Colorado has an important ceramics tradition that stretches back a century. But the ranks of the top artists in the field have taken some big hits over the past decade: Betty Woodman retired from teaching in Boulder and moved to New York; Rodger Lang and Jim McKinnell died; and Nan McKinnell and Paul Soldner are getting on in years and are less active than they once were. And now Martha Daniels is planning to move to New Mexico. (For more news about Soldner and Daniels, see page 45.)
At least there's one constant in the ceramics world: Colorado Clay 2008, at Foothills Art Center in Golden. The show, which has been mounted regularly since the 1970s, definitely has something to say about the topic, even if this year's statement comes from the somewhat skewed perspective of Richard Notkin, the celebrity juror. Notkin, who lives in Montana, studied with the likes of Ken Ferguson and Robert Arneson, which explains why he considers himself a sculptor even though he is best known for his teapots. Truth be told, though, these are hardly ordinary teapots: Notkin uses delicately done pictorial imagery in bas-relief and often incorporates left-wing political content. He illustrates his anti-war point of view, effectively turning these vessels into sculptures.
The exhibit in Golden includes a standalone adjunct consisting of examples of Notkin's oeuvre in the form of gorgeous unglazed tiles that refer to current events or the history of art. It used to be a longstanding tradition in Colorado Clay for the juror's work to be on view so that visitors could figure out where he or she was coming from. That aspect of the show was dropped for a while, and I'm glad it's been brought back.
To his credit, Notkin has been up front about his prejudices, writing in his juror's statement that he "gravitated towards sculptural works with figurative imagery, implied narratives, and tight craftsmanship." Additionally, he rejected artists who did strictly functional ceramics — as opposed to nominally functional things like anti-war teapots — though there are a handful of exceptions in the form of three undeniably accomplished vessel-makers who find themselves among the twelve included ceramicists.
Given that Asian ceramics has been the predominant influence in American studio ceramics over the past hundred years or so, it's not surprising that these three are riffing off of Chinese and Japanese traditions. One of the best-known potters in Colorado Clay, Connie Christensen, throws simple cups, trays, tumblers and lidded boxes finished in earth-toned colors that she shapes and alters while the clay is still malleable. Even more consciously Asian in feeling are the gorgeous little black teapots by Shane Porter, which Notkin points out are responses to traditional unglazed vessels done in Yixing, China.
The last of the vessel-makers who made Notkin's cut is Jonathan Kaplan, and I'd say his work is the major revelation of the show. Kaplan, who runs Plinth Gallery on Brighton Boulevard, is represented by a quartet of monumental and spectacular baluster bottles. The basic forms are freely and expertly thrown before handles are added; then the entire piece is finished, mostly in monochromes. On two of them, the handles are exquisitely modeled birds, while another has fish; the last of the group has handles made of serrated geometric elements. An active ceramicist and designer for about thirty years, Kaplan is a relatively new name in Denver, but, judging from his high standard of both art and craft, one that I'm sure will be firmly established in no time.
Annie Chrietzberg is also associated with Plinth, but for her, industrial decorative ceramics are more significant an influence than Asian aesthetics. This is definitely the case with her most successful work in Colorado Clay, "Butterflies," an oil-and-vinegar cruet set in which simplified butterfly shapes sit atop a fluted planter shape. Enhancing the industrial look, her multi-hued glazes refer back to mid-century kitsch pottery made by the thousands in ceramics factories in Ohio and California. There is also an industrial feel to the geometric constructions by Jenna Perstlinger, in which she stacks up flat steps of clay to form architectonic compositions. These are amazing examples of craft.
In contrast, most of Notkin's chosen artists use representational imagery in their pieces and look to modern and traditional figural sculpture for inspiration. The most obviously Notkin-esque artist in the show is Mike Keene, who makes urns and other ceremonial-type pieces covered in shallow bas-relief sculptures. Like Notkin, Keene is interested in raising political issues with his work.
A standout among the figural sculptors is Caroline Douglas. Her eight sculptures are examples of magic realism, in which children's storybook characterizations are given an edge through, in her case, incongruity of scales and the remarkably beautiful glaze effects she conjures up. "Night Ride" depicts a child riding a huge red fox, which may sound silly or even in bad taste, but looks very elegant anyway. Her tour de force is an enormous and elaborate three-part sculpture recalling Noah's Ark, titled "Slow Boat to China," in which expressively modeled animals crowd the deck of a boat.
Stylistically related to these figures are the odd busts by Marie E.v.B. Gibbons, who combines casts of readymades with custom-done elements. There's a gothic quality here, notably in "Divine," a buxom bald figure in a low-cut blouse, and "Façade," a bare-breasted woman with hands arrayed around her head. Maybe it's the simplification of the faces or the bulbous shapes of their bodies, but they made me think of Elie Nadelman's early modernist sculptures done almost a century ago. I've long respected Gibbons's imaginative work, and these are no disappointment.
Along the same lines are the muddy little heads and figures by Penney Bidwell that incorporate found objects. Astoundingly, Bidwell has only been working in ceramics for a year or so, but her sculptures, which embrace childlike forms, don't look as if they were done by a beginner, or even by a folk artist, which, in a sense, I think she is.
A few artists in Colorado Clay are doing work in a contemporary sculpture mode, including Chandler Romeo's pedestals topped by tiles depicting simplified topographical features. Also sculptural are the bas-relief and installations by Robyn Gray that combine renditions of pills and dolls. More thoroughly melding contemporary sculpture and ceramics are the formalist vessels by Shelley Schreiber, particularly her graceful "Nude," in which the female figure is reduced to a singular organic shape.
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I'll be honest: I was a little disappointed in this year's version of Colorado Clay. But since it is a juried show, many established artists won't enter in the first place. And there's no telling what might have been created by the artists whom Notkin rejected.
In other news from Foothills, the center is organizing a fortieth-anniversary celebration for August. The unofficial historian at Foothills is Ester Papenfus, who has been involved since 1978, ten years after the doors opened. When I ran into her last week, she told me she'd found newspaper articles about the center's first years. "You know, the history of Foothills would make an interesting article," she coyly told me. I'm sure she's right.
I also ran into new Foothills director Reilly Sanborn, who grew up in Colorado but spent the last decade on the East Coast. She replaced Jenny Cook Ito, who surprised everyone by announcing her departure last year. Sanborn would like to give Foothills a higher profile, with a beefed-up exhibition program. Visual art is a new interest for Sanborn, who's mostly worked in the business end of theater and performance. She says she'd like to get the entire block on which the center sits and would love to build a theater. But she cautions that everything is still in the realm of fantasy.
Plans for a major remodeling of the center, which began with the construction of the Carol and Don Dickinson Sculpture Garden in 2005, will be put on hold until Sanborn launches a capital campaign, perhaps in association with the anniversary celebration this summer. The sculpture garden was put in motion by Carol Dickinson, the longtime Foothills director who retired for health reasons; she has Parkinson's disease and recently suffered several mild strokes. Word is she's doing better and will soon be back home with husband Don. And that's certainly welcome news.