Thursday, May 22, 2014

Ceramic Art in NYC Today: Price, Robins and Ruby

By Charles Kessler

Ceramic is the new video! Not long ago it was ostracized, or worse, condescended to, but just as artists feel obliged to have a video component in all their exhibitions, they now want ceramics. This new popularity is probably for the same reason as the popularity of video – a reaction against highly commercial and impersonally produced art. And adding to the credibility of ceramics as an art medium is the great number of well-known artists who use ceramics occasionally in their practice (e.g. Rosemarie Trockel, Anish Kapoor, Mary Heilmann, Lynda Benglis, Jeff Koons, and Josh Smith, to name but a few).

A good side effect of all this is that artists who use ceramics as their primary medium are getting the attention and respect they have long deserved.
Installation view, Ken Price Sculpture : A Retrospective, September 16, 2012 - January 6, 2013, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (© Ken Price © Fredrik Nilsen).
The late Ken Price (he died February 24, 2012) is currently getting the most attention by far. Last year he had a major retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that travelled to the Metropolitan Art Museum; and now he has major exhibitions in THREE of Matthew Mark’s spaces in Chelsea (until June 28th).

Price's contemporaries Peter Voulkos and John Mason were more important than he was in the evolution of ceramics, but, although Mason has some work in the Whitney Biennial, they are still relatively ignored. (I'll soon be writing about Voulkos, Mason and other 1950s California ceramicists.) Perhaps Price's interest in color and refined finishes separated him from the others and made him fit better with the now re-discovered Los Angeles "Cool School."  In any case, Price is a great sculptor and certainly deserves the acclaim he is getting.
Left: Peter Voulkos building a sculpture, Los Angeles, 1959 (photographer unknown). Right: John Mason compacting clay on his easel for a large ceramic relief, c.1959-60 (photo Robert Bucknam).
Unlike Voulkos and Mason, who were determined to overcome the perception of ceramics as a dainty craft, Price embraced preciousness. He worked on a small scale and presented his work in a controlled and artful (not to say arty) way. To avoid overcrowding and poor lighting, as early as 1960 he made beautifully crafted wood cases with glass sides that were lit from above. This had the further effect of removing the object from craft functionality.
Installation View, Ken Price Specimen Rocks (Matthew Marks Gallery, 526 W 22nd Street).
It also makes sense when you consider the insensitive, sometimes out and out disrespectful, way ceramics was often displayed – and still is (see below).
Installation view, Paul Clay, Salon 94 Bowery, June 23, 2011–August 12, 2011.
I lived in Los Angeles when Price was exhibiting his cups. They were popular with most of my fellow artists, but I felt that while they were beautiful, and beautifully crafted, they were too artsy-craftsy, and too cute – I still do.
Ken Price, Snail Cup, 1968, glazed ceramic, 3 ½ inches high (private collection).
However his "Specimen Rocks" series (currently on view at the Matthew Marks Gallery space at 526 W 22nd Street) of the 1980s are seriously great, not because, or not just because, they're abstract and therefore removed from crafts, but because of his use of color.
Ken Price, Chinese Block, 1984, fired and painted clay, 4 1/2 x 5 1/4 x 4 1/2 inches (Matthew Marks Gallery, NY).
Most of the time with colored sculpture, the color seems to be only on the surface. That isn't the case with Price's "Specimen Rocks." In the Met retrospective there was a wall label with a quote from California artist Robert Irwin that nails it: "Kenny is a sculptor, and he makes the best use of color of any sculptor I have ever known or known of. You have the feeling that if you cut the thing in half, it would be that color all the way through."
Ken Price, Siam, 1983, fired and painted clay, 3 x 3 3/4 x 3 3/4 inches (Matthew Marks Gallery).
Colored sculpture also tends to lose its weight, which is the case with Price's large sculptures (on view at Matthew Marks space at 522 W 22nd Street). Ironically, I was told by one of Matthew Mark's art handlers that this work, and the aluminum platforms they're on (which Price designed for each individual sculpture), are very heavy. But, unlike his "Specimen Rocks,"and like Jeff Koon's balloon sculptures, they seem to be hollow and weightless.
Installation view of Ken Price's large sculptures, 2011-12, polyurethane paint over bronze composite (Matthew Marks Gallery, 522 W 22nd Street). 
Price's large sculptures began as small ceramic models that he had greatly enlarged. I often wonder how sculptors know what something looks like on one side while working on another. Experience and talent is the answer, of course, but with small ceramic sculptures/models, it would have been easy for Price to turn them around and take in a lot at once. 

The sculptures were cast in a bronze/fiberglass composite that allowed him to work the surface the same way he worked fired clay, applying many layers of multicolored metallic and iridescent paints which he sanded, scraped and repainted until he got the ephemeral changing color and lustrous smooth surfaces he wanted.

