Arts & Theater

Power to the people -- through clay

Since the 1960’s “ceramics” and “Bay Area” are forever linked in the history of modern ceramic sculpture.

In a time of political, social, and cultural restlessness, consciousness raising, and outright refusal – when “Question Authority” first appeared on car bumpers in the 60’s – Northern California ceramic artists such as Robert Arneson, Viola Frey, Stephen DeStaebler, and Peter Voulkos were questioning the authority of fine art institutions to determine what is art and what is craft.

The high-art status of clay is today resoundingly confirmed, given the major museum and institutional recognition of such contemporary artists as William J. O’Brien, Sterling Ruby, and Arlene Shechet. But these artists stand on the shoulders of that hardy band of Bay Area clay sculptors who didn’t take “no” for an answer and pushed their work into the contested territory of fine art.

Their spirit of social engagement and responsiveness to the vitality and terrors of human relationships is the tap root from which a generation of artists evolved. That is the theme of this regional survey.

Ceramic sculptor and educator, Lisa Reinertson, curated this ambitious exhibition and programmed its schedule. The Pence Gallery in Davis is its last stop. The Pence installation is an edited version of the inaugural exhibition at Lewis and Clark College, and does not include the groundbreaking work of the Bay Area pioneers. This is a pity, for the historical narrative is, in part, the point of the show. Nevertheless, the show is an opportunity to see and experience moving and qualitative works of achievement.

If one thinks of art as a unique entity, a thing born from a singular vision combined with the effort that gives it form, then Wanxin Zhang’s figures possess the tender congruence of a living organism. Zhang lived through the oppression of the Cultural Revolution. “My Sunday series: Disciple 8” and “My Sunday Series: Disciple 12” were made in response to seeing the Chinese Terra Cotta warriors. Cracked, punched, slathered, and slabbed, Zhang’s works are visceral embodiments of quavering humanity.

Arthur Gonzalez might be called the Mark Twain of contemporary ceramics. His mixed-media figurative narratives evoke thje worldly journeys and spirited quests of Huckleberry Finn. “Stink Eye” positions the bust of an adolescent boy holding a pocket knife bedecked bare branch before an open book. Combining the quotidian elements of ceramics, pocketknives, a hoodie, wood, glaze, and a Sharpie, the piece points to the poetry and mystery of the examined life.

Reinertson’s large-scale figurative sculptures combine humans with other sentient animal beings, suggesting questions about the balance of power. With classical simplicity, “Breaking Point” couples the torso of a young woman with a steer’s head morphing from her own. In less skilled hands, the piece would be obvious and corny, but Reinertson’s expressive intentions imbue the work with mythic gravitas.

Ehren Tool’s installation of 128 porcelain cups is not only graphically inventive, it is also a significant and deeply moving piece of social practice. Tool is a veteran of the first Gulf War and has been making and giving away his cups to everyone from presidents to visitors to his shows. He has made thousands, and each is unique. Using text, transfers, and meticulous renderings of war’s atrocities, Tool’s cups turn traumatic pain into domestic objects over which redemptive conversations might evolve about global responsibility and the catastrophic consequences of unchecked capitalism.

It’s a stretch to include some of the work within the embrace of social consciousness. For example, Richard Shaw is unarguably a master of technical wizardry. His trompe l’oeil ceramic still life, “Painter’s Table With Unfinished Painting,” is a jaw-dropping replica of an encrusted table, used paint tubes, brushes, cigarette stubs, and the ubiquitous container of turpenoid. An ode to the hermetic life of the artist, it is witty and skilled, a tour de force. But, it is a far cry from the deeply felt social concerns of most of the other works in the show.

The other exhibiting artists include Michelle Gregor, Marc Lancet, Mark Messener, Richard Notkin, Monica Van de Dool, and Stan Welsh.BAY AREA CLAY: A Legacy of Social ConsciousnessWhen: Through June 10

Where: Pence Gallery, 212 D St., Davis CA

Cost: Free

Information: pencegallery.org

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