(Re)Form Essay

10/09/2010 - 12/18/2010
Catherine Futter

For the past 125 years the Kansas City Art Institute has been educating students not only in the techniques and processes of art-making but in the tools and steps to become professional artists. Graduates have taken those valuable lessons, entered the academic world, at prestigious universities and important community art centers, and established their own studios. KCAI graduates have won accolades, grants and residencies and garnered national and international reputations for themselves and the school’s outstanding programs.

(Re)Form explores recent work by twenty-five graduates of KCAI’s Ceramics Department program from the past forty years. The selected artists demonstrate a wide range of artistic investigations, expression and even media. Although the majority of artists incorporate clay into their work, this was not a prerequisite for inclusion, and while some artists have abandoned or diverged from ceramics, others have left only to return later and employ clay in new ways. After graduating, the majority attended the foremost and influential graduate schools, further developing their artistic visions, and many have found teaching positions that have given them the opportunity to interact with students and fellow academics and artists in other media and areas of expertise. All of the artists in the exhibition are committed to making art as a professional career, even those who have either just graduated from KCAI or are about to start graduate school. As professionals, some work in the context of a college or university or solely in a studio, as potters, sculptors or performance artists. Some of the artists employ a strong personal, social or art historical narrative in their work, while others focus on exploring innovative forms, textures and patterns. (Re)Form celebrates the vibrancy, productivity and creativity of an intergenerational and diverse group of artists with strong ties to KCAI, a school that continues to foster some of the most inventive, original and imaginative artistic voices of our time. Although not installed as a thematic installation, the works can be organized into three broad categories: vessels, walls and sculpture.

Vessels: Constructing and De-Constructing Form

Hand-building, throwing or mold-making is intrinsic to KCAI’s Ceramics program, where students have learned from masters such as Ken Ferguson, Victor Babu and George Timock how to model a well-constructed vessel, mix a perfect glaze and develop rich surfaces. The contours of some vessels are functional, while others are deconstructed, reformed and become three-dimensional paintings. Decorative surfaces can elicit a narrative or can be embellished with patterns and texture.

Two graduates from the class of 1985, Sarah Jaeger and Josh DeWeese exemplify the traditional studio potter, producing meticulously crafted functional wares. Jaeger’s Tureen and Tray marries an elegant porcelain form with a rich tortoiseshell glaze of turquoise blues and ambers. DeWeese’s Jar, traditional in shape, belies its inherently historicist appearance with glazed decoration reminiscent of the palette and formal compositions of Richard Diebenkorn, animated by drawing and text. Chris Gustin, class of 1975, creates forms of such large scale that although their outlines echo useful pots their sheer size removes them from the realm of function into pure sculpture. In his Vessel with Dimple, #0807, the tall thin walls of the twisting and turning cylinder are activated by the sensual pale blue-green crystalline glaze, the undulating and swelling surfaces leading the eye up and over the shifting shadows and crevices of the skin into the depths of the interior.

Chris Staley, special student, 1977-1978, creates works of modernist simplicity. The spherical shape and black and while palette of Snow Falling at Night evoke an abstracted narrative of snow softly wafting on a cold, moonless sky. Combining functional sculpture and painting, the shallow arc of the handle and the white disc of the lid disintegrate into a pattern of small white spots on the deep black ground that both defines and negates the volume of the jar. John Gill, class of 1973, and his wife Andrea, special student,    1972-1973, have taken the vessel, deconstructed it and found new ways to reinterpret and energize the medium. Andrea Gill’s Entari plays with spatial relationships that change with the viewer’s perspective. The arrangement of forms of Gill’s large vessels, with necks, shoulders and torsos recall the human figure, while the vibrantly-colored and layered patterns that ornament them evoke the repetition and formality of historic textiles—the vessels seem to be enveloped and in motion. Also vertical in structure, John Gill’s Obstacle Series, Tall Vase suggests Cubist or Supremacist images of skyscrapers. The complex structures of cut, folded and joined clay and bold blocks of color exert forces that draw the viewer around their architectural organization.

