Orphans and Rejects
An essay about ceramics and failure in conjunction with “I made this for you: Humble gestures in clay,” November 20 to January 8, 2016, at Portrait Society Gallery, Milwaukee.
“Perfection is satisfying, but failure is engaging.” Lisa Le Feuvre.
“Genius is more often found in a cracked pot than in a whole one.” E.B. White
The notion of perfection haunts us — in small things like baking a pie and in large projects like administering a program. Attempts to strive or achieve generally give way to an unlimited horizon where perfection looms as a distant, luminous but unattainable goal, leaving us only one recourse: to fail, to come up just a little short of the dream. Failure seeps into our vocabulary in words like reject, flaw, imperfection, blemish, mar, inadequate, incorrect, not-quite-right, damaged, dented, broke, deficient, cracked, distorted, scuffed, defective, unsound, bruised. All negative
The great divide between perfection and failure seems to especially haunt the field of ceramics. Dirty, earthy clay. Primitive, tactile, inexpensive clay. The humble origins of this stuff, its association with mud or muck, makes its agile flips and high temperature transformations into refined objects irresistibly enchanting.
Clay requires diligent handling with numerous steps that must proceed correctly to render a successful finished form. Like relationships, it can blow up, break or crack. Glazes act in unpredictable ways. But the ceramic artist, whether utilitarian or fine art — whether steeped in craft or the contemporary art world — or a combination of both, most often aspires to a perfection of craft. To know one’s materials and be able to coax monumentality or precision from this earthy goo seems bred into the practice. Who doesn’t want to be competent at what they do? Who doesn’t
want to be “good?” Is it possible to displace this condition of material competence once it is achieved? The problem is that once there is too much competence and refinement, ceramic objects begin to look commercial or mass produced…more like commodities than works of art. If this is true, then is it the banished notion of failure that secretly elevates something into a work of art? Are the best works of art the ones that don’t quite succeed, that stay uneasy, that aren’t fully locked into place or brought to fruition?
Can something humble also be perfectly refined or do these conditions oppose one another? Could imperfection be a virtue? I’d like to think so. Picasso once said that to finish something is to ruin it.
I discovered a few things in the past months as I wandered into the mine field of ceramics. What I uncovered was that much of the work being done in this medium falls along a continuum with the mid ground sparsely populated. At one end lies functional pottery wares, often sold at craft festivals. At the other end is university art departments, where MFA students and professors attempt to straddle the historic divide between art and craft
by making elaborate sculptural works. For this exhibition, I was looking for something in the middle of these camps: I was looking for artists working with ceramics who don’t consider themselves ceramic artists. I was looking for the more gestural, accidental, messy, experimental. I was looking for artists who were exploring a new medium (clay) or returning to it from other practices. I found two — Colin Matthes and Harvey Opgenorth, whose recent forays into making functional ceramic wares inspired the ambition to do a larger exhibition focused on humble gestures. Exploring the humble within the ceramic field must begin by acknowledging that this medium, more than any other, is connected to and owned by all economic classes, all strata, and is perhaps most firmly rooted in the middle class where some level of income afforded some level of choice.
Most often, the commercial world and its lengthy history of ceramics made for public consumption and functionality gets severed from exhibitions dealing with artist-made wares. Artists don’t necessarily like
to think of their ancestral legacy in things like gravy servers and Hummel figures. That queasy relationship between 19th century ceramic figurines given away as prizes at the state fairs in England (see Gresl installation) and the one-of-a-kind sculptures emerging from the kilns at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is a great divide. Or is it?
Ceramics, like the portrait, has a history rooted in the vernacular, in every day life. To hang on to that connection in this show we invited artist Gary John Gresl to do an installation of things culled from his professional life as an antique dealer. As an artist, Gresl creates large-scale complex assemblages of found objects, often with nature orientations. This project at Portrait Society brought both sides — the commercial antique dealer and the artist — together as Gresl fashioned a fantasy sales booth featuring 100 years of the common-place clay and porcelain objects, things that may have rattled their way through several countries and multiple middle-class households. Prominent red price tags further label these wares as products versus singular artifacts. It’s a good place to begin thinking about the field of ceramics.
