Paradigms and Paradigms for Ceramics
Third Annual Dorothy Wilson Perkins Lecture
Schein-Joseph International Museum of Ceramic
at Alfred University
October 24, 2000
Thank you very much for inviting me to
be the Third Dorothy Wilson Perkins Ceramic Lecture presenter. I was
greatly honored by your proposal. Today I am giving my twelfth lecture
addressing various aspects of ceramic history, all of which were based
on the unflinching conviction that ceramics is an independent art
form with its own idiosyncrasies. Ceramics to me is clearly a generic
group. This implies that this category has its own language and proper
absolutely no doubt in my mind that ceramic objects can be full-fledged
art objects and even cross into the art field as we understand art
to be in our western society. However all ceramics are not created
equal and also all objects made in clay do not possess "ceramicness."
In my lecture I will explain
a fundamental principle: there is in fact such notion as "ceramicness"
and I will discuss and expand that theoretical premise. Once this
is accepted as a foundation for argument we can start to have an
intelligent and constructive discourse instead of speaking neurotic
jumble, a hodgepodge of facts, fiction, and unquestionable bullshit
as usually is the case. This is an unfortunate situation, which
is highly deplorable, serious, and detrimental. As it stands now,
catalogues and monographs featuring ceramics are more and more like
a beauty pageant and graphic design than documenting and discussing
intelligently the artifacts being made in the field. I hope that
at the end of my paper that you will be aware that ceramic objects
can be a lot more than mere commodities.
The paper that I will deliver
here at Alfred University is titled: Ceramics Paradigms and Paradigms
for Ceramics. As you probably know it is an expanded version
of one section of the lecture that I presented at the 1999 Ceramic
Millennium Symposium held in Amsterdam in the Netherlands. For that
occasion I had been asked to evaluate the contribution of major
league artists to ceramics per se. The real issue was: Do big name
artists bring anything more to ceramics than just their bankable
signature? In addition, I needed to answer the implied question
that there is a standard to achieve. Otherwise, how could I say
yes, indeed they did, or no, they did not? At once I had to establish
a paradigm. A list of criterion needed to be set forth to serve
as arguments in my quest for classification. Considering that the
body of work that I had to deal with was made by transient-artist-potters,
I felt that I had to establish, on the one hand, the intrinsic degree
of "ceramicness" present in the artifact, and on the other, put
forth some theoretical assumptions to help establish a feasible
system for evaluation and categorization.
At this time I can say, in
all modesty, that I am convinced that the exercise resulted in a
workable format that constitutes a possible basic grid or taxonomies
to be used for constructing a ceramic discourse about ceramic objects.
After presenting you with this method of subdivision as suggested
in Guess Whos Coming to Lunch I will elaborate on the
notion and enlarge the scope to include ceramic pieces made by professional
potters and ceramicists.
There are only a few ceramic
history books that present ceramics as a somewhat global cultural
endeavor. Ceramics of the 20th Century by Serge
Gauthier and Tamara Préaud, published in 1982, is one text
that comes to mind. Monographs on collections or on a group of artists
are more frequent. However these are seldom presented within a broad
ceramic context. For instance, in the recent catalogue Color
and Fire: Defining Moments in Studio Ceramics 1950 2000,
Selections from the Smits Collection and Related Works at the Los
Angeles County Museum of Art, there is only one author whose
text is accompanied with illustrations of historical artifact in
the book. Only two examples by one writer exist.
At the outset of Ceramics
Paradigms and Paradigms for Ceramics, I stated clearly that
I saw ceramics as a generic group with its own set of rules, specialized
terminology, and distinctive characteristics. Once the basic tenets
are defined, categories can then be formulated.
What was so particular with
the group of artifacts that I had to discuss in the Amsterdam lecture
entitled Guess Whos Coming to Lunch was the fact that
the interest in the works was essentially programmed by the celebrity
factor of the maker. On their own, some of those objects were simply
bad ceramic 101 projects. However the advantages provided by such
a wide variety of pieces was the diversity of the approach to ceramics.
