2002 NCECA Invitational Exhibition: Material Speculation Essay

02/02/2002 - 04/03/2002

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Speculative Objects
Donald Kuspit

What unites these ceramic artists, if anything?  Do they share any common ground, however singular their works?  Part of the critical task is to analyze the interplay of concept and object. Every object is informed by a concept–it can be a style, a method, a conviction–that gives it credibility beyond its immediate idiosyncratic appearance.  Sometimes the concept is assumed and imposed, often it develops in response to the material medium.  It is a kind of unconscious thread of meaning in objects that were made to hold their own physically.  The objects in this exhibition are physically striking but they serve a larger conceptual purpose.  Without it their physical impact would quickly dissipate, however much its effects might emotionally linger.  The question, then, is what concepts are subliminally at work in these objects:  what are the concepts that make them “speculative,” more precisely, speculative statements engaging certain enduring issues?  I am suggesting that the objects in the exhibition are profoundly philosophical, however strong their physical presence.  That is, for all the intensity of the artist’s engagement with their material, their works function as philosophical speculations.  There is no question that many of the objects are physically speculative, that is, engage the material medium, often to ironical effect, and sometimes to generate new forms (sometimes ironically mimetic), but they ultimately make their point through their engagement with a concept, usually having to do with nature.  I will argue that the objects in this exhibition are examples of what I want to call conceptual naturalism, sometimes with a romantic dimension, sometimes with a social purpose.  To put this another way, some works seem conceptually romantic, others conceptually activist; perhaps they are all, implicitly or explicitly, romantically activist.  I think that for all the artists nature is a disappearing reality that must be conceptually preserved and commemorated–a deeply ironical dialectic.

It also seems to me that the works in this exhibition go against the idea of the precious, autonomous, self-sufficient ceramic object.  However individual the objects here, they are incorporated in an installation scheme which distracts from their particularity.  Moreover, the great majority of them have nothing to do with the vessel, a contrariness which may be nothing new, but here is carried to a new extreme of unconcern.  Even when the vessel is used it is a means to an intellectual end not just a thing of independent beauty.  The works in the exhibition also tend to be unconcerned with the idea of the ceramic material as an expressive end in itself–the glory days of abstract expressionistic ceramics when hectic malleability meant outspoken and often chaotic feeling.  The works tend to be cool, intellectual, self-contained.  Many depend on and exemplify scientific ideas, and have a scientific precision.  For the artists here, the ceramic issue is no longer the overthrowal of tradition, whether in the name of creative freedom, which is what liberation from the vessel supposedly afforded, or “authentic” clay–the truly primordial medium, and as such the preferred means of conveying primordial feeling–but the expansive use of ceramics in the service of pressing social and human issues:  the survival of nature and implicitly humanity itself.  The works here are at once intellectual and activist, sometimes more conspicuously one than the other. Ideologically and theoretically informed, the works in this exhibition have broken out of the ceramic ghetto in which the sophisticated, nuanced, evocative handling of clay was regarded as enough to make an important ceramic art.  For the artists here, ceramics is not about making exquisite objects but about making principled, critical statements.  There is no one style in this exhibition, and no one method of making, but there seems to be an underlying mentality, amounting to a strong conviction:  that ceramics must become a serious part of the life-world, and not just the domestic, everyday part of it.

