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Detail of "beds," by Martha Russo, porcelain and metal sculpture.

Last spring, in conjunction with the annual meeting of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts, there was an unprecedented effort by local galleries, art centers and museums to present shows on the broad topic of ceramics. The result was nearly a hundred exhibits all at the same time. This year, however, things are back to normal, which means there are only a handful of ceramics shows.

One of the best -- and clearly the first and foremost among the lot -- is that old workhorse, the Colorado Clay Exhibition, a ceramics extravaganza that's been an annual event at Golden's Foothills Art Center since the 1970s.

As she has in recent years, longtime Foothills director Carol Dickinson selected a celebrity juror to pick the works to be included in the show. The juror this year was Wayne Higby, an internationally known ceramics artist who lives in New York but was born and raised in Colorado. In fact, when he was in high school, Higby studied with Mary Chenoweth at the Bemis Art School in Colorado Springs; in college, he studied with Betty Woodman in Boulder .

Higby was in Golden a few weeks ago to award prizes and to give a lecture before heading to Colorado Springs, where a retrospective, Wayne Higby: Landscape as Memory, was opening at the Fine Arts Center (that show continues through May 27). During that time, he sat down with me and explained his approach to Colorado Clay.

"I chose artists," he said. "I think that's what Carol wanted me to do. I didn't choose pieces. I looked at all the slides, but I didn't think, 'Oh, I like that piece' or 'I don't like that.' Instead, I looked at each artist's pieces all together as a whole, and I juried the show that way." Higby believes that this is a better method for evaluating work than simply choosing the best pieces. "Don't you think it's possible for someone to do just one good pot?" he asks. "Well, maybe not. But good artists can do bad pots sometimes."

The show Higby shaped through his selections is notably more spare than previous shows; he chose only nineteen artists, about a half-dozen shy of what's been seen in recent years. But consistent with his philosophy as a juror, most of the artists are seen in depth, and that's a difference from previous years, too.

Another interesting feature of the show -- one that went right by me until Dickinson pointed it out -- is that the exhibit is dominated by women. As it turns out, women have played a large and prominent role in American studio ceramics, a field, unlike painting, that has long been open to women and in which women have played key roles.

Higby's selections also reveal his taste for clay that's been handled in gestural and expressionistic ways. He reveals a taste for traditional vessels and for sculptures based on vessel forms. His preferences in glazing are equally conservative, with subtle, Oriental-inspired shades of green, cream and brown predominating. Simple pieces sporting faint Oriental accents constitute a major theme, although there are a handful of other styles as well.

The show begins in the Metsopoulos gallery, just off the homey entrance to Foothills. The first pieces that come into view are the very Japanesque vessels by Lafayette's David Beumée, an artist whose work has been seen in several previous versions of Colorado Clay. Beumée works in porcelain, which he loosely throws and then alters before glazing. In "Ikebana Vessel III," he creates a cylindrical version of the classic upright type of Japanese flower-arranging vessel. It has been glazed a ginger brown with a white interior. The surfaces have been heavily figured with raised lines. "Serving Plate," a charger finished in foamy cream over brown, also captures the quiet elegance associated with Japanese ceramics.

Nearby are figural vessels by Sumi von Dassow that refer to American Indian ceramics. These serve as a perfect setup for another show going on at Foothills, The Miracle of Mata Ortiz. This exhibit has been installed in the connecting corridor and, as such, is an unavoidable interruption in the flow of Colorado Clay. The work of more than twenty contemporary Mexican potters working in the village of Mata Ortiz in northern Chihuahua has been showcased here. These potters create contemporary translations of ancient Mexican vessels, a tradition that was revived just a generation ago -- hence the 'miracle' in the show's title. (A second exhibit, El Milagro de Mata Ortiz, is being presented concurrently at the Native American Trading Company here in Denver.)

After this brief, if edifying, distraction, Colorado Clay gets back on track in the Bartunek Gallery, where Dickinson has installed some of the more conceptual pieces, in which ceramics are used to make sculptural groups or installations.  