From there, in another nod to the commercial, work-a-day nature of the craft, Portrait Society with the assistance of Rachele Krivichi commissioned Scott Dercks from the Pottery Guild to hand-throw 20 plates. We then invited 20 artists to paint a portrait of a fellow Wisconsin artist whom they admire on the plate. Most of the artists participating had never worked with glazes on ceramics. There’s something inherently tender about one artist rendering another in tribute and admiration and yet doing it in this humble way — on a dinner plate, a tradition that dates to the 19th century in Europe and easily crosses from royalty to kitsch.
Milwaukee artist Darlene Wesenberg Rzezotarski also makes commemorative work that stems from traditions ranging from commercial figurines to historic monuments. Wesesnberg-Rzezotarski’s work focuses on specific Milwaukee people and events. For this exhibition she created five new sculptures in tribute to people she admires. The amount of detail suggests a reverence for her subjects that at this small scale makes these objects shrine-like and devotional. They feel a little like trophies or awards for being ‘an exceptional human being’ — like Obies or Academy Awards for poets and political activists. At her heart, however, Rzezotarski is a story teller who takes on the challenge of rendering histories visible in clay.
Both Rudy Rotter and Adolph Rosenblatt make figurative ceramic work and receive special tribute in this exhibition.
Rosenblatt taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee from 1966 to 1999. He earned his art degree from Yale in 1956 where he studied with
Josef Albers. The former Milwaukee art critic James Auer wrote in 1999, “Adolph treasures the wrinkles and creases that testify to living, loving and, maybe, giving.” His sculpted figures have an immediacy and rumpled gestural quality that mirror his process: Rosenblatt sculpts everything from life directly. The cows in the exhibition were done in a pasture near Mequon and the sun
bathing figures were done directly on the beaches of Miami or poolside. Rosenblatt is legendary in Milwaukee for the legions of students he inspired as well as the two monumental works he executed — one of the Oriental Theater balcony and the other of the entire Oriental Drug Store diner counter, both featuring many specific portrait of individuals.
Rudy Rotter (1913-2001) was a creatively prolific Manitowoc dentist who worked in media ranging from wood to tin and found materials. He created a series of ceramic sculptures in the 1980s that closely relates to his carved wooden compositions and drawings of entwined people called “interrelationships.” The monochromatic ceramic work elegantly weaves together groups of human beings, conceptually insisting on the idea that human relationships are the most valuable asset we have.
Both Rotter and Rosenblatt defy the condition of perfection in ceramics by working with a directness and urgency and allowing the clay to hold some of the spontaneous energy of their process. The artists in the front room of this exhibition, most of them making functional objects, were selected because of this same quality — they allowed the process to be slightly self-directed with the results partially left to chance.
I imagine that every ceramic artist, whether it is the one who makes functional vessels to sell at craft fairs, or the MFA academic creating large sculptures and installations, finds themselves at some point at the end of a dark alley where all their developing skills and technique leads them to a point of perfection where their work loses its life-force and they have to then take a leap backward into new unknowns to avoid the trap of too much precision.
I learned something about myself through this curatorial project. I learned that once things start looking too good, too smooth, too crafted and orchestrated, I lose interest. The earnest wrestling with materials seems more personal and alive. Marks of the hand suggest intimate human contact. Scars and bruises, misalignments, slumping gestures feel as inherent to the clay medium as the illusionistic smooth perfection that can emerge from the kiln. I even produced my own body of work for this exhibition. The Murray Hill
Pottery Studio was kind enough to donate a number of bowls, cups and vessels from its ‘reject’ box. I immediately took a liking to these cast-off failed attempts. Each had been abandoned because of different problems with runny glazes, lumps and mars. I found them beautiful, a bit of the ‘ugly puppy’ syndrome. Stacked into new wobbly compositions, once fired these assembled sculptures fused together as totems (like Academy Awards) of chance, failure and imperfection; warm reminders that the shortcomings we fear might be our true riches.
Writer Lisa Le Feuvre in an essay called Failure over Utopia sums it up beautifully:
“Between the two subjective poles of success and failure lies a space of potentially productive operations where paradox rules and where transgressive activities can refuse dogma and surety. It is here that failure can be celebrated. Failure operates in the production, reception and distribution of artworks, which inscribe certain practices into the history of art. The history of art is constantly tested and
challenged and that very history itself is involved with the artist operating as an active agent seeking ruptures and spaces within contemporary experience in order to play something at stake with the realm of art. The purpose of art is not to represent or to illustrate what already exists: there is an urgency to it. There must be something at stake with art; for there to be something at stake there must be a possibility of failure.”