To make some sense out of this unorthodox mélange I had to
devise a system to constitute a workable cluster of items to be
"Ceramicness", as one proof
editor once told me, is not a term that can be found in a dictionary.
Nevertheless I think that we can use it to adequately describe a
particular type of characteristic to be found in ceramic artifacts.
This notion can be embodied either in the formal or conceptual components
of a work. Correspondingly, it can be manifest as an attribute related
to the surface and/or to the form per se. This degree of "ceramicness"
can be measured, identified, and argued. However, it is never applied
to describe the congenital make-up of the object. A porcelain figurine
can have absolutely no ceramicness as in this 18th century
Longton Hall Porcelain Britannia in the Cincinnati Art Museum.
However, in American ceramicist Justin Novaks (b. 1963) raku
fired Lap of Luxury made this year, there is to the astute
viewer an idiosyncratic "Je ne sais quoi" that refers to a genre
already entrenched in the generic group in which the archetype belongs.
Figurines are an integral part of the history of ceramics. The "ceramicness"
in Lap of Luxury can be detected in the format, in the subject
matter, and particularly in the neo-rococo base on which sits the
hand-modeled black and white figures. "Ceramicness", I must clarify,
is always about something other than the real thing. The nature
of this decisive characteristic is that it mimics a singularity
without being that singularity. William Lombardos (b. 1943)
Rosey an American Beauty made in 1971 is about figurines
as a genre. This cow was included in the exhibition Clay Works:
20 Americans, held at New York City Museum of Contemporary Crafts,
from June 18 through September 12, 1971. What is to be considered
here is the size of the object which respects the figurine
formatand the surface treatment, which is more decorative
than structural. The use of decals mimics hand-painted motifs found
on many archetypes (figurines) such as in the Staffordshire shown
earlier. Not to be overlooked is the anecdotal aspect of the piece.
All of those arguments can attest to the "ceramicness" of the object.
In Artists and Ceramics,
a lecture given in 1987 at the Syracuse, New York NCECA conference,
I demonstrated that "figurine" was a nomenclature used in a decorative
art context. The section where that statement was made addressed
the question: ceramic sculpture or clay sculpture? Brought forth
then was the fact that a small scale figurative sculpture was never
called a figurine in a fine art context, but a miniature sculpture.
I also pointed out that besides scale, polychromy was another factor
that confirmed the category.
Canadian Jean-Pierre Larocques
(b. 1953) recently made Horse does not use the generic as
a type. The connection that can be made with a quintessential Tang
dynasty Horse such as the one dating from 618 to 906 BC in
the Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio is only from a thematic
standpoint; as image they are both horses. There is no apparent
Tang characteristic visible in Larocques sculpture.
The "ceramicness" in this sculpture consists of the exploitation
of the inherent possibilities offered by the medium he used to build
his image. Remember, I said not so long ago that "ceramicness" needed
to be apropos an attribute. In this instance it is about process.
The anecdotal presence of the structural framework supporting the
piece, the handling of clay, and the ceramic surface can all be
seen as traits that help us to construct a narrative about ceramics.
However, the "ceramicness" of Jean-Pierres Horse is
less obvious, and not as important as it is in William Lombardos
Rosey. Not to be ignored in any event, is the kinship with
the fine art sculptural tradition, along with many possible sources
from that generic group. Just think about modern Italian sculptor
Marino Marinis (b. 1901 d. 1980) emblematic horses.
The connection with Tang
pottery and American ceramic artist Betty Woodmans (b. 1930)
Pillow Pitcher circa 1980 is easier to establish. Here the
links to the generic are unambiguous. The surface has been confiscated
and affixed to a very plastic volumetric form with exaggerated Mediterranean
pottery features. The pliable possibilities of the clay have been
enhanced and stretched. The "ceramicness" of Woodmans Pillow
Pitcher is cajoling.
