Real and Imagined

Well, after two years of local preparation, the National Council for Education in the Ceramic Arts 2000 meeting came and went last week in only a few days. But if NCECA's gone, it's not forgotten. Temporary though it may be, it's left behind a legacy in the form of more than fifty ceramic exhibits that have been mounted locally.

Though some them have already closed, many others will be open through the summer and a few will remain until the fall. What this means is that those of us who did not attend the NCECA conference will get the opportunity to see the substantial accomplishments of numerous ceramic artists, most of them from Colorado.

All of the recent attention on ceramics reveals the fact that clay, most of the time, is virtually excluded from Denver's contemporary art world -- in a typical year, there are only a handful of clay shows. When things get back to normal by the end of April, there'll be fifty painting shows instead, and we won't even take notice.

This situation reflects a widespread prejudice in contemporary art: Painting is favored while ceramics are denigrated. There's an imaginary hierarchy in the visual arts that puts painting at the top of the heap and ceramics very near the bottom, just above the making of potholders. Some, I dare say many, don't even consider ceramics to be a fine art at all, sneering as they tar it with the name "craft." But if these people made the effort to see some of the relevant exhibits around town right now, they would realize that many ceramic artists are actually making sculpture, which has long been considered a fine art. And what's wrong with well-crafted vessels, anyway?

Ron Judish, the director of Ron Judish Fine Arts in lower downtown, confesses to having formerly shared this negative view of ceramics. In fact, "except for artists like Betty Woodman," he didn't even view the field as being relevant to the fine arts. "I thought of ceramics as bric-a-brac, all artsy-craftsy," he says.

Then, a year ago, Rodger Lang, the organizer of the NCECA conference, contacted Judish, among many others, and urged him to put on a ceramic show. In spite of his low opinion of ceramics, Judish said he'd cooperate. "I like the idea of coordinated efforts by the community," he explains. He gave Lang the catch-all title of Volume, set the opening and closing dates, and put the idea on the back burner.

"Rodger is so organized and he lays everything out way in advance, and though I hate to admit it, I'm not like that at all," Judish says. "I put together shows at the eleventh hour!" As evidence, he points out that none of the five artists in Volume were even associated with the gallery when he committed to doing the exhibit.

At first, Judish considered doing a show without including ceramics at all. "Ceramics are about volume, so with the title, I thought I could present paintings and sculptures that were also concerned with volume," he says. He finally decided he needed to include ceramics, and he's glad he did. "I love the way the ceramics look in the gallery." But he couldn't bring himself to go all the way, so there is also a sculptor and a painter.

The largest of three untitled sculptures by Denver artist Jeff Richards is visible even before we enter the gallery, filling the corner of its display windows. Constructed from unfinished plywood and simple in its details, this sculpture and the other two by Richards are akin to the trio of pieces he exhibited last fall in Colorado Vernacular at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. Across the side of the sculpture, the red rubber-stamped markings of the plywood manufacturer have been left on and serve as an informal decorative element, as do the many knotholes that pockmark the low-grade material.

The sculpture takes an architectonic form, in which a vertically oriented rectilinear shape has been placed on top of a rectangle which is more exaggerated in its verticality. The architectural reference may be expected, given that Richards's day job is as a designer and AutoCAD operator for the Denver landscape architecture firm of EDAW. Although he uses AutoCAD's digital drafting feature in designing his sculptures, they're so simple that a straight-edge and a No. 2 pencil would have been sufficient. Well, that's progress for you.

The two vertical shapes that make up the sculpture are separated by a space made by four square blocks which holds them apart. The resulting slit, in what would otherwise be a monolith, allows light to pass through the piece as demonstrated by the shadows cast on the wall. Richards views this directed light in shadow as a key element of his sculpture, and argues that this gives them an installation component. It's a subtle point and it may enrich our visual experience, but much more emphatic is the way these pieces refer to the minimalist sculpture of the 1960s and '70s, especially the unfinished plywood. Perhaps the reflected light makes these sculptures a little different, and thus they could be examples of a kind of neo-minimalism that is currently popular worldwide.

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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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