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Crack Pots

The fine arts almost never get sucked into mass culture's real Internet--television. And when art does land in the TV spotlight, it usually suffers.

Typically, there are three circumstances in which an event in the world of the visual arts will arouse the attention of the networks and CNN: the sale of a precipitously expensive painting at auction; the death of a painter whose paintings were precipitously expensive at auction; or some act by an artist that offends the sensibilities of just about everyone.

This final category, the outrageous artist's act, is by far the most common--and the one that does the most damage to art's popular image. When a record price for a painting is cited, or when an artist who painted such a work dies, the electronic media's focus on the bottom line tends to degrade the art. But at least it implies a grudging respect, even if it's for all the wrong reasons. When an artist pulls some ridiculous stunt, however, it just makes everybody look bad.

How sad, then, that the two most widely disseminated Colorado art stories so far this year are the snot-nosed CU art student who revealed both his depth of shallowness and his severely limited technical gifts in a tasteless mural about JonBenet Ramsey, and the local drifter and former male prostitute who took pictures of corpses with party hats and then followed up that contemptible act by stealing the morgue-log page with JonBenet's name on it.

Perhaps this sad state of affairs helps explain all the excitement surrounding American Visions, an eight-part PBS series chronicling the history of American art from the perspective of Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes. Apparently we've all forgotten that Hughes is completely free of even the hint of an insight--which he proved the last time he was on TV with PBS's Shock of the New, in 1981. In that series--which, by the way, never winds up being shown during pledge week--Hughes tackled the modern movement and revealed in the process that it was an indecipherable riddle to him.

Hughes is an opinionated dimwit --a dumb know-it-all. And like the college kid's mural and the drifter's morgue photos, American Visions is an affront to the spirit of bella arte. Hughes is the bull in the china shop of American art; he kicks and bucks his way through. For example, in an upcoming episode of the series, he will discuss the abstract-expressionist movement while leaving out no less a figure than Arshile Gorky. This is a major gaffe. Though not quite comparable to presenting a history of Italian art without Michelangelo, it is like forgetting Raphael. And only a world-class barbarian such as Hughes could dismiss Barnett Newman, the pioneering spirit and guiding light of New York School minimalism.

Even the most tolerant art lover will be tempted to zap Hughes with the remote and seek more satisfying diversions on the local scene. What they'll find at the Foothills Art Center in Golden is a good show that, like Hughes's television excursion, represents a lost opportunity. The problem is that Colorado Clay 1997 is a juried show, meaning a designated expert from outside the gallery was hired to decide what should and shouldn't be included.

There is a place for juried shows. But they have a way of being thoroughly irksome. And though Colorado Clay includes some truly excellent work, it still illustrates the pitfalls of the juried format.

Given the high level of ceramic production in Colorado, this annual should be an invitational and not a juried event. That way, it could be a showcase for the state's greatest clay talents. As it is, it only reflects the taste and judgment of the lone juror.

This year the juror was ceramic sculptor Paula Winokur, a professor at Pennsylvania's tony Beaver College. The selection of Winokur illustrates a widely accepted idea in the art world--the concept that only an out-of-towner can, without prejudice, evaluate the work of locals. But it's comparable to hiring a Los Angeles real estate agent to find a house on Capitol Hill.

Another problem with Winokur is the fact that she's a practicing artist. And much as they may deny it, artists are ill-equipped to eyeball the work of other artists. They always have an ax to grind, championing their own approach over the approaches of others.

In the first gallery off the entryway at the Foothills Center are two impressive examples of Winokur's sculpture. In "Earth Split/Shift III," a porcelain wall relief, Winokur has placed three raw and scratched white slabs against the wall; an ash-black form that looks like a small rock is placed in a niche on the largest slab.

It should come as no surprise that the pieces Winokur selected from other artists are nothing like her own. None of them, after all, could possibly live up to the standards that Winokur long ago set for herself. (And that's why artists shouldn't be jurors.) As a result, Colorado Clay is chock-full of pottery vessels--not sculptures. In fact, this year's show has fewer actual sculptures than any of its predecessors in memory. I'd love to see a list of the rejectees.

Winokur has put together a good show nonetheless. Given that the pottery vessel is the foundation for Colorado's ceramics fame, it would have been hard for her to go too far wrong.

Many of the artists in the show refer to ancient ceramics traditions. Allison Lowe from Louisville pays homage to Persian ceramics in works such as the oxidation-fired stoneware "Wine Ewer With Two Cups." Lowe assembles elaborate and technically difficult forms from wheel-thrown sections, then applies luxurious glazes in tight patterns that follow the vessels' raised details.

Sumi von Dassow of Golden looks to both Mexican pottery and the Pueblo pottery of the Southwest for inspiration. Her elaborately decorated vases, such as the earthenware "Minerva," are black with gold and silver details. Some of the pots have pointed bases and will not stand up without being supported; all are coil-built and smoke-fired in the Pueblo tradition.

Several other Colorado potters pay tribute to time-honored forms while adding innovative touches. Dean Goss of Greenwood Village and Denver's inimitable Skeff Thomas, for instance, take new approaches to old kitchenware--Goss with bowls, Thomas with teapots.

Goss's bowls are exquisite. Heavy ribbed forms are made of coarse stoneware clay, the ribs laid out in spirals and stripes through the use of wooden armatures. These bowls have been twice fired, the second time with Goss's out-of-this-world dull-bronze glaze.

Thomas's teapots show his continuing interest in old steam irons. In "Iron Teapot With Coal Base," Thomas places a porcelain teapot-as-steam-iron on a pile of coal--which was how the oldest irons were heated. The brown color of these wood-fired pieces is to be expected, but one can't help missing Thomas's bright hues.

The finest vessel-maker, hands down, in this crowded field of experts is Michelle McCurdy of Parachute. She's represented by eight monumental raku vases, and each one is better than the next. Her adept use of Japanesque glazes links McCurdy's work to the Oriental tradition, but she still manages to maintain a very contemporary feel.

Lakewood's Allen Bales is a whiz when it comes to getting an iridescent effect out of a raku firing. The three impressed-cylinder vases with neon finishing effects that make up "United We Stand" are spectacular. More restrained but equally sculptural in feel are the slab-built vases by Golden's Nelfa Querubin-Tompkins. On the front face of the stoneware "Autumn Landscape," Querubin-Tompkins has deeply gouged the clay, then picked out the forms in beautiful fall-like colors.

Of the handful of sculptors represented in Colorado Clay, a couple are worth noting. Boulder's Marcia Usow bases her figural sculptures on the vessel, even going so far as to call them "body pots." In "Stacked Bodies," she creates a memorable column of female torsos; it's a single female torso that makes up "Heroic Body Pot," a fired terra cotta with a black oxide patina. The work of Longmont's Margaret Josey is also vessel-based, though not as prominently as Usow's. "Arboreal" presents a tree with spiky, bare boughs and a trunk covered with leaves. Josey typically uses flat clay coils to hand-build her pieces; here she heavily carved the piece when it was leather-hard.

Colorado Clay 1997 has considerable charms. But in the end, it's less interesting than Foothills shows of years past. The problem is the dearth of ceramic sculpture--and the fault for that lies with juror Winokur. But, hey, it sure beats an hour with Robert Hughes.

Colorado Clay 1997, through June 8 at the Foothills Art Center, 809 15th Street, Golden, 297-3922.


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