A more recent graduate, Daniel Ricardo Teran, class of 2007, makes expressive functional wares with seemingly dark and apocalyptic images conveyed through sgraffito decoration. The finely delineated incised designs of a skull and abstracted plant life create a narrative full of mystery and suspense. Irv Tepper, class of 1969, elevates the cup and saucer to new heights of delicacy and ruin, in Morning…Wake-up! He throws translucent forms that articulate light, shadow and volume, while the sheer scale, tears and folds negate the functional aspects of the nature of the ordinary. Tepper has been working with this every day object, found in kitchens, dining rooms and diners, for over 35 years exploring its potential for narrative and its hidden beauty.

Kurt Weiser, class of 1972, has transformed another easily identifiable object, the table globe, with sumptuous forms meticulously painted with provocative scenes of Rubensian nudes set in lush landscapes. The globes become canvases for surreal, other-worldly vistas, rather than maps of the earth or the heavens. The figure of Empire perches on a crocodile, holding elements of water while the vividly colored Luna and her realm float over a detailed depiction of an Italian Renaissance walled town, rendered in sepia tones.

Although known for his functional wares, Andrew Martin, class of 1979, is exploring new sculptural, although still useful, forms in Shadow Lake. Whereas his utilitarian wares frequently refer to Middle Eastern and Asian ceramics and are often mold made, in this work Martin looks towards the natural world for the form and surface as the bowl evokes the rough, weather-beaten terrain of a glacial lake.

Walls: Activating the Two-Dimensional

Several artists included in (Re)Form investigate the vertical and horizontal surfaces of the gallery, activating them with imagery, text and texture. Overhead, in Firmament of Fixed Stars, Jesse Small, class of 1997, combines an enameled steel armature with porcelain lanterns to create a sublime and ethereal chandelier. The forms and translucency recall the stereotypical Asian festivals of paper lanterns swaying from tree branches, yet Small modernizes the traditional lighting device with new materials and a sense of high design and fun.

Maren Kloppmann, class of 1993, also works with a modernist aesthetic, in her case one derived from European modernism of the mid-20th century, with simple, often geometric forms embellished with abstract decoration in minimal colors. In Wall Pillows IV/09 (8 elements), the rounded edges of the eight squares and variations in the white glaze contrast with the strong horizontal and vertical lines of the deep black border as the forms engage the spaces beneath and around them, creating depth with contours and shadows. Bobby Silverman, class of 1980, also uses a limited, although more vibrant, palette in his compositions of large wall tiles, combining text and texture. In Sappho, the texts from several of the ancient poet’s powerful works about love and longing are rendered more mysterious through their legibility and illegibility on a dazzling red background.

Richard Notkin, class of 1971, is well-known for his dystopian ceramics, such as teapots in the form of skulls or nuclear reactor cooling towers finely rendered in traditional Yixing clay or Chinese peach bloom glazes. In This Is What You Were Born For (after Goya), five Yixing tiles tell a painful, yet abstracted narrative of birth and death, sandwiching scenes of destruction. Notkin’s technical expertise and attention to detail make his works more universal and powerful. In the mixed media work Hate, Richard Carter, class of 1985, uses the stark, bold letters that spell HATE, combined with images of anonymous people, ceramic body parts and found objects in shadow boxes to provoke endless permutations of a disturbing narrative. The wood-fired ceramics and shadowy imagery never resolve the story and leave the viewer with a feeling of disquiet.

Two recent graduates, Nathan Mabry, class of 2001, and R. Justin Stewart, class of 2003, have moved from ceramics to other media. In Ossacip (Numbers 1-4), Mabry subverts the art historical canon, not only using the name of the most well-known artist of the 20th century, Picasso, spelled backwards, but also literally inverting images of masks. Mabry has shanghaied works that Picasso appropriated for his Cubist paintings and plays with both Picasso’s and his own motives in co-opting imagery, provoking questions of authorship and originality. In his latest works, Stewart looks to a different source of inspiration, the scientific organization of the physical world. Stewart combines three-dimensional elements, constructed from Teflon O-rings and zip-ties, that are suggestive of sea slugs and caterpillars with schematic drawings that conjure cellular or biological maps, seemingly both recording the natural world and fabricating alternative life forms.

Cary Esser, class of 1978 and Professor and Chair of the Ceramics Department, has been exploring the potential of traditional wall tiles for most of her career. In a new work, Topography 10, that builds upon her investigation of modular forms, Esser experiments with compositions of dynamic landscapes, no longer installed vertically or even permanently.

Sculpture: Investigating the Figure

Recent works by Akio Takamori, class of 1976, have investigated his belief in a collective memory. The large figures represent shifting historical, cultural and racial perspectives that help to create individual and group identity. In Pink Princess, Takamori has appropriated a character from one of the 17th-century masters of classical painting, Diego Velazquez. The figure is not an exact copy from the painting, Infanta Maria Teresa II. Instead, Takamori suggests a historical and social context that is contradicted by the character’s very modern and expressive face. Nobuhito Nishigawara, class of 1999, also explores cultural icons in his work Hotei. Frequently called the Laughing Buddha, Hotei is often depicted as a bald man carrying a bag with his few belongings and a string of prayer beads. Nishigawara has copied the traditional pose and garb of the iconic figure, yet undermines the image by replacing the laughing and smiling monk’s face with a slightly menacing cartoon donkey’s head. The work addresses questions of multiple cultural identities, traditional and popular culture brought on by comparisons between realistic versus cartoonish depictions.

The new work The Mourner by Tia Pultizer, class of 2001, also focuses on issues of iconic historical figures and their position in contemporary art. Pulitzer’s figure of a heavily draped monk initially seems closely derived from mid-15th century French alabaster sculptures of mourners that surround the tombs of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, and his wife, Margaret of Bavaria. The Mourner, however, is thoroughly modern, fabricated with heat-sensitive paint, letting light dictate the mood of the work, and injected with a sense of humor as the monk crosses his fingers probably hoping to keep death at bay.

The most recent graduate of the program, Paul Anthony Smith, class of 2010, uses his own physiognomy as the everyman who is placed in historical and contemporary situations. In World Histories: Ancestral Transcience, the figure struggles to emerge from a barrel of oil, or the primordial ooze, a reference to the origins of man as well as America’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil which both allows the country to grow and holds it back from progress.

Arnie Zimmerman, class of 1977, creates scenes of workers in diverse urban locations and settings in a dynamic world of frantic and never-ending labor. In Bag Man, Diver and Tenement, all from the Men in Cities series, individual vignettes are united to form a narrative of repetitive energy that appears both like a Rube Goldberg construction and an Orwellian nightmare. Although there is a whimsy in the comical costumes and groupings of figures, these tiny men can never escape from their relentless toil.

Casey Whittier, class of 2008, also explores nostalgic versions of the past, allowing visitors to interact and try to create a coherent narrative with a collection of seemingly random objects. In (Re)collection: A Confrontation with Time thin sheets of porcelain with photographic images, letters and jewelry rest in a box. Some seem related, while others seem to push the characters in new directions, giving the viewer control over the story.

Teri Frame, class of 2006, has composed a performance piece based on the iconic early 16th century painting by Quentin Massys titled Massys’ Venus. Using her body and clay facial prosthetics, Frame morphs into the fantastic character from the painting in a work that explores the connections between youth, beauty, and love.

(Re)Form reveals the breadth of creative expression for a representative group of KCAI’s graduates actively participating in the contemporary art world. As students enter this vibrant program, they will learn from and build upon the work of their professors, fellow students and graduates forging new paths and breaking new ground.