Now for something completely
different: Luncheon in Fur, a 1936 work by Swiss Dada artist
Meret Oppenheim (b. 1913 d. 1985) now in the collection of New York
City Museum of Modern Art. This Dadaist objects "ceramicness"
resides in the fact that the format, the resulting image, is a banal
porcelain cup and saucer covered in fur. These found objects are
standard and common pottery shapes. This type of cup and saucer
can be seen as iconic because they are stereotypes.
By the way, Oppenheims
porcelain cup and saucer are nowhere to be found in ceramic history
books, nor can it be located in the select and uppity group of ceramics
by artists. This same fate is reserved for Duchamps famous
ceramic sculpture Fountain. How do we explain this awkward
situation? Could it be that ceramic history is not really the history
of ceramics? Dont you find the situation at least puzzling
if not downright distressing? Imagine this, the two most famous
ceramic sculptures and even major icons of 20th century
art have been preempted by the art establishment. Worse yet, they
are outcasts in the field of ceramics. Is it possible that there
is a point, a transitional interlude, after which a ceramic object
ceases to belong to the group of specimens constituting the corpus
of material included in a ceramic history lecture, or a book on
this subject? If I were mean, I might reply bluntly that it is when
they are too good. Let me stress again that unless we understand
and discuss ceramics as a generic group, we will be faced with such
ignominies as the ones just mentioned.
As you can see there is a very
serious structural problem indeed regarding the paradigms governing
the group. The major handicap confronting the history of 20th
century ceramics, as it is usually organized and kicked around,
is the fact that the subject is heavily slanted towards studio pottery
as a craft practice. Ceramics is never presented as a concept. More
often than not, it is the beauty pageant system that prevails; a
situation where the emphasis is put on the decorative and the "beautiful."
As intelligent people should know, these notions are not synonyms
or accurate substitutes for good and significant. The insistence
on vessels as cute commodities is leading us to a "nerd land" where
brain-dead pots and bibelots are unfortunately not only the norm,
but also an ideal to attain.
Establishing a Context
The imperative of establishing
a context for properly discussing and analyzing the output within
the ceramic field is of primary importance. Otherwise, how are we
going to evaluate the significance of a ceramic piece either in
the generic group itself or in broader scope?
Ceramics and art are two distinct
groups. Consequently, scholarship and insight are not necessarily
transferable from one to the other. Therefore, it is utterly naïve
to believe that a good art writer or a well-respected art critic
will necessarily be as perspicacious when it comes time to consider
and ponder the formal values of a particular ceramic piece. This
is simply cultural imperialism.
For the purpose of the Amsterdam
talk, I suggested that ceramics by transient-artist-potters should
be partitioned into two predominant groups based on two entirely
distinctive conceptual approaches to ceramics. A posteriori I realized
that practically all ceramic objects could be included in these
two groups regardless of their pre-established categories.
The first grouping was constructed
with works that could be described as material-oriented. Here we
can include ceramics by the French painter Paul Gauguin (b. 1848
d. 1903) such as an unglazed stoneware Vase with Mask -Portrait
of a Woman made between 1887 and 1888, and by Italian artist
Lucio Fontana (b. 1899 d. 1968) and by Antoni Tapies (b. 1928) of
Spain. The second cluster was formed with artists who use concepts
as their basis for formal intervention. This latter group of protagonists
perceives and exploits ceramics as a generic group. By using intrinsic
idiosyncrasies they achieve highly significant and singular images.
The uniqueness of their objects in this case, and in this category,
resides in the fact that the work is not simply concerned with the
transfer of personal imagery or pictographic style, nor is it the
expression of angst ridden ego such as in Lucio Fontanas expressionistic
work like Piatto made in 1957.
