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The Clays of Our Lives

"Vase with two high handles (Queen)," by Pablo Picasso, ceramic vessel.

Pablo Picasso had a long life -- he died in 1973 at age 92 -- and during his epic career, he made a number of key stylistic breakthroughs essential to the development of modern art. He was on the ground floor of cubism and surrealism and, come to think of it, he also paved the way for futurism, constructivism and abstract expressionism. As these styles indicate, he's best known as a painter, but he was also a first-rate sculptor, and he embraced several other art forms, including printmaking, glassmaking and, most relevant to our purposes here, ceramics. Between 1947 and 1971, Picasso was involved in pottery-making. Examples of this work are on display in Picasso: 25 Years of Edition Ceramics From the Edward and Ann Weston Collection, at Metro State's Center for the Visual Arts in LoDo.

Considering Picasso's widely acknowledged genius, it's hardly surprising that this exhibit is one of the finest ever presented in Denver. In fact, you'd expect to find it at the Denver Art Museum, not at the CVA. Unless, of course, you remember that this is actually the second Picasso show presented here. The first was a poster and print show mounted as the inaugural exhibit for the CVA's current Wazee Street location. How the CVA snagged not one, but two, Picasso shows brings us back to the distinguished tenure of Sally Perisho, the CVA's former director. Though Metro unceremoniously kicked her to the curb in 2001, Perisho's gifts to the art community have just kept coming.

This Picasso clay feature is one of the last exhibits Perisho booked, but her successor, Kathy Andrews, oversaw installation of the more than sixty compelling pieces. Gerald Nordland curated the exhibit, which debuted at the Fullerton Art Museum at California State University in San Bernardino. Nordland selected 65 pieces from the Picasso holdings of California collectors Edward and Ann Weston, whose Picasso ceramics collection, at more than 200 pieces, is one of the largest in the country.

According to Andrews, this work is "fun, casual and experimental" and has a decidedly less serious tone than Picasso's paintings. "I think of them as being a celebration of the end of World War II. Picasso went to the Mediterranean sun, and he played with clay," she says. "You know, new wife, the beach, the sunshine -- he was happy." Clearly, Andrews is right. Just looking at the joie de vivre that's eloquently conveyed by these ceramics should bring a smile to anyone's lips.

Picasso became interested in ceramics in the summer of 1946, when he was on vacation at Golf-Juan, a beach town in France. He attended a crafts fair in nearby Vallauris, which has long been a center for pottery-making; there he met Georges and Suzanne Ramié, owners of Madoura Pottery. He asked to use their workshop and produced three small pieces of sculpture. He returned in the summer of 1947 and visited annually for the next 25 years. (In one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction asides, it turns out that some potters, such as Italy's Guido Gambone, were creating Picasso-style ceramics even before Picasso himself did them.)

During the time Picasso was at Madoura, he made hundreds of unique pieces, nearly all of which he kept; they are now in the Picasso Museum in Paris. He also authorized the Ramiés to produce numerous works according to his designs, and it is these edition pieces that make up the CVA show.

According to the catalogue written by Nordland, Picasso never threw his own pots, nor did he supervise the firings. Instead, he relied on the expertise of the Ramiés and used their stock items or ones they custom made for him. This may sound strange by American-studio standards, but it was -- and is -- a common practice in the Mediterranean area.

When I looked at the Picassos at the CVA, I had several revelations. The first was that the artist's pottery was well within the tradition of terra-cotta ware, which has been made in the Mediterranean area since ancient times. The shapes, the colors and the vaporous handling of the glazes are all things seen in traditional ceramics made in the region. Another surprise was the limited formal vocabulary Picasso employed -- just a couple of platter types, a handful of pitcher forms and a small group of vase shapes. What distinguishes them are the different decorations he applied.

It's hard to pick standouts in the group, because everything is spectacular. If a distinction can be made among the pieces, it's between those stock items that Picasso simply decorated, such as 1953's "Vase with two high handles (Queen)" and those that he altered while the clay was still soft, such as "Woman's head crowned with flowers," a pitcher from 1954.

"Having this many Picasso ceramics together in the same place is phenomenal," says Andrews. "Ordinarily, people have only seen one or two. But here there's the opportunity to see the progression of ideas that Picasso worked out over a long period of time." Well, not really -- because the show, as is usual for the CVA, is not arranged in chronological order, so viewers can't hope to chart the changes in Picasso's approach. I guess that's a good reason to get the catalogue.  


