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Mud and Guts

More than any other medium, ceramics has achieved a high level of artistic development in Colorado.

The glorious early history of ceramics here was partly determined by the availability of high-quality clay. Beginning in the 1890s, potters from the East and Midwest migrated to Colorado in a kind of clay rush.

Several established studios in the state and some artists, notably Artus Van Briggle and Frederick Long, went on to worldwide fame. Even in contemporary times, though, when dry industrial clays are the standard and a ready source of natural clay is a useless anachronism, Colorado continues to attract first-rate ceramic artists.

Given the sophistication and deep roots of the local ceramics scene, it's not surprising that one of the only meaningful annual exhibits in the region is dedicated to the work of Colorado's ceramic artists. That exhibit is Colorado Clay.

For more than twenty years, Golden's Foothills Art Center has presented Colorado Clay in one form or another. The first show, called Vessels of Clay, was held in 1977, with renowned Colorado ceramic sculptor Rodger Lang serving as juror. It was in 1985, reflecting the decline of the vessel among ceramicists, that the exhibit was retitled to be more inclusive. This year's show, officially called the Colorado Clay Exhibition 1999, is now more than halfway through its six-week run.

Sadly, if you're hoping to see at Foothills an astute look at the condition of ceramic art in the state, as was possible last year, you're in for a profound disappointment. Many of the selections this year are goofy, and some are even amateurish. There are some great things in the exhibit, but they're harder to find than in the past.

The show was put together by world-famous potter Jeffrey Oestreich, who served as the sole juror for 1999's Colorado Clay.

Oestreich has a long list of distinctions and accomplishments, including an apprenticeship in the 1970s at England's Bernard Leach Pottery. His work is in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and New York's Cooper-Hewitt. Although Oestreich's studio is in Taylor Falls, Minnesota, he has taught many classes in Colorado, both at the highly regarded Anderson Ranch Art Center outside Aspen and, last summer, through the auspices of the Boulder Potter's Guild.

But a top-notch artist is apparently not the same thing as a first-class juror. Just for fun, take a look at the single, marvelous example of Oestreich's ceramics on display, "Pitcher (Accordion Series)," a hand-built vessel with an elongated spout stylistically reminiscent of traditional Middle Eastern forms. Now go through the show and notice how many artists Oestreich has included who are doing exactly the same thing as he is, complete with those signature spouts. This feature reveals that Oestreich has stumbled into the biggest pitfall for an artist who is called on to be a juror--what might be called the "do it my way" approach. Oestreich has an aesthetic point of view. For an artist, this is a strength. But preconceptions are a weakness in a juror. Oestreich should have set aside his viewpoint and instead evaluated the proposed submissions for Colorado Clay using a big-picture strategy.

Even worse is that he filled out much of the rest of the show with a confusing array of work reflecting various levels of technical accomplishment, much of it unworthy of Colorado Clay and seemingly serving only to make Oestreich's piece, and those of his fellow travelers, look all the better.

That said, however, there is still a lot about Colorado Clay to recommend. With more than 25 artists represented, the show is large enough for viewers to find many fine things on display. In fact, visitors can quickly make their way through the show--which fills all the galleries at Foothills--by sprinting from highlight to highlight.

In the Metsopoulos Gallery, just inside the entrance, are eight vessel-based sculptures by Vicky Hansen of Penrose. The sculptures, which are displayed on low risers set against the wall, are from Hansen's "Canyon Series" and are superbly done. Hansen, who has exhibited in Colorado Clay in previous years, teaches ceramics at the University of Southern Colorado in Pueblo. Before coming to Colorado, she studied with the legendary Angelo Garzio at Kansas State University, where she received her MFA in 1993. Hansen has written that her travels in southern Colorado's canyon country provided her with the inspiration for this aptly titled series.

The "Canyon Series" fits an established tradition long embraced by many of the most important artists in the history of Colorado ceramics: the alteration of conventional vessel forms. Hansen loosely and gesturally throws pots on the wheel and then smashes them before the clay hardens. Her finishes feature the natural effects of the firing, and thus her palette is limited to earth tones ranging from a rich charcoal gray to creamy beige and brown. As demonstrated in this show, Hansen is equally proficient at a variety of ceramic techniques, including stoneware and the less-expected porcelain.

Across from Hansen's series and arranged on a pile of stands clustered in the middle of the room are stoneware vessels by Blair Meerfeld. Meerfeld has operated his own studio in the southern Colorado town of Saguache for more than a decade. His pieces in Colorado Clay are like contemporary sketches of traditional Japanese pottery, an Oriental taste that flavors his "Oval Teapot." Meerfeld's use of horizontal lines on the body of the pot recalls a bamboo motif, as does the spout. But where a Japanese teapot would incorporate actual bamboo in the handle, Meerfeld has brilliantly substituted a twisted black wire coat hanger. Also notable is Meerfeld's three-piece "Tower Jar Set," which has an architectural quality. Interestingly, the jars are based on traditional lidded vessels seen in the Orient, as well as on the grain silos seen around Saguache.

