Earth, Hand and Fire

Foothills throws the state's best-known ceramics fest.

Across from the McNairs are a group of very strange-looking organic abstractions by Lafayette's Katie Martineau-Caron that seem to be inspired both by seeds and science fiction. The most impressive of the Martineau-Caron works is "Nesting Pods," a multi-part wall-hung piece made of stoneware, porcelain and wool. The colors the artist uses are great, and I especially like the way the deep red accents work with the buff color of the unglazed clay. I also really like the way Martineau-Caron has preserved the soft look of the once-wet clay. She did this by expressively assembling the pieces when it was soft and not overworking the joints, allowing it to dry as is, so to speak.

Also in the Bartunek is a large display of wall sculptures and hand-built vessels by Janey Skeer from Denver. Skeer is probably the most famous ceramic artist in Colorado Clay, and she shows off her formidable skill with carved-slab-built vessels and wall pieces made from paper-thin woven clay.

The show continues into the Waelchli Gallery and the gallery beyond. These combined spaces are the largest, and it's in this final section that most of the artists in Colorado Clay are featured. Just to the left as we enter Waelchli is a large wall installation called "Life Cycle," by Boulder's Pamela Olson. The piece is in the form of a mandala, eight feet in diameter, made from more than a thousand individually fired porcelain elements; these are based on the forms of the seedpods from which they were cast. The porcelain was left unglazed, and the elements were placed on a white wall. This white-on-white effect, which is very neat, suggests a nineteenth-century coverlet, but I don't think that was Olson's intention.

"Youth," by Marie E.v.B. Gibbons, clay with post-fired 
"Youth," by Marie E.v.B. Gibbons, clay with post-fired finishes.
"Nesting Pods," by Katie Martineau-Caron, stoneware, 
porcelain and wool.
"Nesting Pods," by Katie Martineau-Caron, stoneware, porcelain and wool.


Through August 22, Foothills Art Center, 809 15th Street, Golden, 303-279-3922

Interestingly, "Life Cycle" shares many things with the wall installations by Gibbons and Martineau-Caron, especially since they're all based on natural forms. But Olson's is also different. Her composition is highly structured while theirs are free-form; her elements have been cast from life, and theirs have not.

Straight ahead in the adjoining space is another wall installation that relates well to the others. It's a large, inverted triangle formed of wholly abstract elements by Carol Juddiece Cooper of Westminster. In it, the clay was twisted and smashed into odd, flattened shapes that were then arranged hieratically.

To the left are the last of the red-hot multi-part installations in Colorado Clay: "The General," "Queen Catterhines" and "Kissing Cousins," all by Boulder boy genius Matthew Katz, a recent graduate of the University of Colorado. The three post-modern pieces by Katz are very similar, having essentially been composed in the same way. There's a central medallion flanked by sconces and wall-mounted pedestals, and in the middle of each medallion is a monkey's head rendered in high relief.

The medallions, sconces and pedestals are piss-elegant in their details, with their forms being based not on baroque originals from the 1500s and 1600s, but on the plastic kitsch copies of them done in the 1950s and '60s that are readily available in thrift stores. Riffing on the history of bad taste is only one of the things going on in Katz's work. He also crudely finished the cast earthenware so that mold seams were left visible and the air bubbles left unfilled. And by painting silhouettes across them, he camouflaged parts so that they disappear against the wall in places. These Katzes are really wild and very ambitious.

Next to the Katzes are some of the only artists in Colorado Clay who are actually doing good, old-fashioned vessels. But since Held showed a distinct preference for sculpture, most of the vessels have a sculptural quality. Dan Fogelberg creates dramatic organic abstractions and covers them with remarkable iridescent high-gloss glazes. Shelley Shreiber and Carla Kappa both seem to be looking at industrial ceramics, with Shreiber keying in on classic modernism and Kappa referencing California kitsch.

One of the most interesting artists in the whole show is Matt Huebschmann from Denver. His raku pieces are gorgeous, even though they're just modest little bowls. But despite their small size, the forms and the glazes he uses are absolutely perfect for the job.

This year's rendition of Colorado Clay does have its disappointments, especially the critical shortage of vessels. But the show reveals a nagging truth: Ceramics is increasingly merging with sculpture and installation and may soon be indistinguishable from them. Fortunately, that hasn't happened yet -- even if Peter Held would like to hasten the arrival of the day that it does. Being a longtime pothead myself, and with all due respect to the important place of non-functional ceramics, it's certainly not something I would want to encourage. Clay has its own special and peculiar meaning, history and tradition, and call me a sentimental fool if you want to, but surely all of that is contained in the vessel (pardon the pun), and that makes it something worth holding on to.

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