Real and Imagined

Ceramics struggle for respect in the art world.

Well, after two years of local preparation, the National Council for Education in the Ceramic Arts 2000 meeting came and went last week in only a few days. But if NCECA's gone, it's not forgotten. Temporary though it may be, it's left behind a legacy in the form of more than fifty ceramic exhibits that have been mounted locally.

Though some them have already closed, many others will be open through the summer and a few will remain until the fall. What this means is that those of us who did not attend the NCECA conference will get the opportunity to see the substantial accomplishments of numerous ceramic artists, most of them from Colorado.

All of the recent attention on ceramics reveals the fact that clay, most of the time, is virtually excluded from Denver's contemporary art world -- in a typical year, there are only a handful of clay shows. When things get back to normal by the end of April, there'll be fifty painting shows instead, and we won't even take notice.

"Origin," by Ron Pollard, computer-generated image.
"Origin," by Ron Pollard, computer-generated image.
"Heterogeneous," by Bruce Price, acrylic on Masonite.
"Heterogeneous," by Bruce Price, acrylic on Masonite.

This situation reflects a widespread prejudice in contemporary art: Painting is favored while ceramics are denigrated. There's an imaginary hierarchy in the visual arts that puts painting at the top of the heap and ceramics very near the bottom, just above the making of potholders. Some, I dare say many, don't even consider ceramics to be a fine art at all, sneering as they tar it with the name "craft." But if these people made the effort to see some of the relevant exhibits around town right now, they would realize that many ceramic artists are actually making sculpture, which has long been considered a fine art. And what's wrong with well-crafted vessels, anyway?

Ron Judish, the director of Ron Judish Fine Arts in lower downtown, confesses to having formerly shared this negative view of ceramics. In fact, "except for artists like Betty Woodman," he didn't even view the field as being relevant to the fine arts. "I thought of ceramics as bric-a-brac, all artsy-craftsy," he says.

Then, a year ago, Rodger Lang, the organizer of the NCECA conference, contacted Judish, among many others, and urged him to put on a ceramic show. In spite of his low opinion of ceramics, Judish said he'd cooperate. "I like the idea of coordinated efforts by the community," he explains. He gave Lang the catch-all title of Volume, set the opening and closing dates, and put the idea on the back burner.

"Rodger is so organized and he lays everything out way in advance, and though I hate to admit it, I'm not like that at all," Judish says. "I put together shows at the eleventh hour!" As evidence, he points out that none of the five artists in Volume were even associated with the gallery when he committed to doing the exhibit.

At first, Judish considered doing a show without including ceramics at all. "Ceramics are about volume, so with the title, I thought I could present paintings and sculptures that were also concerned with volume," he says. He finally decided he needed to include ceramics, and he's glad he did. "I love the way the ceramics look in the gallery." But he couldn't bring himself to go all the way, so there is also a sculptor and a painter.

The largest of three untitled sculptures by Denver artist Jeff Richards is visible even before we enter the gallery, filling the corner of its display windows. Constructed from unfinished plywood and simple in its details, this sculpture and the other two by Richards are akin to the trio of pieces he exhibited last fall in Colorado Vernacular at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. Across the side of the sculpture, the red rubber-stamped markings of the plywood manufacturer have been left on and serve as an informal decorative element, as do the many knotholes that pockmark the low-grade material.

The sculpture takes an architectonic form, in which a vertically oriented rectilinear shape has been placed on top of a rectangle which is more exaggerated in its verticality. The architectural reference may be expected, given that Richards's day job is as a designer and AutoCAD operator for the Denver landscape architecture firm of EDAW. Although he uses AutoCAD's digital drafting feature in designing his sculptures, they're so simple that a straight-edge and a No. 2 pencil would have been sufficient. Well, that's progress for you.

The two vertical shapes that make up the sculpture are separated by a space made by four square blocks which holds them apart. The resulting slit, in what would otherwise be a monolith, allows light to pass through the piece as demonstrated by the shadows cast on the wall. Richards views this directed light in shadow as a key element of his sculpture, and argues that this gives them an installation component. It's a subtle point and it may enrich our visual experience, but much more emphatic is the way these pieces refer to the minimalist sculpture of the 1960s and '70s, especially the unfinished plywood. Perhaps the reflected light makes these sculptures a little different, and thus they could be examples of a kind of neo-minimalism that is currently popular worldwide.

Also impressive is Richards's other large sculpture, installed facing the door. This piece is a tilted vertical slab made of unfinished plywood that leans against the wall and also incorporates shadows.

In the middle of the room, on a low platform, Judish has placed three ceramic sculptures by Florida's Barbara Sorensen that take the form of monumental chalices. Sorensen's work is well-known in Aspen because she has come to the area periodically to work at the renowned Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village.