Picasso may be a delight to the senses, but something's brewing at the CVA that's an affront to them. I'm talking about David Owen Tryba Architects' idiotic plan to ineptly encase the historic Chicago-style building that the CVA shares with Robischon in tacky plastic sheets! (Hey, isn't that the kind of insensitive junk that was torn off all those buildings in LoDo when it became a historic district?)

Andrews defended the idea, pointing out that she has a background in historic preservation. Well, it's apparently not much of a background if she thinks it's a good idea to mess with the building's facade. Let's hope that on Thursday the Lower Downtown Design Review Board puts this plan where it belongs -- in the trash can. Otherwise, a Pandora's box will be opened in which every owner of a bar, restaurant or club in the neighborhood will want to destroy their buildings and use the CVA's plan as the precedent. What an irony from a place that has the word "visual" in its name!


Few shows of any kind could hold up to the Picasso outing at the CVA, especially if there are ceramics in them. But The Vessel: Voyage & Contain, an exhibit with a lot of ceramics in it, absolutely does. I saw the two presentations on the same day, and the Picasso extravaganza, which I took in first, didn't diminish my experience of Vessel even one little bit -- and I was duly impressed.

The William Havu Gallery is presenting this group effort, which includes sculptures and paintings in addition to ceramics. As soon as visitors enter, they encounter a group of three outrageous ceramic sculptures by Martha Daniels arranged together on a low stage. Daniels is the grand dame of Denver ceramics, and, as a result, she's very well-known around here. Unlike most artists who work with clay, Daniels has a reputation that extends beyond the field into the wider world of contemporary art. With these latest pieces, which are direct continuations of the work she's been doing for the last twenty years, it's easy to see why: Her vision is unique.

Despite this individuality, it's obvious that Daniels has been studying historic ceramics, including Picasso's. Like Picasso's works, Daniels's come from an ancient Mediterranean current, which puts her oeuvre in contrast with most American ceramic artists, who have a taste for Asian sources. This Mediterranean style is especially pronounced in "Fruitful Vessel," a spike of piled-up fruit coming out of a basket. The glazes are remarkable, and there are some unbelievable colors, the likes of which I've never seen. There's an explanation for that: Daniels purchased century-old china pigments from the estate of Denver artist Mel Carter and used them to create this piece.

Opposite the Daniels sculptures are a series of monumental thrown vessels by ceramic boy genius Anthony Sarenpa. He just graduated from the University of Denver, where he studied with the legendary Maynard Tischler. Sarenpa's vases are triumphs of the wheel. And how about those unbelievable glazes! Flaming orange-reds, mirrored black-greens and a plum that's to die for. Sarenpa's pieces exemplify the predominating Asian mood of contemporary ceramics. Thus, in the space of a few feet, there's the contrast between the two dominant poles in that art form: Daniels's Mediterranean style and Sarenpa's more mainstream salutes to Asia.

Sadly for us, Sarenpa's already left town and moved to Omaha to become Jun Kaneko's assistant. I hope Kaneko will give the kid some time to do his own work.

Margaret Haydon and Margaret Josey-Parker are two other accomplished ceramists in Vessel. Haydon's work is spectacularly well-crafted, and her glazes are sumptuous. Josey-Parker's pieces are more whimsical, especially her articulated raku toy-airplane sculpture.

Sculptures made of materials other than clay include Bernice Strawn's wooden assemblages, many suspended from the ceiling, that refer to canoes. Also made of wood are wall-hung pieces by Darlene Nguyen-Ely based on her experiences as one of the Vietnamese "boat people." There are also abstract sculptures made of wood, metal and stone by Michael Clapper. Especially nice is Clapper's carved stone "Husk," which incorporates a basin filled with water.

Throughout the show, abstract paintings of boats on water by Joanne Kerrihard unify all the disparate sculptures' themes and make the show more coherent. Kerrihard's paintings are almost entirely abstract, but their compositional structures were pre-determined by actual scenes found in nature.  

Ceramics is the main attraction in Vessel, and together with all that clay by Picasso at the CVA, Denver audiences have a rare opportunity to take in a wide spectrum of work in a mostly underappreciated art form. My advice is: Don't miss either show, or you'll be sorry.


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