Thermo-dynamics

The Foothills Art Center presents the current edition of the state's most significant ceramics exhibit.

Last spring, in conjunction with the annual meeting of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts, there was an unprecedented effort by local galleries, art centers and museums to present shows on the broad topic of ceramics. The result was nearly a hundred exhibits all at the same time. This year, however, things are back to normal, which means there are only a handful of ceramics shows.

One of the best -- and clearly the first and foremost among the lot -- is that old workhorse, the Colorado Clay Exhibition, a ceramics extravaganza that's been an annual event at Golden's Foothills Art Center since the 1970s.

As she has in recent years, longtime Foothills director Carol Dickinson selected a celebrity juror to pick the works to be included in the show. The juror this year was Wayne Higby, an internationally known ceramics artist who lives in New York but was born and raised in Colorado. In fact, when he was in high school, Higby studied with Mary Chenoweth at the Bemis Art School in Colorado Springs; in college, he studied with Betty Woodman in Boulder .

Detail of "beds," by Martha Russo, porcelain and metal sculpture.
Detail of "beds," by Martha Russo, porcelain and metal sculpture.
"Canyon Series I," by Vicky Hansen, stoneware.
"Canyon Series I," by Vicky Hansen, stoneware.

Higby was in Golden a few weeks ago to award prizes and to give a lecture before heading to Colorado Springs, where a retrospective, Wayne Higby: Landscape as Memory, was opening at the Fine Arts Center (that show continues through May 27). During that time, he sat down with me and explained his approach to Colorado Clay.

"I chose artists," he said. "I think that's what Carol wanted me to do. I didn't choose pieces. I looked at all the slides, but I didn't think, 'Oh, I like that piece' or 'I don't like that.' Instead, I looked at each artist's pieces all together as a whole, and I juried the show that way." Higby believes that this is a better method for evaluating work than simply choosing the best pieces. "Don't you think it's possible for someone to do just one good pot?" he asks. "Well, maybe not. But good artists can do bad pots sometimes."

The show Higby shaped through his selections is notably more spare than previous shows; he chose only nineteen artists, about a half-dozen shy of what's been seen in recent years. But consistent with his philosophy as a juror, most of the artists are seen in depth, and that's a difference from previous years, too.

Another interesting feature of the show -- one that went right by me until Dickinson pointed it out -- is that the exhibit is dominated by women. As it turns out, women have played a large and prominent role in American studio ceramics, a field, unlike painting, that has long been open to women and in which women have played key roles.

Higby's selections also reveal his taste for clay that's been handled in gestural and expressionistic ways. He reveals a taste for traditional vessels and for sculptures based on vessel forms. His preferences in glazing are equally conservative, with subtle, Oriental-inspired shades of green, cream and brown predominating. Simple pieces sporting faint Oriental accents constitute a major theme, although there are a handful of other styles as well.

The show begins in the Metsopoulos gallery, just off the homey entrance to Foothills. The first pieces that come into view are the very Japanesque vessels by Lafayette's David Beumée, an artist whose work has been seen in several previous versions of Colorado Clay. Beumée works in porcelain, which he loosely throws and then alters before glazing. In "Ikebana Vessel III," he creates a cylindrical version of the classic upright type of Japanese flower-arranging vessel. It has been glazed a ginger brown with a white interior. The surfaces have been heavily figured with raised lines. "Serving Plate," a charger finished in foamy cream over brown, also captures the quiet elegance associated with Japanese ceramics.

Nearby are figural vessels by Sumi von Dassow that refer to American Indian ceramics. These serve as a perfect setup for another show going on at Foothills, The Miracle of Mata Ortiz. This exhibit has been installed in the connecting corridor and, as such, is an unavoidable interruption in the flow of Colorado Clay. The work of more than twenty contemporary Mexican potters working in the village of Mata Ortiz in northern Chihuahua has been showcased here. These potters create contemporary translations of ancient Mexican vessels, a tradition that was revived just a generation ago -- hence the 'miracle' in the show's title. (A second exhibit, El Milagro de Mata Ortiz, is being presented concurrently at the Native American Trading Company here in Denver.)

After this brief, if edifying, distraction, Colorado Clay gets back on track in the Bartunek Gallery, where Dickinson has installed some of the more conceptual pieces, in which ceramics are used to make sculptural groups or installations.

Hung on one wall are a series of bas-reliefs by Denver's Tsehai Johnson. Half of the white and silver ceramic wall pieces are collectively titled "Eight Dispensers." They have been hung above the other half, which are called "Eight Receptacles." The inspiration for these pieces -- aside from the obvious sexual one -- is very apparently bathroom fixtures, especially of the gas-station restroom variety. Industrial design is a main current in ceramic art, but it is only rarely seen in the context of studio ceramics as it is in Johnson's pieces. Some may link Johnson's sculptures to Marcel Duchamp's notorious "Fountain," a sculpture made from an inverted urinal. But that would be wrong, because Johnson's pieces are not ready-made, as is "Fountain." They are instead hand- and custom-made objects.

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