The epitome, the graphic symbol
par excellence to describe visually this second cluster of ceramics,
is Marcel Duchamps (b. 1887 d. 1968) well known Fountain
from 1917, originally a plebeian bathroom fixture bought in a plumbing
supply store and found in most public washrooms. To hear that Marcel
Duchamps urinal is a bona fide ceramic sculpture might be,
to some of you, a surprising assertion. Of course, you will not
find this in any ceramic history book either. The reason being for
such omission is that ceramics is unfortunately not seen, presented,
and discussed as an all-encompassing generic group. However, according
to the paradigms that we are elaborating and exchanging views about
at this time, his object would be included without hesitation in
Perhaps you are now beginning
to understand the necessity to establish proper taxonomies and context
for ceramics, and perceive the value of accurate categorization.
Once the two dominant conceptual approaches suggested have been
formulated and compared, we also have to consider, as a component
in the evaluation process of ceramics, western civilizations
cultural categorization of art, craft, design, and decorative arts
into distinct typologies. Blurring and blending are difficult to
deal with, whereas in eastern art the discussions have totally different
considerations. Analysis of painting and of sculpture is by criteria
totally different. When dealing with art the fundamental question
is always: Is it good? In ceramics that question might be, is it
art? That is a much more difficult question to answer.
An 18th century
Sèvres porcelain breakfast set decorated with highly sentimental
motifs after a print by French painter, engraver, and decorator
François Boucher (b. 1703 d. 1770) fits perfectly the standard
decorative art category. Calling the 1753 work Déjeuner
Hébert with Bouchers blue vignettes that can be
found in the Pierpont Morgan Collection, a craft object would be
as ludicrous as classifying Duchamps famous porcelain urinal
in decorative arts. Both artifacts, we can agree, are in no way
either at the semantic or conceptual levels, craft objects. Nevertheless,
we can agree that they have an undeniable ceramic commonness. Decorative
arts, crafts, and art are not typological classifications essentially
based on the practice of a specific medium. To the contrary, ceramics
A ceramic object belongs most
of the time in only one category of those official groupings, if
the selection is rigorous. The proper cataloguing evidently depends
on preset standards. In fact, it would be an exciting exercise to
classify some ceramic objects being made today into the three established
traditional typologies mentioned above. The conclusion of this very
telling procedure would be devastating to many egos.
The system that I am now proposing
to you is for establishing a context to analyze and discuss ceramics,
not to pigeonhole the objects into a category of artifacts. It is
based on conceptual considerations and absolutely not on cultural
programming. Art is a concept. Craft is a process.
Let us return momentarily to the
suggested classification mentioned above as pertains to the material-oriented
group of ceramics to clarify the notion and exemplify the situation.
There are subtle but definite semantic and conceptual differences
between material-oriented and media-based ceramics. The first term,
namely the material-oriented approach, has to do with the medium
itself, for instance the intrinsic physicality, the plasticity of
clay, and the direct involvement of the artist in the immediate
creative process. California potter Peter Voulkos (b. 1924)
thrown and molested Plate done in 1973 is an appropriate
example to demonstrate my point. In this work, the vessels
integrity has been overwhelmed expressionistically, abstract expressionistically
according to some. The surface treatment takes precedence over form
and function. The artistic expression of the maker is the raison
dêtre of the object. The viscerality is its manifestation.
The second definition, the media-based,
encompasses the idea that the primary image itself is the message
as in Pablo Picassos oval platter Corrida dated 19-06-57
depicting a bullfight, a piece formerly in Jacqueline Picassos
collection. Here, contrary to Voulkos Plate, not only
is there accountability for the inherent particularities of the
specific vessel shape, but also the volumetric is pictorially intensified.
The transposition of a round three-dimensional stadium into a two-dimensional
narrative space, is one word, masterly.
In the formal prototype made
by Peter Voulkos shown earlier, the vessel becomes simply another
surface to be decorated, punctured, and slashed. In Picassos
oval platter, the role of the singular shape of the vessel is the
determinant in the elaboration of its final image. There is a definite
formal and conceptual symbiosis. The plate as a plate becomes a
channel, a precise format for artistic fecundity.
