Winter 2015
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II. ART & DESIGN

A Recent History of Painting in Ceramic Art

Expectation Mirage by Ron Nagle, 2012; Photo: Galerie Pierre Marie Giraud

Expectation Mirage by Ron Nagle, 2012

In the 1950s, ceramic artist Ron Nagle was a member of what was considered the Abstract Expressionist movement circulating around Peter Voulkos, his then teacher at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. Voulkos, whose work is earthy, thick, and often life-size, was known for his hands-on demonstrations and classes—it’s easy to find photos of him shirtless and in old blue jeans, covered in streaks of wet clay, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth as he instructs his students laboring over enormous sculptures. He loved an audience and so turned his aggressive construction and decorative processes, in which he gouged, tore, glazed, and painted masses of clay, into sort of athletic and primitive performances. Meanwhile, Picasso was in the south of France, in the sleepy town of Vallauris, painting visages of bulls, goats, owls, and maidens on thousands of smooth white platters, bowls, and pitchers produced by the experts of the Madoura Pottery Workshop.

In the United States in the 1950s, art was thriving. There was the New York School, harboring poets and writers like John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Bourroughs, musicians like John Cage and Christian Wolff, and painters like Arshile Gorky, William de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Philip Guston. The movement is well-known and well documented—one hardly has to use the artists’ first names, as the world, since even the beginning of the decade, has been flooded with opportunities to read, listen to, and look at either the original creations of these artists in museums, galleries, concert halls, and books, or reproductions and versions thereof, as imagery printed on t-shirts and other products intended for mass consumption. What stands out about this abbreviated list of artists strongly associated with the New York School is the diversity of the work produced, even when considered within each genre. For example, the paintings of Mark Rothko and Philip Guston are difficult to connect in terms of aesthetics and content on the gut level; it was Rothko who understandably argued that his paintings were not abstract, but what else could Guston’s cartoonish figures and everyday objects be called? The primary definition of the word could be illustrated by his work. Picasso’s work, coincidentally, at this time, is fairly unclassified.

Now, to place painting in ceramic art within this context and attempt to survey its diverse history since then. Like the all-encompassing New York School is to painting, Abstract Expressionism is an inadequate term used to describe a complex era of ceramic art. It is more of a means to locate an artist’s work within a decade, than to procure an understanding of its aesthetics or content. One needs only to consider the work of a handful of artists all located in or at least passing through the same place—California—but producing a wide range of content. Ceramic art in Britain was expanding, as well, with the inertia of the Arts and Crafts movement and Bauhaus, but studio potters like but Lucie Rie and Hans Coper were glazing, not painting like Voulkos and his colleagues and students.

The work of Nagle is an excellent contrast to Voulkos’. Nagle has almost always worked small, exceptionally small—most of his sculptures are no larger than cups (a typology he explored over many years after his having seen an exhibition of paintings by Giorgio Morandi), and his painting process is more akin to the application of enamel to a car than a performative dance around a fire or wood-burning kiln, as in the case of Voulkos. He wears goggles and overalls and sits at a desk in a brightly lit studio, painstakingly airbrushing his surfaces with layers of carefully chosen shades of soft and vibrant colors. Other ceramic artists considered major forces within the movement, likewise, produced very different art than Voulkos, via very different, invented techniques. John Mason, for example, joined slabs of clay into hollow, geometric volumes resembling the metal works of Tony Smith, which he painted in solid color or patterns elicited from angles of the form. Ken Price, another colleague of Voulkos, and a more obvious influence on Nagle, carved and smoothed clay into rounded, sack-like forms suggesting gelatinous stones, melting together or animatedly defying gravity in upwards motion. Both the amorphous shapes and vivid coloring of these sculptures are referenced in Nagle’s work.

Photo: David Douglas Duncan

Photo: David Douglas Duncan

Picasso, already deified and perhaps unaware of the canon which these American ceramicists were trying to change, never burdened himself with the craft versus art issue and automatically went to work as a painter. Introduced to clay as a medium in 1946, Picasso, then 65, tried to learn to throw a pot and the science of glazing under the guidance of Suzanne Ramie, owner of the Madoura Pottery Workshop, but eventually let her manage the production of the over 3,000 vessels that he would come to treat essentially like canvases. Picasso was given unfired ready-mades which he would lightly and quickly etch and fill with paint in graphic compositions. His painting then, subtly exploiting depth and texture of surface, most closely compares with traditional craft of the Aegean region. This means that painting in ceramic art was being treated in two different ways in the 1950s: ceramic artists, including Voulkos, Mason, and Price, were treating painting as the end of multi-step individualized processes—to push of craft into the territory of fine art, while painters like Picasso and Joan Miro were learning craft in order to exploit ceramics as, simply, another medium employed in a broader art practice. All of these artists would continue in the 1960s to pursue and refine their different methodologies and define ceramic art as something exceeding craft to the end of the century.

Photo: Jun Kaneko Studio

Photo: Jun Kaneko Studio

Other artists working across genres, such as Louise Bourgeois and Lucio Fontana, who employed clay in their sculptural work began receiving wider recognition in the 60s and 70s, but it cannot be said that painting was a defining element of their ceramic work. In these two decades, the key artist to emerge, to work extensively with paint, was Jun Kaneko, who studied under Voulkos at the University of California in the late 1960s. Kaneko’s work is uniquely site specific. Sculptures are created for specific spaces in relation to one another and juxtaposed and unified contextually through paint, often applied to all surfaces of an installation. Like Picasso, he is a highly versatile artist with a strong vocabulary and propensity to story tell, and he has also been commissioned to stage design. (Picasso designed sets and costume for La Parade, the surrealist play by Jean Cocteau with music by Erik Satie, in 1917.) In 2006 and 2012, respectively, Kaneko designed sets and costumes for Omaha Opera’s Madame Butterfly and the San Francisco Opera’s The Magic Flute.

Today the torch of expressionist painting is perhaps being held by a few sculptors, like Lynda Benglis, Sterling Ruby, and Jessica Jackson Hutchins, but again to different ends. What relates most between the work of these artists and that of their contemporaries, including Andrew Lord, William J. O’Brien, and Cameron Jamie, is the modeling of the clay—more often impressed and shaped by hand than thrown or carved, but formal resemblances also mean little here. The only generalization that can be made about painting in ceramic art today is one relative to the evolution of painting on canvas: ceramic artists are taking on history parametrically, rarely commenting on a linear history of painting in the way that has been so central to the medium, even since it began to be merged with sculpture in the 60s.

—Ashley Booth Klein

Installation in Takagai, 1991; photo: Jun Kaneko Studio

Installation in Takagai, 1991; photo: Jun Kaneko Studio