The three closely related pieces, each titled "Pas de Trois" and distinguished by the numbers 1, 2 and 3, are hand-built stoneware that incorporate small Colorado river rocks on the rims and collars. The bases and bodies of all three chalices suggest the texture of cloth. Sorensen has pressed ribbed fabric into the clay, which left its three-dimensional pattern, then gathered it like drapery while it was still wet.

On the other side of these, along the wall, is a row of six pedestals with a glazed ceramic bowl by Michael Brohman placed on top of each. The bowls are all similar, each being finished in dark earth-tones. And the sculpted features lavishly embellished on and inside them settle the issue of whether or not they are sculptures. They are because they don't actually function as usable vessels.

Brohman studied ceramics at Colorado State University while earning a bachelor of science degree in design in 1991. The influence of Richard DeVore, the famous ceramics professor there, is easy to see, especially in terms of the gestural, billowing forms of Brohman's bowls and the piercing of the surface seen in some.

Later, Brohman received a master's in architecture from the University of Colorado at Denver and practiced briefly as an architect before turning to sculpture, his true calling, in the late 1990s. He currently teaches sculpture at UCD. In the conference room at Judish, accessed through the back gallery, there are a couple of his recent monumental bronze sculptures of conventionalized nudes on view.

In the long and narrow central room at the gallery is a row of wall-mounted shelves that are used to display a series of gorgeous hand-built ceramic vessels by Jeff Wenzel. In the 1980s, Wenzel was chiefly known for his ceramics; he was a teaching assistant for the legendary ceramic sculptor Peter Voulkos at the University of California at Berkeley -- where he received his master of arts and master of fine arts degrees -- and studied drawing and painting with Elmer Bishoff and Joan Brown. When Wenzel moved to Colorado more than a decade ago, he turned away from ceramics, however, and became an abstract painter. His paintings, done on torn and twisted paper, are not unrelated to the earlier ceramic vessels in Volume.

In "Red Fish Vessel," Wenzel lays sheets of clay with Picassoid fish painted on them around the hand-formed vase. "African Mud Fish Vessel" is made in a similar way, with slabs of clay applied to the outside of the vase. Simpler in form are his "Envelope Vessels," thin horizontal sculptures that have been slab-built and glazed in stripes. The triangular folds of an envelope have been translated into visible joints in the rolled clay sheets from which the slabs are made.

Opposite the Wenzels is a section devoted to the neo-minimalist paintings and a painted sculpture by Bruce Price. A student just five years ago, Price has had quite a ride. His paintings, which are both hard-edged and expressionistic, got their premiere at the Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery three years ago; it's been onward and upward since then.

Price's mentor and former teacher, painter Clark Richert, views his onetime student as among the most important abstract painters working in the area right now. So do many others. Last year, Price was the subject of a sought-after solo show at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. His work was also included in the significant Colorado Abstraction exhibit last fall at the Arvada Center.

In Volume, his painted sculpture "Heterogeneous," done in acrylic on board, is a courageous piece. It's made of two rectangular solids pushed against one another to form a horizontal shape. The two solids have been painted separately, and even the parts we can't see have been finished. The joint between them forms a central division. On the edges, Price wraps rectangular painted shapes around the corner, which suggests additional inserted rectangular solids. One of the most interesting features is the mottled, painterly finish in places, which is juxtaposed to matte painted sections elsewhere.

This tension between finishes introduces the illusion of three-dimensionality into the flat surfaces of Price's paintings, even to his painted sculptures. The indefinite surfaces recede; the solid surfaces proceed. It's even more obvious in the pair of small square paintings, "Plato" and "Pythagoras," both done in acrylic and dust on canvas. Each has a white square at the surface which seems to float on gray and cream passages that are heavily obscured with clear acrylic glaze.

The larger, easel-sized painting "Real & Actual," in acrylic and graphite on canvas, is based on the same relationships. A white rectangle filling the upper left of the corner is laid on top, partly obscuring a graphite square with a cream border. Like "Plato" and "Pythagoras," "Real & Actual" incorporates the luminous effects of acrylic glazes.

Price, with his titles and his mixing of painted effects, attempts to reconcile opposing features -- which has been his interest all along.

Since photography is a specialty of the gallery -- Judish is interested in particular in experimental photography -- he has supplemented Volume with a small photography show in the back gallery entitled Kodachrome. This exhibit includes the work of seven contemporary photographers from Denver and elsewhere.

David Sharpe, Sarah Timberlake and Susan Moldenhauer create abstracted scenes based on the western landscape; Patricia Barry Levy and Stephen Barker both use the human figure as their taking-off points; and Bob Coller and Ron Pollard create computerized abstract photographs.

Interestingly, Pollard's two lightjet prints mounted on aluminum, "Origin" and "Translucent World," would be just as appropriate in Volume as they are here since he is a neominimalist like Richards and Price.

Judish may not have had the self-discipline to devote an entire show to ceramics in order to honor NCECA, but he unintentionally did ceramics a favor by putting it in the context of other art forms -- painting, sculpture and photography -- and in that way allowed the medium to stand out among them.

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