"Dusky Phenomenon Ewer," by Paul Morris, glazed 
"Dusky Phenomenon Ewer," by Paul Morris, glazed earthenware.

Mud Flies

Some thirty years ago, Foothills Art Center in Golden established Colorado Clay as an annual juried exhibit to highlight ceramics being done in the state. But Jenny Cook, the center's director, has decided to make the exhibit a biennial so she can open up the schedule for new programming. Colorado Clay 2006 is the first in the new format.

I have to say that even though this year's Colorado Clay is as good as any group ceramics show I've seen in a long time, it was still somewhat disappointing. First, I think celebrity juror Michel Conroy, from Texas, likes goofy ceramics more than I do and doesn't like functional pieces as much. I say this because she picked a lot of goofy things and only a few functional ones. Second, I think curator Michael Chavez made a mistake with the installation. Instead of creating mini-solos for each of the fifteen artists, he scattered their work around, which led to some awkward passages in the show. The Quaintance Gallery looks particularly bad, with so many small things cluttering it up that it resembles a church-sponsored white elephant sale -- an impression only enhanced by the fact that this particular room is the nave of an old church. In Chavez's defense, the Foothills galleries are pretty tough to use, so maybe he's still learning how.

Katie Caron's three abstract sculptures, which refer to organic objects such as pollen and microscopic life, are among the standouts in the show. Another top attraction is Paul Morris's work. Morris does abstractions based on organic shapes, too, but his riff is on the vessel tradition. He does large, blobby shapes and then attaches sinuous elements on each side to resemble the spout and handle of a teapot, as shown off in "Dusky Phenomenon Ewer." The surfaces are gorgeous and sometimes resemble the varied hues found in the patinas on ancient artifacts. Amy Chavez (curator Chavez's wife) and Christine Owen are others who do contemporary sculpture in clay. Chavez captures the look of found objects, propellers in particular, while Owen creates hand-built colanders, some of which are enormous.


Colorado Clay 2006 and Sampling

Colorado Clay 2006
Through May 7, Foothills Art Center, 809 15th Street, Golden, 303-279-3922

Though April 8, + Gallery, 2350 Lawrence Street, 303-296- 0927

There are also several artists doing figural or animal-based sculptures, the best of which is Caroline Douglas, whose "Ceremony," a figure of a standing woman, has a breathtaking glazed surface. This piece is one of the best things in the entire show, even if it does fall into the "goofy" category. Other artists who did takes on the figure include Julie McNair and MaryLynn Schumacher, and Valerie and Jonathan Nicklow.

Though sculpture dominates the show, there are a handful of participants who work in vessel forms. Kazu Oba's pieces are contemporary versions of traditional Japanese ceramics, which isn't surprising considering his heritage. Carla Kappa creates hand-built vessels with sculptural handles that are very nice. Jim Klingman does classic wheel-turned pieces based on the American studio tradition. Bebe Alexander's lidded bottles in architectonic shapes are spectacular. Rounding out this group of vessel makers are David Beumée, Peggy Crago and Joyce Bickel.

Problems with Conroy's choices and Chavez's installation notwithstanding, Colorado Clay 2006 at Foothills is well worth catching. And with a month left in its run, there's plenty of time to go out to Golden to see it.

Interestingly enough, it was in 2001's Colorado Clay that I first saw and wrote about the work of Tsehai Johnson, whose interesting solo, Sampling, is now on display in the central space at + Gallery.

Since then, there's been steady stylistic development on Johnson's part, though there are certain things that have remained the same. She invariably works in the ceramics medium and uses it to create post-modern installations. These creations explore notions about domestic life with a feminist political content. Her multi-part pieces, most often displayed hanging on the walls as opposed to mounted on pedestals, also refer to decoration and industrial design. Finally, from a technical standpoint, the slip-cast elements of her installations reveal her high standards in the craft.

The + show includes a half-dozen pieces, with the title Sampling referring to wallpaper sample books, in particular a compendium of nineteenth-century designs assembled by London's Victoria and Albert Museum. For each, Johnson defined the piece by painting a rectangular shape onto the wall. The color of these rectangles is only slightly darker than the white walls. On top of these painted areas, Johnson arranged porcelain elements, both linear and organic, into all-over patterns. The arrangements are most often symmetrical, such as in "Sample #4," though a piece such as "Sample #3," which is otherwise closely related, is asymmetrical.

The most fully realized -- and hands-down best -- of the Johnsons is "Field #4," which wraps around three sides of a moveable room divider. This lends the piece an added three-dimensionality. By covering different surfaces of the wall simultaneously, Johnson makes the wallpaper reference sing. The individual elements of "Field #4" recall toilet brushes with long curling handles on one end and rows of plastic bristles on the other. The pale celadon green is gorgeous and is set off nicely by the white bristles.

Johnson, who has the demeanor of a typical downtown Denver art intellectual, was born in Ethiopia, where her American parents were working with the Peace Corps. If that isn't enough of a biographical fluke, she grew up in Turkey. "I spoke Turkish before I spoke English," says Johnson, without any trace of an accent.

Learning about her childhood in Turkey makes the work in Sampling easier for me to understand. The country, as students of both geography and history know, is partly Western and partly Eastern. This has led to a rich decorative history that combines elements of both European and Asian visual cultures. A certain current in traditional Turkish style is an over-the-top Rococo that sort of looks like the most excessive high-style French -- but meatier. Also, there's the preeminence of patterns in decoration, because Islam forbids the depiction of people or animals. Thus, Johnson's interest in patterns surely is the product, at least in some sense, of her Turkish childhood.

Another aspect of her work seems much more American: the use of household cleaning tools as formal sources of inspiration. Things like toilet brushes in fanciful renditions, complete with bristles. Using mundane homemaker's tools as referents has been a central pillar of the women's art movement of the past few decades and can be traced back to Judy Chicago's hugely famous "Dinner Party," which Johnson cites as an inspiration for her work.

No discussion of Johnson would be complete without bringing up the political firestorm her work sparked last year. In the midst of the campaigns for Referenda C & D, the Independence Institute's Jon Caldara cited an image posted on the Colorado Council for the Arts website to demonstrate wasteful government spending. The piece in question was Johnson's "Large Implements on Hooks" which were shapes that had been inspired by dildos. The fact that Johnson had received a state grant for her work in general -- and not to create "Large Implements" specifically -- mattered little to Caldara or those who used the piece in their anti-C and -D campaigns. Governor Bill Owens weighed in on the matter, condemning Johnson's creation. Subsequently, all the art on the CCA's website was pulled by Elaine Mariner, the head of the council and a noted coward.

When I spoke with Johnson about the hurricane of controversy, she was downright annoyed even to be talking about it. At one point, she even asked if that was why I had requested an interview with her in the first place. As I think about it now, the answer is yes, since I didn't need her to explain what her work was about. I already knew that. I can understand why Johnson found the experience unpleasant: She was willfully misrepresented by those who attacked her and by many of the reporters and columnists who covered the story, including Channel 9's Paula Woodward, who was something of a catalyst for the whole thing. On the other hand, it's a tad disingenuous of Johnson to be surprised when art about dildos becomes controversial, especially when it's linked, no matter how tenuously, to public funding for the arts.

The pieces in Tsehai Johnson's Sampling are totally uncontroversial, though some of the notorious "Large Implements on Hooks" are on view in the back. Just a reminder: There's very little time left to see the efforts of this reluctant symbol of artistic freedom, with the show closing at + this very Saturday, April 8.


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