Suspended in space, Deborah Sigel’s objects seem like the manifesto of the exhibition.  Deceptively simple, they are in fact subtly speculative. They are a kind of scientific meditation on the ambiguity of natural form, which is at once organic and geometric–a cunning dialectic of opposites. It is the mystery of nature, and Sigel’s objects, which integrate geomorphic and biomorphic patterns, convey it with deft simplicity.  There is probably a certain fatalism in her fascination with pattern; one would like to penetrate its secrets, as though that would liberate one from it–she talks of making and breaking patterns –even though one knows it is universal and thus inescapable.  Abstractly concrete and concretely abstract, Sigel1s objects seem to demonstrate D’Arcy Thompson’s thesis that biomorphic forms are inherently geomorphic.  Geometry is proverbially eternal and unchanging, while life forms are visibly transient and changing.  To show the geometry of life, and the life in geometry, as Sigel’s objects do, is to show the oneness of being.  Sigel’s Rotations, 2001 look like abstract ornaments, as do the more modernist looking objects in Occurrence, 1996, but the point is that both are implicitly life forms.  Those in Rotations are concentrated to intricate perfection, like crystal, while the more obviously schematic patterns in Occurrence unfold like plants or trees.  Both make the same point:  geometrical and organic forms correlate, and even interchange, suggesting that a universal pattern underlies and governs all phenomena. The geometrical and organic are different expressions of the same basic pattern of being.  Each seems autonomous at first glance, but they are inseparable.  For Segel, neither is purely itself, but implicated in the other.  There is a hidden argument here: nature must be preserved because it is the realm in which the fundament of pattern can be directly contemplated.

Francis Whitehead is also occupied with the patterns in nature, but less with their geomorphic character–although she renders them meticulously–than with their potential for life, as the images in Arguably Alive (the virus taxonomy), 1996-97 suggest.  She focuses on the concrete boundary where chemical matter becomes ambiguously organic, and as such “arguably alive.”  What is important from the perspective of this exhibition is that she uses ceramic and non-ceramic objects side by side, confirming the “speculative” character of her work.  Hortus Obscurus (the dark garden), 1995-96 integrates manufactured benches and natural growths, using the former as accents that set off the latter.  Similarly, her two-dimensional studies for Arguably Alive are as much a part of that grand work as the three-dimensional canopic urns whose covers reify their designs.  Both Hortus Obscurus and Arguably Alive are essentially research projects in which ceramic objects have a place, but are not their be-all and end-all. Interestingly, what look like free expressive forms are scientifically precise representations of the virus protein.  It looks biomorphic, but its form is geomorphically intricate.  It is built on the icosahedron, the ideal twenty sided polyhedron of Plato, as Whitehead notes.  The virus form thus collapses the difference between the biomorphic and geomorphic, and, as Whitehead remarks, “between representational form and the purely geometric.” It is the same idea that informs Sigel’s objects.  Both also want to contemplate the fundament of being.  Like Sigel’s abstract forms, the virus embodies it.  It also is ambiguously organic and inorganic.  In another similarity, material rather than conceptual, both Whitehead’s urns and Sigel’s rotations are made of Egyptian paste (faience), as though in rebellion against clay, or rather leaving it behind as simply one among many materials that can be put to ceramic use.

It may seem strange to regard Jeanne Quinn’s work as conceptual and activist, but Girl, Boy, Girl, 1999 suggests the “speculative” character of gender.  The same flower-like phallic form can be read as male or female, depending upon its position (a witty articulation of the biological truth, at least in the embryo).  Counting and My Wait, both 2000 carry her conceptual use of serial repetitiveness to witty absurdity.  The vessel-like form, however distinctive and organic looking, remains part of a grand intellectual ensemble meant to cast doubt on such psychobiological situations as sex and love.  The vessel as such means next to nothing for Quinn, however seductive its form.  It acquires its meaning as part of her debunking conceptual project.  The organic look of her works is thus deceptive:  the hanging testicle-breasts in Soft Things Made Hard, 2001 are ironical.   Ambiguity is a constant of her art; every one of Quinn’s objects is a double entendre, which is perhaps the gist of being “speculative.”  But ambiguity quickly becomes irony:  instead of reconciling the terms, as though to reconcile the male and female in a “mystical” sexual event–the testicle-breast represents their momentary yet proverbially eternal oneness–Quinn uses each to cancel the other, that is, they dissolve into an ironical whole in which neither matters much.  The work, like so many others by Quinn, is a kind of nihilistic joke on the body, not to say sexual experience.  We are left with the Quinn’s expressionistc aesthetics, which is also ironical–teasing, one might say.  Her objects seem to apotheosize eros by aestheticizing it, but they turn it into a farce, not without orgiastic implications, but ultimately trivial and redundant.

