PST, A to Z: ‘Common Ground’ at AMOCA, ‘Clay’s Tectonic Shift,” at Scripps
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Pacific Standard Time will explore the origins of the Los Angeles art world through museum exhibitions throughout Southern California over the next six months. Times art reviewer Sharon Mizota has set the goal of seeing all of them. This is her latest report.
Two PST shows on the rich history of ceramic art in Southern California together form a single narrative. “Common Ground: Ceramics in Southern California 1945-1975” at the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona, and “Clay’s Tectonic Shift: John Mason, Ken Price, and Peter Voulkos, 1956-1968” at Scripps College in Claremont overlap in time period but are actually more like bookends, charting “before” and “after” states. The pivotal moment they bracket is the “tectonic shift” referred to in the title of the Scripps show, when ceramics expanded beyond the realm of craft and became a full-fledged fine art medium.
“Common Ground” is obviously the “before” show, whose narrative leads from Bauhaus-influenced potters to the early Abstract Expressionist leanings of artists like Voulkos, Paul Soldner, and even Billy Al Bengston (who seems to have made work in just about every medium). The exhibition is organized around the central figure of Millard Sheets, an important artist, but also an influential administrator who founded the ceramics departments at Scripps and later at the Los Angeles County Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design). All of the 53 artists in the AMOCA show had some connection to Sheets; many of them were hired by him as instructors, or as artists for the manufacturer Interpace Ceramics, where he served as corporate design advisor.
Sheets believed that ceramics was a craft firmly tied to its functional roots in pottery and tile, a fact that the AMOCA show reflects with some exceedingly beautiful examples. Known for his intensely colored glazes and use of local clays and minerals, Glen Lukens created thick, round plates with rough edges layered like sediment. The surface of one from 1936-1940 is creamy and crackled except for the oasis of hot turquoise pooled at its center. William Manker’s plates and bowls are like round color field paintings, with one brilliant shade fading ever so gradually into the next. And Richard Petterson’s “pig” teapots from 1956, with their long snouts, high looping handles, and taut pot-bellied bodies express a simple satisfaction. The show is full of treasures like these—Harrison McIntosh’s impossibly elegant, pin-striped vases, Marion Monte’s idiosyncratic vessels studded with pinched, dragon-like spikes, Dora De Larios’ beautifully painted floral tiles—and on and on. The exhibition celebrates Sheets’ considerable influence on the ceramic arts in Southern California, but it’s also a build up for a perceived schism. When Sheets hired Voulkos to head up the ceramics department at LACAI, Voulkos was a much lauded production potter from Montana, which is to say he made beautiful vases and plates and bowls. When he got to LA however, he started to experiment, skewing the necks of his vessels, punching holes in them, rendering them useless. Needless to say, Sheets did not approve, going so far as to exclude all but one of Voulkos’ students from a 1955 LACAI exhibition.
This is where the AMOCA show leaves off and the Scripps show begins. The first work one sees in “Clay’s Tectonic Shift” is Voulkos’ “Rocking Pot” from 1956, an upside down bowl set on rockers riddled with holes and run through with thin slabs of clay. With that gesture, Voulkos “killed” ceramics’ adherence to simplicity, beauty, and above all, usefulness.
The rest of this small, skillfully (if controversially) curated show drives that point home. To me, John Mason’s monumental geometric forms have always looked like simple variations on the minimalist cube, but in the context of ceramic craft, they look like alien wonders. And his tall, hand-built towers of pressed and pushed stoneware from the early 1960s are gestural and immediate, but also refer to more timeless phenomena: natural rock formations or classical figurative statuary.
Where Mason went large and totemic, Ken Price kept it small, and quirky. His organic forms in neon bright colors take ceramics in the direction of Surrealism and Pop art. In “L. Green” from 1961, tiny worm-like tendrils emerge from an egg-like orb. Placed on custom pedestals or in their own hinged boxes, they’re like items in an otherworldly curio cabinet.
This move toward sculpture is the “break” that both shows highlight, but it isn’t necessarily a clean one. Despite Sheets’ emphasis on functional craft, he supported quite a few artists who worked almost exclusively in a sculptural mode. Granted, most of them were working in a figurative tradition descended from the decorative arts: Susi Singer’s loose interpretations of mythical and religious scenes, De Larios’ bold, insouciant figures, and Betty Davenport Ford’s sinuous, wonderfully expressive animals.
Ford in particular created large-scale public and outdoor works—in a 1966 photograph we see her installing a larger-than-life-size Siberian Tiger in a high school in Ontario, CA. The technical requirements of such a work must have been at least as rigorous as those of Mason’s monoliths. Also striking are the dramatic, free-standing sculptures of Elaine Katzer. Inspired by ancient stone ax heads and decorated with abstract, tribal patterns, they project a quiet, mysterious presence.
It’s not exactly clear how the work of Voulkos and company represented a “tectonic shift,” while the sculptural ceramic projects of these women did not. Perhaps it was a matter of attitude. Coming from a production pottery background, Voulkos seems to have set out purposely to disturb and transform that tradition rather than expand and evolve it from within. The conflict is certainly more exciting, if over-stated; history has regularly rewarded those who fashion their own dramatic mythologies. Although it’s a pleasure, I’m afraid “Tectonic Shift” is more of the same old story.
American Museum of Ceramic Art, 399 N. Garey Ave., Pomona, (909) 865-3146, through Mar. 31. Closed Sunday through Tuesday. www.amoca.org
Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, Scripps College, 11 St. and Columbia Ave., Claremont, (909) 607-2029, through Apr. 8. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. www.rcwg.scrippscollege.edu
Photos, from top: Glen Lukens, Plate, 1936-1940. Collection of Forrest L. Merrill. Credit: Gene Sasse.
Betty Davenport Ford, Monkey, 1948. Brandt Schowalter Collection. Credit: Gene Sasse.
John Mason,’Red X,’ 1966. Stoneware. Los Angeles County Museum. Gift of the Kleiner Foundation. Photograph© Museum Associates/LACMA.
Elaine Katzer, ‘Tribesmen #1,’ 1969. AMOCA Permanent Collection. Gift of the Artist. Credit: Gene Sasse.