Earth, Hand and Fire

Colorado has been a regional center for ceramics for just over a century. The reason is obvious, at least to gardeners and structural engineers: It's all that darned clay.

This readily available natural product led to what I call a "clay rush" beginning in the 1890s. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, a pretty heavy-duty art-pottery scene emerged. It was dominated by Artus and Anne Van Briggle's Van Briggle Pottery, which is still in business in Colorado Springs, along with other distinguished Colorado art-pottery makers of this time, including Denura Denver, Denver Terra Cotta, Denver White and Broadmoor.

Later, in the 1930s and '40s, industrial potters began making art ware; a notable one was Coors, which employed some of the most important sculptors of the period, including Arnold Ronnebeck and Gladys Caldwell Fisher.

In the middle of the century, potters in backyard studios began to replace designers and modelers who had toiled in factory workshops. In the period from the '50s to the '70s, many Colorado potters attained national reputations, including Irene Musick, Betty Woodman, Nan and Jim McKinnell, Maynard Tischler and Paul Soldner.

Since the end of the 1970s and on into the present, there has been an explosion of interest in ceramics in Colorado, and scores of clay artists have established significant reputations. The late, great Rodger Lang comes to mind, as well as Scott Chamberlin, Martha Daniels, Kim Dickey, Martha Russo and many, many others.

All this tradition sets up Colorado Clay to be one of the state's biggest art events of the year -- not just for ceramics artists, but for everyone interested in contemporary art.

In one form or another, the annual Colorado Clay has been presented at Golden's Foothills Art Center since the '70s. Though it's a juried show, it has such a good reputation that established artists, who usually eschew subjecting their work to a juror's scrutiny, enter it anyway -- and the resulting show often winds up being great. I wouldn't go that far this year, though, because the current version of Colorado Clay tilts too far toward ceramic sculpture, with too little attention to the vessel, the mainstream of American ceramics.

This lopsided approach to ceramics reflects the widely held idea that clay sculpture is more contemporary, per se, than is the vessel. This is surely the unspoken though still eloquently expressed view of the distinguished out-of-state juror, Peter Held, a curator at the Ceramic Research Center of the Arizona State University Art Museum.

Held's show differs from previous Colorado Clay efforts in one key way: There are a lot fewer artists. Typically, the exhibit included dozens of chosen artists, each represented by a handful of pieces, so that the Foothills galleries were uncomfortably crammed. But this time, Held selected only sixteen artists. And though each is represented in depth, there's still plenty of breathing room.

As is increasingly the case among exhibition jurors, Held selected artists as opposed to artifacts. It's undeniably a great idea, considering how well it apparently works.

The show begins in the Metsopoulos Gallery, just off the entry. This first section includes pieces by Marie E.v.B. Gibbons of Arvada. Gibbons is one of this season's breakout artists, though she's not an emerging talent just out of art school. No, Gibbons has been exhibiting her work in the area since the mid-1990s. It's just that this year, it all came together for her, first with a solo at Pirate a few months ago, and now in Colorado Clay. The two wall-mounted installations at Foothills are more ambitious versions of similar ones she showed at Pirate.

In "Youth," Gibbons scatters cast doll heads across the wall, anchoring them with a chartreuse stripe. The doll heads are done with a raku firing, in which the black-smoke reduction is paired with creamy oatmeal tones. Adjacent is "Emissaries," in which sea creatures are arranged in a scatter pattern. The elements are richly colored with gorgeous post-fired finishes.

Gibbons is one of several artists in Colorado Clay who create large wall installations made from many small elements. It's the kind of thing that's been all the rage over the past fifteen years or so, but now it's hitting a critical mass. In a sense, these installations are like mosaics, but without the tiles. It's easy to understand why ceramic artists are embracing this approach: Spreading out a bunch of small things across a big wall is a lot more economical in terms of materials, time, technique and expense than making a single piece large enough to cover the entire wall.

Beyond the connecting space in the Bartunek Gallery is a large display of figural sculptures by Julie McNair from Telluride. The figures, mostly the female form, are made in the traditional coil-built method, in which coils of clay are pinched into the desired shapes. The figures are fully detailed, and they demonstrate McNair's great skill at painting. All of the McNairs are engaging, and both the style and the subjects remind me of Austrian ceramics of the early twentieth century. The real tour de force is "Hindsight," which is done in clay with an oil finish that gives this piece -- and the others -- a dull sheen that absorbs light. In "Hindsight," McNair depicts a woman who is literally bent over backward. Because of this outlandish pose, the sculpture looks abstract at first, before we can make out what's actually happening in it.

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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

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