The show continues into the Bartenek Gallery, which is arranged according to artist. Just inside are lovely pots and sculptural vessels by Stacy Snyder of Snowmass Village. Snyder is just completing an artist residency at the Anderson Ranch Art Center, where, not incidentally, juror Oestreich has also worked. Snyder received the Hamada-Leach Award for Asian-style ceramics for the six works she entered in Colorado Clay. Particularly nice are the four soda-fired porcelain vessels that make up "Bottlescape II." Snyder lines up the similar but distinct bottles, each of which is mostly gray and white with drippy black decorations.

On the opposite side of the Bartenek is another collection of small pots. This group of thrown, altered and highly decorated utilitarian wares are the work of Cheryl Crownover, a Colorado Clay regular from Englewood. Although Crownover did not include any of her well-known figure vases, which are based on the female nude, she lends a similar anthropomorphism to her teapots and cups.

A real standout is a collection of seven tabletop abstract sculptures by Longmont's Douglas Fey, a big name in Colorado ceramics. Unfortunately, because of the overall crowded condition of the show, these sculptures are cramped, placed one in front of another, which lends an unwelcome air of confusion. While Fey's sculptures are principally constructed of both glazed and unglazed earthenware, he also incorporates other non-ceramic materials. "Dry Dock Rock," for example, includes driftwood, while "Anomalous Stones" contains stone elements. For "Anomalous Stones," Fey placed a dark-brown vertical pile of organic forms surmounted by a spike against a white and light-brown horizontal construction. Though wholly non-objective, this piece refers formally to classical sculptures of the reclining nude. In the earthenware "Hole-in-the-Rock," a tortured clay slab finished in smudges of black, brown and tan is laid horizontally and supports a flat, vertically mounted sheet of dark-brown clay decorated with a black smear. This vertical element is evocative of a flag or banner.

The last part of Colorado Clay is in the capacious Quaintance Gallery, an odd, difficult space that was originally built in 1872 as the nave of a Presbyterian church. Up on the stage where the altar used to be are the works of two established and respected functional potters presented side by side--an appropriate choice, since their work is quite compatible. On the left is the work of Boulder artist Susan Walsh; on the right, that of Connie Christiansen of Lakewood. Both work in the field of functional porcelain, alter their thrown vessels and limit their palette to earth tones. Oh, and both make pitchers with that distinctive, exaggerated spout characteristic of juror Oestreich's oeuvre.

The exuberant vessels by Greenwood Village's Dean Goss are more radically altered, with deep bas-reliefs formed in their walls. In the stoneware "Winter Teapot"--there's that spout again--Goss carves a spiral into the body of the pot. In the sensational "Twilight Bowl," done in stoneware decorated with slips and glazes, Goss creates a free-form vase with heavy, vaguely floral decorations that rise up off the rim of the bowl to form two handles.

Also heavily modeled are the altered thrown raku pots by Paul Rogers of Manitou Springs. In "Ancient Habitat," Rogers takes a closed vessel and adorns the top with tiny buildings. The reduction firing of the raku process leaves a sumptuous, iridescent green surface. "Migration Vessel" is similar, but instead of buildings, Rogers uses simplified animal shapes.

Nearby are sculptures by Boulder's Margaret Haydon, who has widely exhibited work of this type in recent years. Haydon has taught at a variety of local colleges, including Metropolitan State College of Denver and Front Range Community College in Westminster. The glazed-ceramic "Houseboat," like several other of her sculptures, depicts a conventionalized boat. Set on a black base, the sides of "Houseboat" are glazed in iridescent tones of green on white; the top, which sports a ziggurat, is glazed in a thick, milky white. Other Haydons of interest are the giant cocoon-like "Pods," in black, white and turquoise, and "Shell," which is glazed in turquoise and white.

The show finishes with a revelation: ceramic sculptor Joseph Manley, who teaches at the University of Denver. Manley is an exciting young talent, and his techniques are breathtaking. Using low-fire temperatures, he creates some of the most beautiful glaze effects imaginable. His somewhat humorous take on the vessel, which he sees as a building block in ceramic sculpture, is a smart idea.

But it might make sense for this budding young ceramic genius to tone down the whimsical content a little. Take the magnificent "Six Hump Squiggles," which fills a corner in the Quaintance. Manley hung ceramic constructions in three different sizes and adorned them with tiny baluster vases mounted on wire. At first the piece reads like an abstract and all-encompassing environment--until the viewer notices that one of the squiggles has a mouth. Once this biomorphism clicks, all of the squiggles become worm-like creatures instead of abstract forms. Without this representational component, "Six Hump Squiggles," as good as it is, would have been even better. Manley won the sought-after Mile Hi Ceramic Award, essentially the exhibit's first prize. With his obvious ambition, skill and nerve, he will surely cut a wide swath in Colorado in the near future.

This year's version of the most important annual in the state is well worth seeing--even if it is less impressive than usual. But that's not the fault of Foothills. No, the failure rests squarely on the shoulders of the lone juror responsible for Colorado Clay, Jeffrey Oestreich.

Colorado Clay Exhibition 1999, through May 16 at the Foothills Art Center, 809 15th Street, Golden, 303-279-3922.


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