To expand further on the media-based
category, let us consider two specimens by contemporary ceramicists.
The first one is Neck and Neck, an amphora dated 1975-1976.
The authors are Michael (b. 1937) and Magdalena (b. 1929) Frimkess
from California. This neo-Greek vase is close to a Panathenaic
Black-Figure prototype dating from 480 BC in the Antiken Museum
in Berlin, Germany. In this specific circumstance, the type and
the style of the model become archetypes; those specific iconic
images are appropriated to reconstruct their vessel. Admittedly,
there is in this case a physical manipulation involved on the part
of these artists, however this maneuver does not supersede the integrity
of the archetypes.
Canadian clay artist Richard
Milette (b. 1960) also uses a Greek prototype as format for his
Amphora with Sèvres Lid of 1996. This vessel is from
a series presented at Nancy Margolis Gallery in New York City in
1996. In this group of works Milettes appropriated "classical"
Greek forms have now lost their "true" (real) historical narrative
content because the painted storytelling image (the "art") has been
erased and drawn over. The theatrical arena, the territory where
the "real narrative" based on recognizable representations was originally
located, has now been invaded by a discontinuous borrowed text.
By cutting text and words randomly, both lose their veritable meaning
thus annulling the narrative.
The artist is not here substituting
words for images, as was the case in one of his previous series,
"Words of Love and Hate" (1994). Rather, he stresses the fact that
narrative and content are neither synonymous nor interchangeable.
When Robert Rauschenberg erased
De Koonings drawing it was an iconoclastic gesture. Milettes
erasure is as political, but probably not as nihilistic. He does
not totally destroy the icon per se, so much as he drastically modifies
the stature of the narrative. By abstracting the most fetishistic
part of the classical Greek vases and treating the framed area where
the myths (tales) are painted as a palimpsest, the artist takes
over both the art of painting and the craft of pottery. The vessel
becomes a whole where all parts are components of equal importance.
The ceramic object must now be re-evaluated for its own merit. In
the recontexturalization process the neo-Greek vase has now become
the image of itself.
The borrowing of archetypal
elements either at the formal or pictorial level does not automatically
ensure inclusion in one group in particular. Even though this undated
Vase with Octopus by Canadian potter Greg Payce (b. 1956)
appropriates a typical motif from a specific culture, the work nevertheless
belongs to a different conceptual category than the two vessels
discussed previously. Payces vase fits within the material-oriented
paradigm. Of course the similarities between Gregs Vase
with Octopus and some Mycenaean pottery jars like this example
from Lalysus in the British Museum dating from around 1350 BC are
obvious. Whereas the Frimkesses and Milette respected the type,
Greg Payces personal input annulled the iconic value of the
generic. Simply said, in Payces vase the surface treatment
takes precedence over pictorial content. The new ceramic image is
highly personalized. The stereotypical is overwhelmed by his own
personal artistic input.
Earlier I mentioned that blurring
and blending are difficult to deal with. In addition I talked about
subtle but evident semantic and conceptual differences between the
two major paradigms that I am now formulating and explaining. Another
example that can be presented to demonstrate and clarify further
the subtleties between a material-oriented artifact and one that
is media-based is a Pignate with White Dove made on August
5, 1950 by Pablo Picasso in the collection of Barcelona Museo Picasso.
This sample is from a series called "Greek Pots" by Picasso himself.
Many of the vessels comprising this particular group were a transformation
of a traditional, specific, utilitarian pottery form; the "marmite"
made in Vallauris in Southern France where Picasso was working in
the Madoura Pottery studio. This work, you will certainly agree,
possesses an undeniable classical Greek pottery allure. The Grecism
in these neo-Greek vessels is more than what catches the eye. Not
only was Picasso co-opting historical Greek pottery surfaces, but
also, he was alluding to a precise category of classical Greek vases
which are referred to as bilingual pots. They were labeled as such
because the originals were made in a transitional period where one
would find on the belly of the same vase, both types of figure painting.