Hung on one wall are a series of bas-reliefs by Denver's Tsehai Johnson. Half of the white and silver ceramic wall pieces are collectively titled "Eight Dispensers." They have been hung above the other half, which are called "Eight Receptacles." The inspiration for these pieces -- aside from the obvious sexual one -- is very apparently bathroom fixtures, especially of the gas-station restroom variety. Industrial design is a main current in ceramic art, but it is only rarely seen in the context of studio ceramics as it is in Johnson's pieces. Some may link Johnson's sculptures to Marcel Duchamp's notorious "Fountain," a sculpture made from an inverted urinal. But that would be wrong, because Johnson's pieces are not ready-made, as is "Fountain." They are instead hand- and custom-made objects.

Another artist using ceramics to create sculptural groups is Martha Russo from Jamestown, whose pieces are seen nearby. Russo teaches ceramics at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. The largest of these, "hold," is marvelous. It's made up of an open chest of drawers with a glass top; the three wooden drawers have been divided and lined in cloth. Each division has a tiny organic abstract form made of glazed porcelain lying in it. The piece is a curiosity cabinet of the type sometimes seen in ethnographic and natural-history museums, where they most often hold things such as arrowheads or coins. According to the didactic panel associated with Russo's section, viewers are urged to pick up the forms in the drawers -- which I think is a bad idea, because they are so fragile.

Another noteworthy Russo sculpture is "beds," which comprises several pieces of tiny biomorphic doll furniture placed on brawny welded-steel shelves that have been left raw and unfinished.

More traditionally appealing are the functional pieces by Carbondale's Alleghany Meadows, which include plates, bowls and a lovely organic pitcher in a glassy green glaze. All of Meadows's pots are Oriental in feeling, and it's not surprising to learn that he has worked extensively with Takashi Nakazato, both in Japan and in Snowmass Village.

The final phase of the show is in the Waelchli Gallery. It starts off with a group of related pieces by Denver's Judith Cohn. Though each of the eight Cohns has its own individual title, they've been arranged together in a coherent installation, which is what we've come to expect from Cohn. The sculptures and the way in which they've been arranged are clearly a direct outgrowth of the installations she's been exhibiting for the past several years, mostly at Spark. Cohn makes formal references to rocks and tree trunks using a variety of ceramic techniques to construct them. She decorates the resulting forms wildly with abstract-expressionist motifs complete with runs, drips and smudges.

The approach taken by Vicky Hansen of Penrose, an associate professor of art at the University of Southern Colorado, is not unrelated to Cohn's, even if their respective work looks very different. Hansen's seven tabletop vessel-based sculptures -- or are they sculptural vessels? -- have been displayed across from Cohn's much larger floor pieces. Some are done in porcelain and others in white stoneware; all are from her "Canyon Series." The differences between the two types are very subtle and best left to experts such as Hansen herself.

These sculptures are the product of an elaborate fabrication method. Hansen begins by throwing vessels on the wheel; she then alters the vessel by rolling the still pliable clay form and shapes it with paddles. The pieces are subjected to multiple firings in the kiln, some of which are wood firings, a favored technique for Hansen. The natural effect of the firings creates automatic abstract decorations out of the reduction-induced colors, which are earthy with lots of gray and ocher passages throughout.

Yet another artist blurring the distinction between vessels and sculptures is Mary Cay from Denver. Cay is just completing a stint as a visiting art professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver, and she currently serves as a director at large for NCECA. She is exhibiting five works from her "Landscape Series," some of which are made up of groups of arranged cylindrical vessels; three of them feature integral wooden bases made by Frank Clements.

The most impressive of the Cay pieces is "The Impact of Death," an assemblage of bottle shapes arranged on a delicately carved, light-colored wooden tray. The bottle forms have heavy finger marks and naturalistic contours. All have been glazed in a fabulous gunmetal black. A nice counterpoint to this piece is "Waterfalls," which is also made up of a group of arranged vessels, but Cay's use of a greenish-white glaze in this piece gives it a notably lighter and more lyrical feeling than "The Impact of Death," despite the fact that both pieces are, aside from color, essentially the same idea.  

This year's version of Colorado Clay is quieter and less crowded than in recent years. For these reasons, it looks better than usual. Call me crazy, but I really miss the raucous and crammed quality that this show's often had in the past -- even if I still respect the incomparable value of juror Higby's learned eye.


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