Point: Technology in Ceramics,” which illustrates the unlikely meeting of a millennia-old medium with new technologies such as 3D printing and CNC routing.

NCECA is singling out several individuals and one institution this year for special praise. A Regional Award of Excellence will be bestowed on artist and educator Thomas Orr, whom NCECA director Josh Green lauds as “creative, innovative, entrepreneurial, and possessing a deep and abiding commitment to creativity as a positive force.” Orr, who has worked in clay for 45 years, taught ceramics across the US before settling in Portland in 1995 to helm the ceramics program at the Oregon College of Art and Craft, a position from which he only recently retired. (Orr continues to make art and, along with his wife Joanna, has established a well-reputed artist-mentorship program called the Ash Street Project.) Another award is being given to the Museum of Contemporary Craft, with special recognition to curators and administrators Namita Gupta Wiggers and Nicole Nathan. It’s a bittersweet honor, as the museum, founded in 1937, closed last year, after organizational difficulties. The museum’s collection has been folded into the collection of PNCA’s Center for Art and Culture. Finally, an Outstanding Achievement Award will be presented to artists Frank and Jane Boyden, who in 1970 established the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, an artist residency and retreat center on the Oregon coast.

With such a diverse and thought-provoking spectrum of practices and approaches represented, the conference promises not only to encourage the exchange of ideas, but also to dialogue with the city of Portland itself—in all its glorious, maddening, exhilarating flux.

—RICHARD SPEER