On one side would be depicted a red-figure scene and on the other
side was painted a black-figure scene. Contrary to Payce, Picasso
interpreted the genre but respected the generic.
Now that my two major paradigms,
material-oriented and media-based, have been determined and substantiated,
other ceramic categories can be suggested. In this upcoming section
I intend to address various conceptual strategies that can be found,
used, and utilized either to establish a structural agenda or to
discourse on ceramic objects.
Using the Paradigms
The research into building
a critical mass of ceramic objects made by transient-artist-potters
to study in preparation for the lecture to be presented at the Ceramic
Millennium Symposium in July 1999 led to a surprising and stimulating
discovery. Many younger artists were explicitly working within the
confines of ceramics as concept. Their output fits right in the
Duchamps and Oppenheims
porcelain sculptures, discussed earlier on in this lecture, decidedly
confronted this issue. However, it was probably not as intentional
as it is for a surprising number of post-modern artists working
and crossing in our field. The first approach cited is an a posteriori
connection whereas the one identified in the post World War II group
of protagonists is an a priori decision.
It is more than likely accurate
to assert at this time that it is Pablo Picassos ways of seeing
ceramics that really revolutionized the system to structure and
think about pots. He was one of the first ceramicists to understand
the concept that ceramics is its own concept. He exploited the possibilities
offered to him by this new way of thinking about pots as only a
genius can do. Picasso, to me, is at least the greatest ceramicist
of the 20th century.
Georges Ramié brilliantly
synthesized what is so phenomenal and radical in Picassos
approach to ceramics in his 1974 book, "Ceramiques de Picasso,"
when he wrote, and I quote: "Lobjet va changer de destination
et devenir lui-même sujet" (The object itself will become
the subject). M. Ramié with his wife Suzanne were the owners
of the Madoura Pottery in Vallauris. What Georges Ramié was
so intelligently explaining was that the object, in this instance
pottery forms, was shifting into a new conceptual direction. Imagine
from now on, a pot could either be an image or a concept. This is
an amazing conceptual revelation.
American artist Cindy Shermans
(b. 1954) Tureen with its Platter is a remarkable addition
in the media-based category and an extremely successful result of
wedding between an art edition project and an artists collaboration.
The channel she uses for her artistic intervention is an appropriation
of a tureen and platter set, originally made in 1756 by the Sèvres
porcelain factory for Madame de Pompadour, mistress of French Monarch
Louis XV and a well-known devotee of the fine and theater arts.
This particular ensemble was made between 1988 and 1990 by the Ancienne
Manufacture Royale in Limoges, a renowned porcelain center situated
in the Limousin area in France. This edition, made for Artes Magus,
is limited to 25 copies in four colors: yellow, pink, green, and
blue. In this Pink Tureen with its platter, Cindy Sherman uses the
idiosyncratic to affirm the existence of a "new" art group she was
now visiting, thus confirming at once the potency of the genre as
a precise conceptual context for unique artistic contribution.
Cindy Shermans decision
to include a decal of herself as Madame Pompadour on a "Rose Pompadour"
vessel is most fitting and yet at the same time both sacrilegious
and satirical. It is the negation of the uniqueness of hand painted
vignettes enhancing original Sèvres vessels, the use of a
cliché Sèvres prototype as a ready-made. The mechanically
produced decorative process and the commodification of the rare
and precious object both make this remarkable soup tureen with accompanying
platter a truly significant post-modern artifact. As if this dynamic
mélange was not enough, consider the linear decorative elements
employed. They are not the traditional gilded sprays of flowers
but instead are made up of countless little fish, little "poissons."
As we know, Madame de Pompadours maiden name was Poisson,
Jeanne Antoinette Poisson.
