Clay Pride

These days, it's hard to mention the University of Colorado at Boulder and keep a straight face. I'm referring, of course, to the involuntary smirks, cringes and eye-rolling that are among the most common responses to hearing all the juicy dirt about the athletic department's controversial recruiting practices. (With the Air Force Academy sex scandal and the Kobe Bryant case, our beloved state has become the unofficial world capital of binge drinking and sexual assault.)

The daily roster of scandalous news at the nation's number-one party school has, to say the least, overshadowed the other, more wholesome -- if not more typical -- aspects of CU campus life, including the activities of the department of art and art history. This is not to say there's no dirt being thrown around by the art faculty and students, but I'm relieved to say that it's harmless clay dust.

CU is quite obviously a clay school, and ceramics is a famous specialty. The university is regarded as one of the top ten places in the country to study the medium. This special departmental focus is not unexpected, considering Colorado's century-old ceramics-friendly atmosphere. Nor is it particularly new, since world-famous ceramics artist Betty Woodman, who retired in the late 1990s and now lives in New York, taught in the department for decades.

It makes sense, then, that the blockbuster exhibit at the CU Art Museum, BECAUSE THE EARTH IS 1/3 DIRT, is about the nature of contemporary ceramics. The show represents a tremendous undertaking on the part of the CUAM, because it includes many large-scale and unwieldy sculptures and installations, some of which were created on site specifically for Dirt.

As expansive as the exhibit is, though, it is also inflammatory. For instance, there are almost no vessels in the show, which is guaranteed to annoy traditionalists as well as others interested in the medium. Even more radical was the decision to include pieces that, properly speaking, are not really ceramics. The show has works of unfired clay, both wet and dry, and even one piece that's done in plaster!

Pushing at the edges of the medium was the aim of the exhibit's organizers, a committee of CU experts that includes CUAM director and curator Lisa Tamiris Becker and the university's three full-time ceramics professors: Scott Chamberlin, Kim Dickey and Jeanne Quinn.

"I feel very positively about the co-curating experience," Becker says. "I believe the show expresses high standards in terms of the curating. It's a museum-quality show, and, in addition, working with the three tenured faculty members, there have been many opportunities for interaction with their students. We are a learning institution, and working with the students is an important part of our mission."

Ceramics is a curatorial specialty of Becker's, but Dirt is the first such exhibit she's done since taking the CUAM director job a couple of years ago. Before she came to Colorado, however, she had organized shows of this type at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Wisconsin and at the University of California at Davis.

"We started with brainstorming sessions filled with lots of debate and editing," Becker says. "It was not about choosing our favorites, but about how the selected artists fit our thematic structure." Becker is referring to a complicated and multi-dimensional concept that forms the purported conceptual underpinning of the exhibit. Making a long story short, Becker says, "Everything in the show has a connection to the earth and also a connection to the culture."

That's actually pretty vague and, come to think of it, totally open-ended. Wouldn't anything made out of clay be connected simultaneously to the earth and the culture? I think it would, which means nothing could have been kept out of the show on the grounds that it didn't fit the theme -- because everything does.

The organizers' taste for diverse approaches is set up immediately in the first gallery. Though the works of only two artists are displayed here, the two groups provide a context for the show, because it could be said that, conceptually, everything that follows fits in between them. On pedestals along one wall are small, glazed and decorated forms by Leopold Foulem that critique traditional ceramics. In the middle of the room are two sculptures by Kristen Morgin that have nothing to do with that tradition.

Foulem, who is Quebecois, riffs on the history of pottery with pieces that look like examples of European chinoiserie. Thus they are hermeneutical, making them post-modern, because they are interpretations of earlier interpretations of Chinese ceramics and not direct responses to the originals. Foulem makes a point of not including voids, which means that these sculptures only look like vases but are, in point of fact, functionless. There's that post-modernism again.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia