"Le Arnie," by Johan Creten, glazed ceramic and wood.

Clay Pride

These days, it's hard to mention the University of Colorado at Boulder and keep a straight face. I'm referring, of course, to the involuntary smirks, cringes and eye-rolling that are among the most common responses to hearing all the juicy dirt about the athletic department's controversial recruiting practices. (With the Air Force Academy sex scandal and the Kobe Bryant case, our beloved state has become the unofficial world capital of binge drinking and sexual assault.)

The daily roster of scandalous news at the nation's number-one party school has, to say the least, overshadowed the other, more wholesome -- if not more typical -- aspects of CU campus life, including the activities of the department of art and art history. This is not to say there's no dirt being thrown around by the art faculty and students, but I'm relieved to say that it's harmless clay dust.

CU is quite obviously a clay school, and ceramics is a famous specialty. The university is regarded as one of the top ten places in the country to study the medium. This special departmental focus is not unexpected, considering Colorado's century-old ceramics-friendly atmosphere. Nor is it particularly new, since world-famous ceramics artist Betty Woodman, who retired in the late 1990s and now lives in New York, taught in the department for decades.



Through March 19, CU Art Museum, Sibell-Wolle Fine Arts Building, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-8003

It makes sense, then, that the blockbuster exhibit at the CU Art Museum, BECAUSE THE EARTH IS 1/3 DIRT, is about the nature of contemporary ceramics. The show represents a tremendous undertaking on the part of the CUAM, because it includes many large-scale and unwieldy sculptures and installations, some of which were created on site specifically for Dirt.

As expansive as the exhibit is, though, it is also inflammatory. For instance, there are almost no vessels in the show, which is guaranteed to annoy traditionalists as well as others interested in the medium. Even more radical was the decision to include pieces that, properly speaking, are not really ceramics. The show has works of unfired clay, both wet and dry, and even one piece that's done in plaster!

Pushing at the edges of the medium was the aim of the exhibit's organizers, a committee of CU experts that includes CUAM director and curator Lisa Tamiris Becker and the university's three full-time ceramics professors: Scott Chamberlin, Kim Dickey and Jeanne Quinn.

"I feel very positively about the co-curating experience," Becker says. "I believe the show expresses high standards in terms of the curating. It's a museum-quality show, and, in addition, working with the three tenured faculty members, there have been many opportunities for interaction with their students. We are a learning institution, and working with the students is an important part of our mission."

Ceramics is a curatorial specialty of Becker's, but Dirt is the first such exhibit she's done since taking the CUAM director job a couple of years ago. Before she came to Colorado, however, she had organized shows of this type at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Wisconsin and at the University of California at Davis.

"We started with brainstorming sessions filled with lots of debate and editing," Becker says. "It was not about choosing our favorites, but about how the selected artists fit our thematic structure." Becker is referring to a complicated and multi-dimensional concept that forms the purported conceptual underpinning of the exhibit. Making a long story short, Becker says, "Everything in the show has a connection to the earth and also a connection to the culture."

That's actually pretty vague and, come to think of it, totally open-ended. Wouldn't anything made out of clay be connected simultaneously to the earth and the culture? I think it would, which means nothing could have been kept out of the show on the grounds that it didn't fit the theme -- because everything does.

The organizers' taste for diverse approaches is set up immediately in the first gallery. Though the works of only two artists are displayed here, the two groups provide a context for the show, because it could be said that, conceptually, everything that follows fits in between them. On pedestals along one wall are small, glazed and decorated forms by Leopold Foulem that critique traditional ceramics. In the middle of the room are two sculptures by Kristen Morgin that have nothing to do with that tradition.

Foulem, who is Quebecois, riffs on the history of pottery with pieces that look like examples of European chinoiserie. Thus they are hermeneutical, making them post-modern, because they are interpretations of earlier interpretations of Chinese ceramics and not direct responses to the originals. Foulem makes a point of not including voids, which means that these sculptures only look like vases but are, in point of fact, functionless. There's that post-modernism again.