The sensual and erotic curving forms of these large sculptures go back to his "Eggs" of the 1960s, but this work is more in-the-round; they change, sometimes surprisingly, as you walk around them. And the guy certainly could draw – you can really feel the volumes expand and sense the energy under the "flesh" of the surface. 

I love a lot of different kinds of art, but there are only a few things I really hanker for. I WANT A CERAMIC WALL PAINTING BY Joyce Robins (currently on view at THEODORE:Art in Bushwick until June 22nd) ... oh, and one of Price's "Specimen Rocks," ... oh yes, a Cezanne watercolor. Never mind.

You really need to see Robins's work in person to truly fall in love with it. You need to see them close up to experience the texture, the physicality of the surface, the illusionistic space and color, and all the delightful little details.
Joyce Robins, Topographic Rectangle #3, 2014, clay, glaze and paint, 10.5 x 11.5 inches (THEODORE:Art in Bushwick).
Robins advances the legacy of Price’s involvement with color and surface. She's not as interested in sculptural volume as Price, but like him uses color to play with the physicality of the object, sometimes dissolving it, other times enhancing it. So, for example, in Topographic Rectangle #3 (above) warm colored circles sometimes make a receding area seem to bulge out, and cool colored areas sometimes make a bulging area seem to recede. And the colors and shading around the intersecting circles in Pale Intersections (below) sometimes makes them look like three dimensional spheres (keep staring at it) and sometimes flattens them out. All the while, dots of color pop in and out of space, interact with other colors, and dissolve the materiality of the surface in what I can only call an hallucinogenic manner.
Joyce Robins, Pale Intersections, 2014, clay, glaze and paint, 14 x 17 inches (THEODORE:Art in Bushwick).
Joyce Robins, Pale Color Circle, 2014, clay, glaze and paint, 8 inches diameter (THEODORE:Art in Bushwick). 
Then there are the delightful little details: the sides of holes cut into the surfaces are sometimes painted so the colors change as you look at them from different angles; shadows cast on the wall from these holes also change as you move;
Detail, close-up from the side, Joyce Robins, Topographic Rectangle #3, 2014,
and the "crazing" (little cracks intensionally formed in the firing) that Robins tints with different colors seem to glow from within (see Rectangle Color Circles below).
Joyce Robins, Rectangle Color Circles, 2014, clay, glaze and paint, 11 x 8.5 inches (THEODORE:Art in Bushwick).
There are more reproductions of her ceramic reliefs, including some great close-ups, on her website.

Los Angeles wunderkind Sterling Ruby's ceramics is in the tradition of Voulkos and Mason: big, bold, raw and aggressive. He has three large ceramic sculptures in the Whitney Biennial (until May 25th).
Installation view, Sterling Ruby, three ceramic sculptures at the 2014 Whitney Biennial. 
Ruby took up ceramics about 15 years ago, and he has had several exhibitions dedicated solely to his work in clay (see below).
Installation view, Sterling Ruby, KILN WORKS (Metro Pictures Gallery, February 21 - March 29, 2008). 
Even now that he is using every conceivable medium, the tactility and malleability of ceramics
continues to be a big influence on his oeuvre, as can be seen in his spectacular show at Hauser & Wirth's enormous space on18th Street in Chelsea (until July 25th).
Panoramic installation view, Sterling Ruby, SUNRISE SUNSET (Hauser & Wirth until July 25th). Click to enlarge.
Similar to the way Voulkos broke up his pots and reassembled them into large sculptures, Ruby repeatedly breaks up and recycles old work, firing and re-firing them multiple times. He describes what he does in the gallery press release:
I am smashing all of my previous attempts, and futile, contemporary gestures, and placing them into a mortar, and grinding them down with a blunt pestle. I am doing this as a way of releasing certain guilt. If I put all of these remnants into a basin, and it gets taken away from me, then I am no longer responsible for all my misdirected efforts. I will no longer have to be burdened with the heaviness of this realization.
So Ruby, to use an old Yiddish expression, makes "gelt from dreck" for the very original purpose of concealing malpractice.  But whatever, there's a lot of creative energy in Ruby's work – it's powerful stuff.

Here are links to some other contemporary ceramic artists I admire:
Kathy Butterly at Tibor de Nagy, NY
Nicole Cherubini at Tracy Williams, Ltd, NY
Elisa D'Arrigo at Elizabeth Harris, NY
Arlene Shechet at Sikkema Jenkins & Co, NY
Jessica Jackson Hutchins at Timothy Taylor Gallery, London
Rebecca Warren at Matthew Marks, NY
Adrián Villar Rojas at Marian Goodman, NY – more environmental installations -- but made of clay.

And, to keep things in perspective:
Venus of Doini Vēstonice ,  29,000 - 25, 000 BC,  low fired clay,  Czech Republic,  4 ½  x 1 ¾ inches. 
People have been making great ceramic art for a long, long time!

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