"Youth," by Marie E.v.B. Gibbons, clay with post-fired 
"Youth," by Marie E.v.B. Gibbons, clay with post-fired finishes.

Earth, Hand and Fire

Colorado has been a regional center for ceramics for just over a century. The reason is obvious, at least to gardeners and structural engineers: It's all that darned clay.

This readily available natural product led to what I call a "clay rush" beginning in the 1890s. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, a pretty heavy-duty art-pottery scene emerged. It was dominated by Artus and Anne Van Briggle's Van Briggle Pottery, which is still in business in Colorado Springs, along with other distinguished Colorado art-pottery makers of this time, including Denura Denver, Denver Terra Cotta, Denver White and Broadmoor.

Later, in the 1930s and '40s, industrial potters began making art ware; a notable one was Coors, which employed some of the most important sculptors of the period, including Arnold Ronnebeck and Gladys Caldwell Fisher.


Colorado Clay

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

In the middle of the century, potters in backyard studios began to replace designers and modelers who had toiled in factory workshops. In the period from the '50s to the '70s, many Colorado potters attained national reputations, including Irene Musick, Betty Woodman, Nan and Jim McKinnell, Maynard Tischler and Paul Soldner.

Since the end of the 1970s and on into the present, there has been an explosion of interest in ceramics in Colorado, and scores of clay artists have established significant reputations. The late, great Rodger Lang comes to mind, as well as Scott Chamberlin, Martha Daniels, Kim Dickey, Martha Russo and many, many others.

All this tradition sets up Colorado Clay to be one of the state's biggest art events of the year -- not just for ceramics artists, but for everyone interested in contemporary art.

In one form or another, the annual Colorado Clay has been presented at Golden's Foothills Art Center since the '70s. Though it's a juried show, it has such a good reputation that established artists, who usually eschew subjecting their work to a juror's scrutiny, enter it anyway -- and the resulting show often winds up being great. I wouldn't go that far this year, though, because the current version of Colorado Clay tilts too far toward ceramic sculpture, with too little attention to the vessel, the mainstream of American ceramics.

This lopsided approach to ceramics reflects the widely held idea that clay sculpture is more contemporary, per se, than is the vessel. This is surely the unspoken though still eloquently expressed view of the distinguished out-of-state juror, Peter Held, a curator at the Ceramic Research Center of the Arizona State University Art Museum.

Held's show differs from previous Colorado Clay efforts in one key way: There are a lot fewer artists. Typically, the exhibit included dozens of chosen artists, each represented by a handful of pieces, so that the Foothills galleries were uncomfortably crammed. But this time, Held selected only sixteen artists. And though each is represented in depth, there's still plenty of breathing room.

As is increasingly the case among exhibition jurors, Held selected artists as opposed to artifacts. It's undeniably a great idea, considering how well it apparently works.

The show begins in the Metsopoulos Gallery, just off the entry. This first section includes pieces by Marie E.v.B. Gibbons of Arvada. Gibbons is one of this season's breakout artists, though she's not an emerging talent just out of art school. No, Gibbons has been exhibiting her work in the area since the mid-1990s. It's just that this year, it all came together for her, first with a solo at Pirate a few months ago, and now in Colorado Clay. The two wall-mounted installations at Foothills are more ambitious versions of similar ones she showed at Pirate.

In "Youth," Gibbons scatters cast doll heads across the wall, anchoring them with a chartreuse stripe. The doll heads are done with a raku firing, in which the black-smoke reduction is paired with creamy oatmeal tones. Adjacent is "Emissaries," in which sea creatures are arranged in a scatter pattern. The elements are richly colored with gorgeous post-fired finishes.

Gibbons is one of several artists in Colorado Clay who create large wall installations made from many small elements. It's the kind of thing that's been all the rage over the past fifteen years or so, but now it's hitting a critical mass. In a sense, these installations are like mosaics, but without the tiles. It's easy to understand why ceramic artists are embracing this approach: Spreading out a bunch of small things across a big wall is a lot more economical in terms of materials, time, technique and expense than making a single piece large enough to cover the entire wall.

Beyond the connecting space in the Bartunek Gallery is a large display of figural sculptures by Julie McNair from Telluride. The figures, mostly the female form, are made in the traditional coil-built method, in which coils of clay are pinched into the desired shapes. The figures are fully detailed, and they demonstrate McNair's great skill at painting. All of the McNairs are engaging, and both the style and the subjects remind me of Austrian ceramics of the early twentieth century. The real tour de force is "Hindsight," which is done in clay with an oil finish that gives this piece -- and the others -- a dull sheen that absorbs light. In "Hindsight," McNair depicts a woman who is literally bent over backward. Because of this outlandish pose, the sculpture looks abstract at first, before we can make out what's actually happening in it.

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.

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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