Lumps of Clay

Clay is a material that occupies a special--or should that be peculiar?--place in the world of the visual arts. It is most often employed in the making of utilitarian objects such as cups, mugs and vases and is therefore relegated to the underworld of the decorative arts--the much-maligned craft tradition. On the other hand, lowly clay has also been used as a mate-rial for the creation of sculpture and so is associated with the much more respected fine-art tradition. But the ongoing argument about whether ceramics is an art or a craft, though lively, is somewhat meaningless--because it's clearly both.

That duality is amply illustrated in Altered States: Contemporary American Ceramics, a breathtakingly beautiful exhibit that closes next week at Metropolitan State College's Center for the Visual Arts in lower downtown Denver. In this show it's hard to tell at times whether we're seeing a teapot that looks like a sculpture or a sculpture that looks like a teapot. The ambiguity is no accident--it's exactly what exhibit organizer and gallery director Sally Perisho had in mind.

Since 1990 Perisho has distinguished herself as one of the most innovative and adventurous exhibition organizers in the city. She has turned Metro's LoDo gallery into something approximating a small museum--and thereby made it a rival to much larger institutions. Over the years, she has taken a special interest in ceramics, typically mounting an annual show on the topic and, in the process, developing a considerable expertise. For Altered States, Perisho invited sixteen ceramic artists from across the country, four of whom live and work in Colorado.

Several of the artists selected for the show work at least nominally in the functional tradition of ceramics; that's surely the case with Denver artist Skeffington Thomas, whose spectacular work is represented by a pair of "Iron Teapots" and what he calls a "Pouring Vessel," all made in 1996. Thomas writes in his artist's statement that the teapots and vessel were inspired by "images from old-fashioned press irons," which symbolize for him "daily ritual." But these are no everyday objects. Instead, they're elaborate assemblages of altered wheel-thrown shapes combined with hand-built elements that have then been finely joined, finished and decorated. Especially notable is Thomas's approach to color--in this case, two examples of Chinese-translation glaze, both peacock blue with red.

Also working with a utilitarian vocabulary is Sergei Isupov, an Estonian-born artist currently working at the Nine Pine Studio in Louisville, Kentucky. Educated in Estonia and the Ukraine and having exhibited widely in Scandinavia, Isupov's approach has a definite European flavor. His vessels' forms are heavily influenced by their numerous decorations; for example, the 1996 teapot "Don't Look Straight at the Sun" has been crafted to accommodate the nude woman on the pot, whose raised arm provides the spout.

Going even further afield with the vessel tradition is Harris Deller, who teaches at Southern Illinois University. Deller has fashioned vases, cups and a teapot and then flattened them so dramatically that they take on the illusion of two-dimensionality. To create these silhouette-like entities, Deller uses white porcelain clay, which he incises with lines of black glaze. The result is high-fired at over 2,000 degrees and thus vitrified, which leaves the white porcelain, as Deller describes it, "hard, irregular and unrefined." Obviously picky about how his work is presented, Deller has created wooden stands, shelves and even a niche to display his work.

Also taking liberties with vessel forms is Hyun Chong Kim, a Korean-American graduate student at Indiana State University. In the "Metamorphosis" series, two examples of which have been included in Altered States, Kim combines several thrown and hand-built forms to create three-legged lidded jars. The resulting pieces, which have been splashed with colorful glazes, are asymmetrical, which Kim intends as a critique of the tradition of symmetry in Korean ceramics. But Kim hasn't totally abandoned her aesthetic ancestors: she's also represented by some very traditional covered jars.

For a different approach to ancient ceramic traditions, Perisho turned to Brad Miller, a world-renowned artist who lives in Woody Creek, Colorado. For the last twenty years, Miller has created ceramics--and photographs and drawings--that he sees as "contemporary reconfigurations of ancient and universal imagery." In Altered States, he's represented by a pair of bowls and a group of simplified figures, all completed earlier this year and all made of unglazed stoneware. Miller often assembles groups of his pieces into small installations, a practice echoed by several of the other artists included in the show.