Martine Aballéa also
uses specific pottery forms as convincing support for artistic interventions
and she exploits the media-base concept. She was born in 1950 in
New York City and has been living in Paris, France since 1973.
In the series of Dishes
of Doctors of Memories made in 1989 she recalls pictorially
the last days of the town of Clinton Creek in the territory of New
Mexico. It was as founded in March 1871. They are the remaining
dishes from a set belonging to the traveling "doctor" who had stopped
in Clinton Creek the day before the buildings, the streets, and
all wagons were entirely covered with a thick greenish substance.
This so- called "doctor" was selling a potion that he claimed had
been given to him by a powerful Sioux medicine man. The potion,
says the story, was an extremely rare "liquid plant." He never had
the chance to finish his speech. A drunken miner, who had already
been laughing for a while, started shooting at the bottle of "liquid
plant." A fight broke out, we are told, and the doctor fled. As
for the townspeople, they all had a good time until they woke up
the next day.
The incomplete set of broken
dishes is in this situation a metaphor for life and eternity. This
specific arrangement of stereotypical vessels becomes allegory for
the townsfolk of Clinton Creek. These samples were probably collected
by the sheriff of Watrous the next day when he went with five of
his best men to investigate the scene of these events. Each one
of these dishes is not an independent metaphor but a component of
the narrative. If you read the inscriptions, in particular on the
saucers, both of which have its cup missing, one says "patient"
and the other "urgent". The absent cups are substitutes for dead
or missing people. The writing on the pots can remind one of the
inscriptions on tombstones. There is a major conceptual difference
between a pot and a metaphor. A pot can be described using metaphorical
language. However, rarely can it be at the generic level a metaphor.
The vessel as metaphor is an oxymoron.
vessels are found objects in the formal and literal sense. They
are found objects because they retain their generic characteristics.
Also, these dishes could have been dug up in an archeological site.
They are unquestionably pots as images and channels. This is the
decisive feature that prevails in order to include them in the media-based
group. Not to be discounted is the "ceramicness" related to the
notion of a set of dishes, an indigenous ceramic installation.
This idea of site-specific
ceramic installations is the basic formal premise to be noted in
Richard Milettes very recent series of works: Travesty and
Parody. This one-person exhibition is presented at Nancy Margolis
Gallery in New York City until 25 November 2000.
In Garniture with Yellow
Ground and Rebuses made this year, Milette uses the generic
as image and as format all the pottery forms constitute. This specific
arrangement is the appropriation of pots in a similar garniture.
The color of the vessels is mnemonic. Even the manner the system
used to construct the written narrative has formal precedent within
the history of ceramics. In the J. Pierpont Morgan collection at
the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut three examples of
Sèvres porcelain cups and saucers with rebus can be found.
This type of eccentric decoration was used at the Sèvres
factory for a three-year period in 1787, 1788, and 1789. Again,
in this new body of work, Richard Milette is continuing his exploration
of the use, value, and significance of the narrative in art. Here,
not only is he addressing the issue pertaining to the role the story
may have in understanding the work of art, but also questioning
the content of the narrative itself.
By once more substituting words
for the painted image, the artist makes the concrete abstract (not
pictorial) and forces the viewer into mental exercise. This activity
is now made more complex by the fragmentation of the pseudo content
and by the insertion of pictographs into the text. The splitting
of the tale is manifested at two levels. One is achieved by the
sequential framing of the phrase. The other aspect is the construction
of the sentence itself with letters and graphic symbols.
To decipher the pseudo-narrative
adorning the flank of Garniture with Yellow Ground and Rebuses,
we have to read out loud what is depicted. Starting from the left
we have a hand, THE, a maze, the letters ING, four Cs, OF THE MIRAGES,
a comb, an eye, the letters NED, A, T, a cloud with rain, S 5280
FTS, an arrow pointing left, and the word BEHIND. The solution is:
"And the amazing forces of the mirages combined with a train of
smiles left behind." There is another one on the other side. Now
that you know how to do it, you can try to interpret the second
rebus. We will pause for a short while so that you can complete
this exercise. It reads like this: "The phony poetry of aerobatics
accepted as absolute in its details."
