Mud Flies

Foothills hosts a big ceramics show, while clay artist Tsehai Johnson takes a turn at +.

Learning about her childhood in Turkey makes the work in Sampling easier for me to understand. The country, as students of both geography and history know, is partly Western and partly Eastern. This has led to a rich decorative history that combines elements of both European and Asian visual cultures. A certain current in traditional Turkish style is an over-the-top Rococo that sort of looks like the most excessive high-style French -- but meatier. Also, there's the preeminence of patterns in decoration, because Islam forbids the depiction of people or animals. Thus, Johnson's interest in patterns surely is the product, at least in some sense, of her Turkish childhood.

Another aspect of her work seems much more American: the use of household cleaning tools as formal sources of inspiration. Things like toilet brushes in fanciful renditions, complete with bristles. Using mundane homemaker's tools as referents has been a central pillar of the women's art movement of the past few decades and can be traced back to Judy Chicago's hugely famous "Dinner Party," which Johnson cites as an inspiration for her work.

No discussion of Johnson would be complete without bringing up the political firestorm her work sparked last year. In the midst of the campaigns for Referenda C & D, the Independence Institute's Jon Caldara cited an image posted on the Colorado Council for the Arts website to demonstrate wasteful government spending. The piece in question was Johnson's "Large Implements on Hooks" which were shapes that had been inspired by dildos. The fact that Johnson had received a state grant for her work in general -- and not to create "Large Implements" specifically -- mattered little to Caldara or those who used the piece in their anti-C and -D campaigns. Governor Bill Owens weighed in on the matter, condemning Johnson's creation. Subsequently, all the art on the CCA's website was pulled by Elaine Mariner, the head of the council and a noted coward.

"Dusky Phenomenon Ewer," by Paul Morris, glazed 
earthenware.
"Dusky Phenomenon Ewer," by Paul Morris, glazed earthenware.
Installation view of Tsehai Johnson's "Field #4," 
porcelain and plastic bristles.
Installation view of Tsehai Johnson's "Field #4," porcelain and plastic bristles.

Details

Colorado Clay 2006
Through May 7, Foothills Art Center, 809 15th Street, Golden, 303-279-3922

Sampling
Though April 8, + Gallery, 2350 Lawrence Street, 303-296- 0927

When I spoke with Johnson about the hurricane of controversy, she was downright annoyed even to be talking about it. At one point, she even asked if that was why I had requested an interview with her in the first place. As I think about it now, the answer is yes, since I didn't need her to explain what her work was about. I already knew that. I can understand why Johnson found the experience unpleasant: She was willfully misrepresented by those who attacked her and by many of the reporters and columnists who covered the story, including Channel 9's Paula Woodward, who was something of a catalyst for the whole thing. On the other hand, it's a tad disingenuous of Johnson to be surprised when art about dildos becomes controversial, especially when it's linked, no matter how tenuously, to public funding for the arts.

The pieces in Tsehai Johnson's Sampling are totally uncontroversial, though some of the notorious "Large Implements on Hooks" are on view in the back. Just a reminder: There's very little time left to see the efforts of this reluctant symbol of artistic freedom, with the show closing at + this very Saturday, April 8.

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