Ceramics Paradigms and Paradigms for Ceramics
Third Annual Dorothy Wilson Perkins Lecture Schein International Museum of Ceramic Art 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 concepts.
There is 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 Who’s 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 Who’s 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 evaluated.
"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 Novak’s (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 Lombardo’s (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 format—and 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 Larocque’s (b. 1953) recently made Horse does not use the generic as a type. The connection that can be made with a quintessential T’ang 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 T’ang characteristic visible in Larocque’s 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-Pierre’s Horse is less obvious, and not as important as it is in William Lombardo’s 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 Marini’s (b. 1901 d. 1980) emblematic horses.
The connection with T’ang pottery and American ceramic artist Betty Woodman’s (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 Woodman’s 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 object’s "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, Oppenheim’s 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 Duchamp’s famous ceramic sculpture Fountain. How do we explain this awkward situation? Could it be that ceramic history is not really the history of ceramics? Don’t 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 Fontana’s expressionistic work like Piatto made in 1957.
The epitome, the graphic symbol par excellence to describe visually this second cluster of ceramics, is Marcel Duchamp’s (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 Duchamp’s 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 the group.
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 civilization’s 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 Boucher’s blue vignettes that can be found in the Pierpont Morgan Collection, a craft object would be as ludicrous as classifying Duchamp’s 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 always is.
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 vessel’s 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 d’être 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 Picasso’s oval platter Corrida dated 19-06-57 depicting a bullfight, a piece formerly in Jacqueline Picasso’s 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 Picasso’s 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 Milette’s 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 Kooning’s drawing it was an iconoclastic gesture. Milette’s 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. Payce’s vase fits within the material-oriented paradigm. Of course the similarities between Greg’s 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 Payce’s personal input annulled the iconic value of the generic. Simply said, in Payce’s 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 media-based category.
Duchamp’s and Oppenheim’s 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 Picasso’s 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 Picasso’s approach to ceramics in his 1974 book, "Ceramiques de Picasso," when he wrote, and I quote: "L’objet 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 Sherman’s (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 artist’s 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 Sherman’s 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 Pompadour’s 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.
Martine’s stereotypical 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 Milette’s 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 narrative’s 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 Milette’s 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 Milette’s 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 Cragg’s (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 potter’s 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 art.
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 concepts.
See a special exhibition entitled "Singular Attractions (Absolutely Recent Ceramics by Leopold Foulem)", held January 25 - April 5, 2001.