Like Whitehead’s work, Walter McConnell’s is also about nature, but, like Quinn’s work, ironical–more disturbingly ironical, and ironically monumental.  Like Fecundity in Absence, 1995, Topiary, 1999 piles up clay in baroque splendor.  The majestic construction is crowned with what looks like a coral growth–a metaphor for the brain, as its ridges suggest?–and enclosed in plastic, as though preserving it forever in a museum.  It is a remarkable invention–a remarkable celebration of nature at its most efflorescent and abundant–but it is also profoundly ironical, for the nature is the color of brown earth, suggesting that the growth is dead and petrified.  It is art, after all, rather than living nature.  Again and again McConnell creates a conceptual memorial to crucified nature, as the cruciform 10,000 Lakes, 1993 suggests.  His works, like Whitehead’s, are mixed media. Material is part of a concept rather than an end in itself, however expressively intense.  Effluvial Bloom, 2000 and Hothouse, 2001 make the same ironical material point, and also ironical social point, for McConnell’s wet clay is implicitly polluted sludge from the bottom of the sea–an original use of clay to make an original ecological statement, that at the same time ironically returns clay to the earth, suggesting the catastrophic collapse of civilization, for it begins in part with the civilized use of clay.

Jamie Walker’s works are also mixed media, and also reference nature, if with a different kind of irony.  His Natura Morta series, 1998-99 are tours de force of meticulous realism, but the nature is, indeed, dead–ironically stilled life.  Walker shatters his own perfectionism with the display of fallen sheetrock leaves in Pause, 2000, which extend the ironical import. The leaves are as white as ghosts, and suggest a nature that has had a bad fall and cannot be put back together again.  As the viewer moves through Pause, she makes a kind of passage from life through death and back out again.  The space is meditative, but also dangerous, underfoot as well as overhead, for one’s way is lit only by a single blue light.  Walking over the destroyed terrain makes an unpleasant noise and is not a pleasant experience, adding to the sense of threat.  This interactive work carries ceramics–incidental to the piece, in the form of bowls which are unreadable as concave or convex, and thus subvert the concept of the vessel–to an ironical extreme.

Annabeth Rosen “packs the space of the piece,” as she says, but her pieces are also homages to the earth, for, as she also says, each is a “specimen or sample, a chunk of earth, cut out and set up for scrutiny,” as though in a museum.  The pieces are at once vividly, even violently gestural, but also self-contained, the “naturalistic” gestures caged, often in squares.  The tuber-like growths in Flower, 2001 make the nature reference explicit, and other works look like a mutant combination of sea anemone and coral–a bizarre undersea growth struggling to break its moorings from the ocean bottom, represented by the slab that forms the base of many works.  Rosen’s works are a kind of reprise of abstract expressionistic ceramics, but their strict geometrical form and self-containment gives them, paradoxically, a certain minimalist austerity. Again, we see the interplay of the organic and the geometrical.  The opposites dynamically reconcile, although the tension that informs their ironical unity seems about to tear them apart.  I suggest, perhaps all too fancifully, that Rosen’s works, which are expressive tours de force, are implicitly apocalyptic in import.  The bizarre dregs of destroyed growths–elemental life-like gestures, I want to emphasize–are preserved for posterity, if there is any.  Organic pattern has been scrambled, but homogeneous geometric pattern remains intact, entropically repeated ad infinitum, in works that unite expressionist drama and minimalist seriality. In fact, Rosen carries minimalist seriality into expressionist drama, for her seemingly organic gestures are all essentially the same and repetitive. This is the ultimate irony of entropy, that is, the ultimate statement of death-in-life.

