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Colorado Clay takes shape at the Foothills Art Center

Colorado artists have been making ceramics since the turn of the last century, but it wasn't until the 1970s and '80s that the scene here really hit its stride. This was a time when a group of artists whom I call the "greatest generation" were routinely producing world-class work. Luminaries...
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Colorado artists have been making ceramics since the turn of the last century, but it wasn't until the 1970s and '80s that the scene here really hit its stride. This was a time when a group of artists whom I call the "greatest generation" were routinely producing world-class work. Luminaries among the practitioners include Paul Soldner up in Basalt, Betty Woodman in Boulder, and Nan and Jim McKinnell in Fort Collins.

These were the ancestors to the contemporary ceramic artists here, and the exhibition Colorado Clay is a living part of the legacy of that golden era.

The show began in the '70s as a reflection of the big uptick in interest in the medium. It's a major juried effort that highlights current trends. For many years it was an annual, but now it's a biennial. I've seen every one over the last decade or so, and I've always found it worth seeing, regardless of persistent shortcomings.

The most prominent of these chronic issues is the fact that it's a juried show, and, as I've said before, it should be an invitational. I don't have anything against juried shows, per se; in fact, I've been a juror myself many times. They have the considerable value of being a vehicle for uncovering hidden talent, and many times — even at this year's Colorado Clay, I have to confess — I've discovered interesting artists I didn't know about before. But Colorado Clay is one of the most important ceramics shows on the calendar, and for that kind of show, a juried format is inappropriate.

Making matters worse is that a well-known clay artist, rather than a curator, acts as the juror for every show. The problem is that artist-jurors tend to pick work that relates to their own. As a result, the show is always tilted toward a particular approach.

This year's celebrity juror is Adrian Arleo, and she really makes my point. Arleo, who hails from Montana, is known for her somewhat surrealistic, somewhat creepy figural sculptures. As an ancillary to the show, one of her pieces is installed near the front. It's a woman's torso and head in high relief; her skin has been rendered as though it was made of cut wood, with the grain running across her face, and her hair is a bramble of twigs. It's a magnificent job of modeling from a technical standpoint, but it is anything but beautiful.

And that's the same sensibility that Arleo brought to most of her choices for Colorado Clay. Sculpture predominates, largely at the expense of the vessel tradition, which is virtually missing in action (though a number of the sculptures are vessel-based). But difficult if not disturbing imagery has a prominent place. In other words, Arleo's sculpture of the woman's bust is a guide to the entire show, and to put a fine point on it, that's not an ideal starting point for a ceramics survey of Colorado.

The most important source of inspiration for the "greatest generation" was Asian ceramics — in particular, Japanese ceramics, and this kind of thing is still important even if Arleo could only find one Colorado artist, Robin Furuta from Edgewater, working in the style. The Furutas, cups and trays, are exquisitely thrown and altered. And the multi-dimensional glazes are as breathtaking as they are traditional. In the company of so many sculptures, however, the Furutas are lost because of their small size, even though they are placed at the very beginning of the show.

Located on stands, they are adjacent to the Arleo bust and opposite a series of quirky sculptures, many based on animals, by Pete Wysong of Boulder. The Wysongs, some of which recall ancient sculpture, are jarringly different from the Furutas. The clunky juxtaposition shows that Foothills curator Michael Chavez had his work cut out for him in installation design, and the disparate character of the material apparently got the best of him. As a consequence, the show does not possess a steady flow, nor does it make much sense.

On the subject of not making sense is the inclusion of a series of conceptual installations by Katie Caron of Lafayette. They consist of six boxes, each with a peephole, mounted on the wall, along with a separate stop-motion animation projection that shows clay being worked by invisible hands. The peepholes reveal little scenarios in which clay is one of the materials. I loved them, but they are about clay instead of being made of clay, and maybe they shouldn't be in a show like this one.

As I said earlier, one of the greatest strengths of a juried show is the ability to reveal heretofore little-known artists, and that's what happens with Erie's Scarlett Kanistanaux, who contributes a series of busts of Tibetan monks finished in a gorgeous black. The smaller ones are nice enough, but they're traditional realist pieces, and there's really nothing special about them. The monumental pieces, on the other hand — "Peaceful Practice" and "Journey of One" — transcend realism and make a big aesthetic statement.

The Kanistanaux busts are flanked on one side by insanely baroque ewers done by Paul Morris from Fort Collins and architectonic lidded forms and decorated vessels by Nancy Utterback from Erie. Morris's giant, non-functional pitchers have remarkable finishes that combine outrageous colors with spectacular textures.

Next up are a series of Jonathan Kaplan's staggeringly well-done "Nouveaux Moca-Ware" vessel-based sculptures that incorporate birds and fish as ornaments on their pedestals. They strike me as being related to many different formal archetypes in the history of ceramics from Asia, Europe and South America. And those glazes! Kaplan, who lives in Denver, is clearly one of our contemporary masters.

I'd say the same for Arvada's Marie E.v.B. Gibbons, even if these "Milagro Series" pieces — wall-mounted relief sculptures based on gory depictions of internal organs — have a limited appeal for me. But Gibbons has never been afraid to create in-your-face works, and that's certainly what she's come up with here. It goes without saying that they were the perfect fit for juror Arleo.

Across from the Kaplans are the only other traditional vessels: bottles, bowls and lidded pieces by Conifer's Carrie Doman. While the shapes are familiar, Doman's heavily carved and otherwise finished surfaces are not.

In the recently updated old sanctuary of the church that houses Foothills are feathery and lyrical sculptures by Eve Partridge from Boulder that have been placed on stands and on the wall. Partridge works and pulls the clay until it's thin and broken along the edges, then models it into abstractions based on plants. In a piece like "Nesting," you can certainly see the influence of Nan McKinnell, who sometimes created the same kind of crenellated edges.

Partridge's aesthetic couldn't be more different from Chandler Romeo's, whose installations are placed nearby. More than any other artist in Colorado Clay, Romeo is heir to the industrial-design ceramics tradition of mass-produced china and decorative ware. I thought both pieces, "Oasis," a cityscape, and "Range," a sci-fi environment, were really good. Romeo creates these things using individual modules in different shapes that are assembled together to create her singular pieces.

If you want to locate the problem with the exhibition design, the placement of Valerie and Jonathan Nicklow's panels of decorated tiles underscores it. The work by the Evergreen pair has been scattered throughout the spaces, making it hard to think about them as parts of a coherent whole. That said, the Nicklows are obviously on to something, with the more densely decorated tiles being the best of the lot.

In a way, the culmination of the show is a group of tremendously idiosyncratic works by Caroline Douglas from Boulder. Douglas is a magic realist, and her figural sculptures almost seem like three-dimensional versions of children's book illustrations. In "Billy Goat Transport," a charming ram pulls a cart in the form of a wire building filled with tiny figures. Then there's "Night Ride With Wolverine," wherein people ride in a canopied saddle on the back of a giant wolverine. The tour de force is "Earth Song," a life-sized standing figure of a woman, her torso made of clay and her skirt of iron. The skirt is transparent, and ceramic birds perch on iron branches within.

I'm giving a qualified thumbs-up to Colorado Clay, and despite any issues I might take with either the selections or the installation, it's an important show with a number of important artists.

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