Arlene Shechet. Studio view, New York, 1997. Hydrocal, acrylic paint skins, found furniture.

The “Piss In”: NCECA’s Critical Santa Fe symposium

SANTA FE-There was a rumble or three at the NCECA Critical Santa Fe symposium, as Garth Clark played human trip-wire during a recurrent fireworks display. His detonators included Professor and critic Donald Kuspit (SUNY Stony Brook) and art critic Janet Koplos (Art in America, American Craft), who assert that Clarks twin lives as a nationally-awarded art critic who makes money dealing in ceramics puts him in overt conflict when he writes on artists whose work he sells.

Responding on Saturday afternoon, Clark said sardonically, “I am a failed human being,” rejoining that his ethics might be the most transparent in the room.

As an optimist, dust-ups about money (at  a conference about criticism), reveal the unruly civics of cultural debate. Fine. The entrenched purity v. pollution issue in art.  Also fine. And the liminal coming toward center. Great – if you consider that expressed resentments on Election Eve reflect how oppressed people feel by the markets solipsism.

On the flip side, why Clark kept having to play firing squad with his peers, in a field in which Clarks critical peers deem he has practiced excellent criticism, moved beyond me after the first scuffle became a second and a third?  Come the middle or the end of this conference, nothing like an answer had been proposed, on how to construe a future for lively, prominent, and useful criticism inside or outside the ceramics field.

Assertions of the problem held:
1. Ceramics in the larger art system,  are still highly overlooked (save for exceptions. More later).
2. Ceramics have low self-esteem. Take the phrase “Ceramic-Arts,” with a hyphen. “Potter,” which only a “potter” can say about herself.
3. Thus, in contemporary art, ceramic-arts play second citizens to the practices of painting and sculpture, video and photography.

New York Times critic Roberta Smith, speaking Saturday, declared that as far as number three is concerned, she is seeing marked signs of change. She located that change in the M.F.A. department at Columbia University (New York), where she suggested this generation of students are using clay as previous ones did video, as ground for experiment. But even if  “as seen at Columbia” visualizes a critical future that eliminates the “ceramic-hyphen-arts” disclaimer, it also unmasks the partiality of the critical power centers now.

And, in terms of the conference, what I remarked after the sessions were done – and spent Sunday poring over some recent national criticism in clay – was that to not talk about the partiality of the critical world in a way that stressed new opportunities online or elsewhere was a lost op for the clay field.
For example, Smith, writing in the NYT on Dirt on Delight (a show at Philadelphias Institute of Contemporary Art last year) said this:

The shows determination to integrate ceramics into the art mainstream is nothing new. But its refusal to do so simply by slipping some universally agreed-upon ceramic exceptions into a show of painting, sculpture and so forth is close to groundbreaking.

Somebody might have asked her not just what are “universally (italics mine) agreed-upon ceramic exceptions”? But WHERE do they come from?  I agree wholly with Smiths comments (made at the conference) that criticism deals – and must deal – in judgments of good and bad. But given that she put a number to her peer-group (there are, per Smith, 24 full-time amply-paid critics in the US, who can practice and publish presumably without market interference),  this epochs George Ohr might never fall into one of their arcs of vision.

Where the work goes on display that gets written about by Roberta Smith or Christopher Knight (L.A. Times) – or in Artforum or Art in America – is a function of where people go to spend money or cultural “leisure” time (to New York, Los Angeles, London, Miami, the Met, the Modern, Chelsea, etc.) Hence, anything that ascends to these pubs pages is “good enough” to be judged, even as “bad,” because its been to the art worlds “there.”

While Smith in the same article linked above referred to the “fictive art-craft divide,” one might wonder if the divide is so fictive on the West coast, where Christopher Miles writing in the L.A. Times said:

Of course, Andrew Lord (at SMMOMA) isnt exactly a potter in the traditional sense, but he is an artist who is deeply committed to explorations of ceramic media among others, and who is plainly as aware, reverent – and familiar and comfortable enough to also be sweetly irreverent – of ceramic traditions…

Do I hear a disclaimer?

Christopher Knight, perhaps mindful, reviewed that show with as an opening line: “[Andrew] Lord usually makes ceramics.” Plain.

As to what is ceramics critical body now? – because there does indeed exist a divide between contemporary art publications and those dedicated to “metal,” “clay, “fiber,” as stand-alone – this conference demonstrated a lot of nostalgias indeed – and not just the usual handmade v. readymade issues that have tortured clay since Duchamps (porcelain) urinal.

Howard Risatti, for example, Prof Emeritus in the crafts department of Virginia Commonwealth University,  boasted of knowing about the “Net,” but still being on dial-up down south. Tasked with offering something on “Criticism and Publications,” one of two panels he sat on,  he cited the magazine New Art Examiner, defunct since May 2002, at least three times. (I also wrote for this magazine, and believe me, there are others still practicing in that indie category.) Why hear twice from a guy whose example of a publication in ceramics has been dark for almost a decade?

The existing name ceramic magazines with bigger or smaller niches are American Craft, Studio Potter, Ceramics Monthly, Elaine O. Henrys Ceramics: Art and Perception and Keramik Magazine Europa. And there is a THINK Tank, begun by KME editor Gabi Dewald for her critical peers in countries in Europe that see the enterprise differently.

There is of course also the University – which from the looks of things still hosts many men making pronouncements that range from forge-hard to sorta silly.

Viz.  Dave Hickey up from Albuquerque and UNM came and went from the Lumpkins Ballroom early Thursday, after making the room mad by repeated  “pussy”  comments.

Who ya calling pussy? Clay? Ceramists?

Tanya Harrod called Hickeys talk “repellent.”

Repellent: the aerosol of human relations in the art world.

Here are a few more things I can offer readers really interested in criticism. The latest interview with Arlene Shechet who participated in a show at MCA Denver this year, and just had a solo show at Jack Shainman in New York, was posted on Bomb magazines website (interview was conducted by painter Jane Dickson, and is a good read).

  • A Philadelphia site, the Art Blog, wrote about the Dirt on Delight show also – in two parts, for Ceramic Monthly magazine.
  • Grayson Perrys recent work  can be seen online at the Saatchi Gallery

Clearly I have a dog in the new media race as I run this online magazine – but I was just left speechless by the idea that you can claim to want to advance a future for clay or ceramics criticism and still lump “blogs” into a field as unmixed as raw sewage.

Please see the program link for the speaker list as I dont want to go through it all – save to say these are the words (were they fresh?) delivered from the podium: An assertion of “touch,” meaning the sensorium, “the instrument,” meaning the body, the “zeitgeist,” the old-time notion of “spirit of the times.”

Amid windy  exchanges, I began envisioning the scene in Gone with the Wind where the wicked overseer comes to buy Tara for taxes. Scarlett shivering in the dirt pledges resistance. Proud in her dimity tatting as she fights for her red Earth, (“Not Miss Ellens portieres, Miss Scarlett!), it is the carpetbaggers sly means she employs to preserve her Tara (the glorious war-dead), drapes to the rescue.

But Scarlett was, as Rhett well knew, a blackguard. And so does virtue often conceal the strivings of human ambition. So that the La Fonda ballroom studded with kitschy Mimbres decals grew as base in human interactions as the proverbial mud pit. Shriek and fling as ye may, its still your dirty kitchen.

Write us your thoughts about this post. Play nice.