By leaving wide open and difficult
the interpretation of the text to each viewer and making the decoding
exacting, the artist is taking the viewer on a wild goose chase
because there is absolutely no comprehensible message. The reason
for making a parody of the narratives value and signification
is a political gesture on the part of the Montréal ceramicist.
Milette is stressing the fact that content and subject matter are
two independent and entirely different notions.
Whereas Martine Aballéa
used dishes and words to construct a narrative, Richard Milettes
strategy was to use text to deconstruct the narrative. At first
it might be surprising to hear that a group of pots such as Richard
Milettes Garniture with Yellow Ground and Rebuses can
be categorized as an installation or even as a site-specific work.
Another convincing argument in this category that I can use to stress
that ceramics is a generic group with proper concepts is The
Mortal Secret of Immortality by Vancouver potter Paul Mathieu
(b. 1954). Mathieu uses in this work, dating from the late eighties,
the plate as a specific site to create a true ceramic installation.
The formal elements of this artwork are generic pottery forms. The
resulting image is a still life depicting a magnolia in a vase.
The flatness of this picture is misleading because it is in reality
a complete five-piece place setting. Whereas Picasso in his oval
platter Corrida was using the volume of the vessel to construct
the image, Paul Mathieu annuls the intrinsic volume of each vessel
therefore stressing the fact that surface and image in ceramics
are two independent formal components.
Each time a vessel is taken out
of the stack the still life is modified. The flower bud opens gradually
until the magnolia is in full bloom. Then it starts to decay. When
the last of the five dishes making up this installation are finally
uncovered, the flower is completely gone.
Since I unabashedly believe
that ceramics can be a concept and that the generic group possesses
specific characteristics and specialized language, I can now affirm
without hesitation that there are true ceramics installations. An
indigenous ceramic installation is not a bunch of broken plates
scattered on the floor of a gallery. British contemporary sculptor
Tony Craggs (b. 1949) Four Plates made in 1976 has
nothing to do with ceramics as context or concept, even though the
material used to construct the image is clay. A bunch of broken
plates in a potters studio is seen as a disaster not an installation.
Here again context is the decisive factor in the proper evaluation
of the work.
As I did point out in the conclusion
of my Amsterdam paper there is now, especially right now, at the
beginning of a new millennium, an urgent need for a radical shift
in the way discourse surrounding ceramic works is structured. Also
the inadequate approaches to taxonomies need to be reevaluated.
I hope that I have convinced
some of you that the prevalent typologies like art, crafts, decorative
arts, and design are not paradigms but categories. Furthermore,
I pointed out that they could not effectively be used to construct
a pertinent autonomous discourse about ceramics.
Perhaps my lecture, Ceramics
Paradigms and Paradigms for Ceramics, has at least raised your
awareness regarding the possibilities offered by discussing ceramics
as a conceptual framework for the making of singular and truly significant
The media-based and the material-oriented
paradigms being suggested are simply tools, a feasible system that
can help us construct a proper intelligent dialogue about ceramic
works should they be functional pots or art objects. Time is up
for calling a broken and reconstructed pot a deconstruction strategy
or a few pots on a shelf a still life.
There is absolutely no doubt
in my mind that some ceramic objects can be understood, seen, and
classified as art with a capital "A" on their own merit. However,
for this to happen we have to establish a credible and coherent
dialogue about the quality of the image itself. For this eventuality
to happen we have to accept the undeniable fact that art is about
a special exhibition entitled "Singular Attractions (Absolutely
Recent Ceramics by Leopold Foulem)", held January 25 - April
copyright 2001, The Schein-Joseph International
Museum of Ceramic Art at Alfred University