Fool the eye
The Contemporary Ceramics exhibit at Stremmel Gallery is a survey of top-notch examples of some functional, some conceptual work that shows how ceramics, even though it “arrived” as a fine-art medium long ago, still has a self-conscious streak.
Each piece in the show is impressively creative, experimental or just plain interesting enough to merit its own article. What struck me most is that a good 75 percent of the pieces look like they could have been made from materials other than clay, or at least borrowed techniques and aesthetics from other media.
John Mason, a ceramics-world heavyweight who grew up in Fallon, showed human-sized, architecturally abstract ceramic sculptures that my gallery-going companions were convinced were made of metal. Berkeley artist Robert Brady’s ceramic tribal masks look like they could be made of wood. Larry Williamson’s matte black cairns, cast in ceramic from rocks in his Virginia City yard, have the patina, surface marks and weight of apparent cast bronze. The surfaces of Robert Harrison’s smaller-than-a-breadbox houses resembled enameled metal. Richard Newman’s lifelike baseball mitt look looks a readymade sculpture, something purchased from a store and placed in a gallery to upend our notions of art makership, but the “leather” cord laced through “metal” grommets on the worn-in mitt are all made of clay.
I wondered whether making clay sculptures look like other materials had become sort of a game among contemporary ceramicists. And I wondered whether this meant, given the long-running art vs. craft debates, whether ceramicists were trying to transcend their medium, defend it or something else entirely.
I caught up with Robert Brady by phone. He took a breather from biking up a steep slope in the Berkeley Hills to give me his perspective on the matter.
“The amazing thing about clay is it can be made to look like anything,” he said. “And it has been used to represent the sensation of other materials. That is inherent in the dialogue, image and content in the history of ceramics.” He mentioned that the tradition of trompe-l’œil in ceramics goes back at least a couple of centuries. (The term refers to imagery that’s so super-realistic it “fools the eye,” which is its literal translation.)
He cautioned me against the assumption that his colleagues were trying to replicate wood or metal, though.
I pointed out that his wall pieces in the show looked decidedly like clay, but that they were the same scale as paintings you’d hang in a home or office and that he could have achieved approximately the same look using welded pieces of square metal tubing.
“I could see your position in that it’s kind of constructivist,” he answered thoughtfully. “It’d be a logical way to work with pre-formed industrial tubing.”
Brady, who frequently works in wood and had a solo exhibit of wood sculptures at Stremmel recently, mentioned that viewers tell him his wood pieces’ “dry and desert-like surfaces sometimes look like clay.” He said he’s not trying to make his materials look like something they’re not.
And while he wouldn’t mind ceramicists being more aware of the prevailing trends in non-ceramic artwork, he sees no point in trying to copy them and he’s comfortable with the fact that “ceramics” and “cutting-edge” don’t often meet.
Bottom line, says Brady: “You need to find yourself. That’s the whole thing.”
It’s a tall order to do that in ceramics, with its conceptually weighty history. The Contemporary Ceramics exhibit gives us a great range of examples of how ceramicists are doing that.