Challenging State of Ceramics
By Paul Dorn, Davis Enterprise art critic
2001 California Clay Competition
Where: The Artery
207 G Street, Davis; 758-8330
When: through June 2
Hours: 10 am - 6 pm, Monday through Saturday
10 am - 9 pm, Friday; 12 - 5 pm, Sunday
Perhaps Dick Cheney would benefit from viewing the front window at The Artery in downtown Davis. A former oil industry CEO now vying to be the least popular unelected vice-president since Gerald Ford, Cheney recently asserted that the country's energy future should rely on...surprise, surprise...more drilling! Oh, yeah, and maybe we need to revivify the nuclear industry and burn more coal as well. Perhaps ol' Dick is really trying to solve a couple problems at one go: a more toxic environment will surely shorten life expectancies, easing the burden on Social Security, the national healthcare system and people with aging parents. Synergies, man. You go, Dick!
Of course, Cheney's predecessor as the top American emissary to foreign state funerals hasn't been much better. Recall how as a candidate for the presidency, Al Gore gushed profusely: "I want to fight for YEW!" Well, Al, where's that pugilism now, when your prominence and celebrity might actually be useful in resisting Bush Junior's efforts to drag the US back to the Victorian age? Was your flirtation with populism mere election year posturing?
In the dark aftermath of last year's somnolent presidential campaign, where can we find a voice expressing real opposition to the retrograde system of corporate-dominated national politics a la Bushgore (or Gorebush, whatever)? In the dim light emanating from Washington DC, can we perhaps expect a ray of hope elsewhere, say from a revitalization of polemical art? Are we on the cusp of a career resurgence by artists such as Robbie Conal, Barbara Kruger, the Guerrilla Girls or Karen Finley?
Which brings us back to the sadly Cheney-deprived front window at The Artery. There, in the VP's absence, we can observe an unabashedly polemical work of art, Lourdan Kimbrell's ceramic installation "13 Birds." Reminiscent of the work of the late sculptor George Segal, "13 Birds" features a life-size male figure, in jeans and a T-shirt, standing barefoot amidst a shallow pile of sand, where 12 tar-covered seagulls lie in varied states of fatal anguish. With an oleaginous bronze-black coating, the human figure stands with its head back, chin up, eyes partially closed, pained by the plight of its fellow creatures. The right arm is a mere stump, the severed right hand held in the figure's left hand.
Well, well, well. What do we make of this piece? Kimbrell, an Oakland artist who teaches classes in the human figure in clay at that city's Studio One Art Center, certainly makes a strong, if overly obvious, statement. In these complacent SUV-crazed days, it can't hurt to be reminded that our petroleum addiction has consequences. If anything, considering that more oil than a dozen Exxon Valdez's routinely seeps into our waterways from the road surface residue left by motor vehicles, Kimbrell's piece is UNDERSTATED. How's that Mr. Cheney?
However, environmental commentary aside, what does Kimbrell's "13 Birds" say about the state of ceramic art today? This work is, after all, featured as part of The Artery's statewide competition jurored by Sacramento ceramicist Yoshio Taylor. Placed at the front entrance, "13 Birds" is unavoidable for gallery visitors, flavoring their experience with the other 36 featured works, overpowering the neighboring ceramic piece, Oakland artist Sebastian Hushbeck's not insubstantial six-foot tall "Untitled." Above all else, Kimbrell's work-massive, strong, difficult, decidedly "unpretty"-is evidence of clay's versatility as an expressive medium. And that's a good thing.
The 2001 California Clay Competition exhibit at The Artery offers a great sampling of the diverse range of work being done by ceramicists in our state. There are classic vessel forms, such as the masterful, richly colored "Globe" by Sacramento artist Eric Struck, or Fresno artist Lawrence Anderson's massive, bright "Light Storage Jar." The show also features accomplished figurative work, including the evocative abstracted nude "Reclaiming the Sacred Source: Simone" by Northridge artist Lynn Creighton; the humorous "El Sombrero De Elton" by Zachary Davis of Santa Rosa; and the constrictive untitled bust by Orangvale's James A. Coqiua.
On the whole this is one of the edgiest shows seen in these parts for some time, a tribute to juror Taylor's adventurous spirit. And it rewards frequent visits. Based on the evidence here, California ceramicists are pushing a lot of boundaries-political, metaphorical and aesthetic. For instance, the exhibit features several works that take the traditional "teapot" vessel form and manipulate it in a variety of ways, stretching it, adding textures, colors, sea shells and antlers. Perhaps the most successful of these is Long Beach artist Joseph Pinkelman's "Kimono #1", which elongates the teapot into segments up to the torso and head of a woman, finishing it with a weathered copper hue, creating a layered commentary on domesticity and gender.
The classic figure is also tampered with here. San Diego artist Barbara Broadwell's "Litany" abbreviates a female bust with metal, adding a mesh bodice, placing a doll's head adjacent the figure's ear, suggesting the verbiage that routinely assaults our consciousness. Holly Curcio, a recent transplant to Davis, makes inventive symbolic use of color and textures with her figurative bust "Darkness Becomes You," implying the ambiguous ways we conceal and reveal ourselves to the world, probing into secret territory where the heart's innermost fears and desires stir.
There's a lot of risk-taking being done with the work featured at The Artery. Not every daring effort succeeds as well as we might like. But we can appreciate the bold bravado of the attempt. And if the result stimulates some thoughts about the decrepit state of our national politics, so much the better.
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