Sadashi Inuzuka also integrates organic gesture and abstract geometry, with each gesture an elegantly stylized natural form, often derived from the sea, as the gesture-symbols in the tour de force Nature of Things, 1995 make clear.  In River, 1999 symbols of nature are contained in a cosmic circle, which serially repeats, implicitly infinitely.  The work as a whole has an iconic character, as does each of its details, which are in effect emblems of natural things.  Abstract and flat, and deeply meditative–intensely quiet—Inuzuka’s installations are also insistently realistic, as the details of Maple and Yeast, part of his Omoide/Memory project of 2000–involving memories of nature, more particularly, natural forms–make clear.  Inuzuka creates a cosmic environment which pays homage to nature, sometimes integrating actual bits of it–bread and rice in the case of Yeast–into what is essentially an abstract installation.  Inuzuka1s installations are sacramental, conveying the feeling of entering a shrine of nature–a sanctuary that is the only space in which it can display itself peacefully, that is, the only space left in which it can be worshipped rather than exploited.

Mary Jo Bole is obsessed with death, fragility, and intimacy.  She makes explicit what I think is the subtext of many of the other installations. She collects artifacts and images associated with death, and makes works that return to childhood–a very personal childhood.  It is as though she wants to encompass the beginning and end of life–her life, which began in the family and will end in a cemetery of relatives.  Her subject is not so much nature, although that is there, everpresent, threatening, yet gently embracing, as the site-specific Nature Takes Over, 1993 indicates, as human nature, more particularly, her own nature, as The Stuff of Self-Indulgence, 1990 suggests.  Her works are charming, even endearing, and show how charming and existential kitsch can be, unexpectedly but no doubt inevitably, since it is the medium of commonplace communication of human concerns.  At the same time she can make such sturdy ceramic monuments as the Tree of Life and Death, 1993.  Her oeuvre has a poignant accumulative effect, and she is not adverse to mixing the geometrical and the organic, as Finial for a Window for Our Yonder, 1993 suggests.

James Melchert’s works seem a long way from death and nature, but he deals with Life on Mars, 1997 and the “cracked” works in the Where It Ends Series, 1991 and Electric Kiln Series, 1992 are implicitly about entropy, like Duchamp’s Large Glass, 1915-23, from which they derive.  The apparently accidental, meandering cracks are ironical reprises of seemingly spontaneous gestures.  Just as the cracks are an ironical slap at abstract expressionistic painting–what Duchamp had earlier called “instinctive painting”–so the iconic squares in which the cracks are embedded is a Duchampian slap, however belated, at Malevich’s Suprematism.  Thus geometry and gesture integrate, if perversely.  There is a nihilistic Dadaistic aspect to Melchert’s work–a kind of ironic indifference, to refer to Duchamp–but when the pattern cracks it becomes emotionally resonant, as the passionately red Desire as Terrain, 1995 suggests.  Is Melchert being ironical about love, death, art, or ceramics–glazed earthware, after all, cracks?  Or is he rendering, in abstract terms, the tragedy of desire, basic to human nature?  For all the speculative wit and ironical ambiguities in Melchert’s work, there is a spare elegance to them, however tongue in cheek. The squares of glazed kiln shelves that form the grid of Life on Mars are beautiful, even voluptuous objects, suggesting that the life force–the natural romance of life, one might say –remains alive in Melchert, however much it resembles, uncannily, Warhol’s ironic, fatalistic mockery of it in his Oxidation Series.  It is hard to tell whether Melchert is a romantic manqué, that is, an ironical romantic, or a neo-Dadaist using ceramic material as his ironical medium.

All the artists in this exhibition are master craftpersons, but what makes them special is their “reconceptualization” of ceramics.  In their hands it becomes speculative rather than declarative, a means to a conceptual end rather than a physical end in itself, as in traditional ceramics.  Clearly ceramics has moved beyond the boundaries of the particular, limited object into the implicitly limitless space of the environmental installation, emblematic of the lifeworld in which their concepts are urgently relevant.