Nicholas Wood, who teaches at the University of Texas at Arlington, displays seven wall-hung bas-reliefs from 1994 that together form a single work of art titled "Ins and Outs." Juan Granados of Texas Tech presents similar bas-reliefs, but unlike Wood's, his are individual sculptures. Granados, the son of Mexican immigrant farmworkers, tilled the fields himself in his younger days. That experience is reflected in the vegetal shapes of his bas-reliefs, which also at times recall the body's internal organs, especially the heart, as in "Pump #3." Picking up on the agrarian theme, in "Paired #2," two figures seem to be sprouting out of a flower.

Some of the finest pieces in this show are by Jeremy Jernegan, a teacher at Tulane University and director of the Newcomb Art Gallery, long a center for ceramics in the South. In Jernegan's masterful "Marking Time," cylindrical, keylike shapes have been hung from high hooks. Each is glazed in a different shade of blue or green. Some have bubbling, scabrous surfaces; others feature incising and sgraffito that either catch or resist the glaze. Jernegan also presents three remarkable sculptures formed by piling cylindrical and conical forms on top of one another to create eight-foot-tall spikes.

Similar to Jernegan's spikes are the large sculpture piles by Cameron Crawford, who teaches at California State University at Chico. Whereas Jernegan uses simple abstract shapes, Crawford's works are clearly representational, conjuring up various building materials such as bricks and, more prominently, columns. In 1995's "Broken Promises," Crawford assembles a group of ruined columns, precariously stacking them and mounting them on a crumbling brick pedestal.

The last group of artists in the show has broken away completely from the forms typically associated with the ceramic medium. Aurore Chabot, who received her MFA at CU-Boulder and now teaches at the University of Arizona, creates magnificent, oddball surface detailing via an elaborate technique that includes slab-building and press-molding. Leah Hardy, who works in Laramie, Wyoming, and Linda McRae, from the University of South Florida, both look to two-dimensional work for their inspiration. Hardy's brightly colored wall niches resemble paintings, while McRae's mixed-media assemblages refer to and incorporate photography.

Other artists settle for creating recognizable objects with near-photographic accuracy. Phyllis Kloda, who teaches at the University of Wyoming, makes still-life views of vegetables that are evocative of the paintings of the old masters. In the 1996 sculpture "...Ooh La! Vegetable Hot Dish," a cabbage, a radish and other vegetables have been arranged on a plate. Kloda's attention to detail makes for an exceptional Bird's Eye view.

The University of Denver's highly regarded Maynard Tischler also has a careful eye for detail. In a small 1996 stoneware clay installation titled "Woody Wagon," the antique car of the title has been charmingly rendered in blue, silver and wood tones and has been paired with an old-fashioned gas pump overseen by two attendants--one a rhinoceros, the other an alligator. In "350 MPH," a tiny red race car produces a huge cloud of dust, which Tischler kicks up with a huge, heavily worked glob of clay. Philadelphia's Syd Carpenter also employs recognizable objects in her sculptures, but unlike the whimsical Tischler, she puts them in abstract combinations. In "Cure in a Bottle," a painted clay sculpture from 1994, a large bottle lies on its side and spills out a star-shaped "cure."

Viewers may be surprised to find nationally respected Metro State professor Rodger Lang treading somewhat common ground with "Nake #2" and "Nake #3," a pair of conventionalized and oversized rattlesnakes. More expected from Lang is the signature 1994 sculpture "Cryptic Vestige #4: White Draped," part of a series he has worked on since 1986. There the snake form appears again, but this time in a more Lang-like abstracted shape.

Altered States succeeds as a survey of a wide variety of techniques and as a guide to some of the best ceramic artists in the country. And exhibition organizer Perisho says she's thrilled with the response to the show, even if many viewers--perhaps still grappling with the art-versus-craft question--have come expecting to find holiday gift ideas of mugs and bowls. They may not have found Christmas presents, but they surely could not have gone away disappointed.

Altered States: Contemporary American Ceramics, through December 18 at the MSCD Center for the Visual Arts, 1701 Wazee Street, 294-5207.

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