Morgin is from California and does work that is antithetical to Foulem's and has nothing to do with ceramics, Chinese or otherwise. In fact, her pieces have more in common with contemporary sculpture that is not made of clay. Morgin's "Piano Forte" and "Topolino" are full-sized versions of a piano and a compact car, respectively; they are made of wood, cement, glue, wire and air-dried clay. The funky style she employs links the sculptures to the work of Ed Kienholz.

In the much larger center gallery are the works of a quartet of artists, but your eye will be inescapably drawn to the piece by Walter McConnell. "Itinerant Edens: Perpetual Spring" is a two-part installation composed of a pair of floor-to-ceiling columns made of clear plastic sheeting. These columns act as a humidor for the wet-clay sculptures ensconced inside them. Within the larger -- and far more complicated -- of the two is a tremendous profusion of plant forms, including roots, stems, leaves and blossoms, all of which were flawlessly rendered using plaster piece molds. In the smaller column is the figure of a fairy-tale princess looking out into the gallery. I understand why using wet clay was intriguing to McConnell -- it tweaks the whole heritage of the medium -- but I think it's a shame that "Itinerant Edens" is temporary. The installation is wonderful, and the thought of it being rendered back into a formless lump of mud is very sad.

The middle gallery also displays pieces by the only participant in Dirt who is doing old-fashioned vessels -- some of which are even functional. However, in a twist that seems in keeping with the mood of this show, the artist, New York's Ted Muehling, is not a potter, but a designer whose pieces are manufactured by Germany's Nymphenburg porcelain works. And, by the way, the Muehlings are exquisite.

Also in this center section are sculptures by Belgian-born Parisian artist Johan Creten, including a monumental figure titled "Why Does Strange Fruit Always Look So Sweet?" and "Le Arnie," an elegant installation of beehive-shaped forms on a wooden table. Next to the Cretens are the elegant conceptual pieces by another Belgian-born artist, Pieter Stockmans, who has worked extensively in Holland. Though Stockmans does make vessels -- he throws them himself, unlike Muehling -- he uses them as elements in conceptual installations rather than as utilitarian objects. Reflecting a similar sensibility to Foulem's, Stockmans's sculptures are hermeneutical, referring to blue-and-white Delftware from Holland, which itself derives from Chinese ceramic prototypes.

The last gallery is the largest, and it is here that the pieces by the final five Dirt artists are displayed, ranging from miniature figures to enormous installations. The miniatures by Saint Clair Cemin, a Brazilian who lives in New York, are really something else, and I absolutely love them. Highly abstracted and freely glazed, they are part of a tradition of figural sculpture that dates to the late nineteenth century.

On the floor in front of the Cemins is a piece by Wim Delvoye, a Belgian artist who, unlike Creten and Stockmans, still lives there. The piece, "Mosaic," was done in printed and glazed tiles and looks sort of like a Moorish pattern -- until you notice that the swirling lines are actually photographically accurate depictions of excrement. It struck me as being sort of gross and, worse, kind of dumb. I'm not as critical of the wall-mounted installation, "Mountain," by Sweden's Backa Carin Ivarsdotter, in which miniature slip-cast mountains are hung on a red painted ground, but it also left me pretty cold.

That's hardly how I felt about the magnificently baroque tile-based sculptures by Annabeth Rosen from California, which I think are very hot. Rosen starts with a tile slab and then builds up abstract forms in high relief. The resulting pieces are displayed horizontally, either individually or in groups. The largest assemblage of them is "Sample," in which the tiles are mounted on wire legs and then arranged in a large grid that seems to float above the floor.

The last piece in Dirt is "Coming Up for Air," a five-part sculptural group by Lawson Oyekan, a British-born artist who was raised in Nigeria. The totemic and phallic forms are suggestive of termite mounds, a natural occurrence in Nigeria. Interestingly, of all the work displayed, Oyekan's relates best to what's going on around here.

Speaking of which, it might have been nice to have some local content. Maybe Becker should have put the show together herself so that she could have included pieces by Chamberlin, Dickey and Quinn. Knowing their work as I do, they all would have fit in just great. It's really too bad, because had the three been in the show, Dirt would have been better and more relevant.

Sure, you'll go to CU's beautiful Boulder campus for all the booze and illicit sex, but you'll stay for the compelling BECAUSE THE EARTH IS 1/3 DIRT now at the CUAM.


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