The selected artists represent a breath of practices that exploit the malleability of clay as a material that can operate as a mark, a symbol, a poem, a canvas, a metaphor, a memory, an existential question, a political statement, or a vehicle for social and cultural commentary.
Although no artist in the exhibition parallels another’s aesthetic approach, they all engage the laborious physicality of the material, its fragility, and its historical permanence.
A collective show such as this will always generate a dialectic, a dissonance, or friction between the works—their mere proximity setting off aesthetic-clashing sparks. Because these artists are represented by only a few pieces—without preliminary sketches, maquettes, failed previous iterations—it’s impossible to know the timeline of the artists’ processes. A document like this curatorial statement should not offer prescriptive ways of seeing, but can offer a few framing devices or portals into these artists’ processes or praxis.
With apologies to some of the artists mentioned . . .
Tam Van Tram’s unique sculptures, made with quotidian materials such as office staples and recycled paper, seem to cling to the wall like Lepidoptera arthropods just hatched from their chrysalis. Imposing. Threatening. At the other end of Tam’s process-obsessed spectrum is mark making (finger-painting?) with odd goopy fluids. He is also not afraid to risk being decorative, using materials such as gold, copper, and household aluminum foils. Wildly inventive. Brave.
Writer and artist Julia Haft-Candell has a wonderful restraint, a reductive stripping of form down to powerful archetypes. You can almost feel Haft-Candell’s hand making these looping gestures, inscribing forms into 3D space like calligraphic loops, dashes, and the essential torus.
With Meghan Smythe, we enter a powerful psychological space that seems at once cathartic, even purgative. The work feels so intensely personal that we’re afraid to even whisper questions about it—we can merely allow its powerful effect to flow through us.
A contrast to Ben Jackel who confessed, “I’m still that 8-year-old boy making toy models.” But what distinguishes Jackel’s mature work is his willingness to do the intense physical labor required to create these sometimes-enormous clay objects. But his pieces win not by their sheer scale; they win by their hard-earned professional craftsmanship. As a ceramic artist, Jackel celebrates the materiality of the clay body itself, never glazing over but rather sealing and burnishing it with expensive translucent beeswax.
There is a fascinating puzzling quality to Joakim Ojanen’s unsmiling stick-limbed dolls; they’re not droll but rather abject social misfit children who face away from each other and cling too tightly to objects. Ojanen operates in a territory similar to Samuel Jernigan except, with a few burning-ritual-cornhusk-doll changes, Ojanen’s dolls could easily be re-purposed instruments of religion, cult, or fetish—unsettling ‘others’ onto which we project ourselves.
Armando Cortes inhales the memory of tilled earth moistened by ancestral sweat, morning dew and oxen breath. He sprouts new gestures from wet clay nourished by primeval rains.
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The Ancient Greek word, praxis, is a recurring term in philosophy, psychology, theology, and medicine. Hegel and Arendt used the work to mean “theory of action” or a move toward participatory democracy and a better society. In art criticism, praxis is almost synonymous with a process by which a theory is embodied or realized. In the artist’s studio, it can merely be the single-minded search for a visual correlative for last night’s fever dream.
It is difficult for a ceramic object to participate in any Hegelian world-changing action, but there are other difficulties as well: There is a conceit in believing that contemporary ceramics can add anything new to the vast repository of historical clay-based forms, utilitarian or not; it seems impossible to know that repository and consequently impossible to know when, or even if, you’ve acquired aesthetic formal ‘skill’—on the contrary, if you’re so blessed, it is possible to study most all the defining images of photography’s short 192 year history and be confident about your aesthetic skill. Too often, for many ceramicists, control of the craft is sufficient—technical control of glazing chemistry, kiln techniques, mixing clay bodies, and all. There is no conceit in believing that advanced technical skill will extend and improve the history of ceramics.
However, when you see work by artists such as these, you appreciate their praxis, their trust in some (often vague) “actionable idea.” They’ve acted. They’ve dragged that idea through the difficult technical hurdles of ceramic craft and arrived at a meaningful object—or in most cases, they’ve selflessly laid that object at your feet and trusted that all the meaning it needs will derive from you, the gallery visitor. Generosity, selflessness, and trust. Perhaps all they’re asking from you now is the kindness to pause, to feel, and really see.
This exhibition is in conjunction with the 2018 inaugural artist in residence program hosted by Long Beach City College Ceramics. The selected artists are creating works such as the ones exhibited here in the presence of LBCC students who witness the intricate process of the conception, creation, and dissemination of these fantastic artworks. The residency program is indicative of the high-quality art education LBCC students can access in the Visual and Media Arts Department of Long Beach City College. This artist in residence program would not be possible without the generous support of this year’s LBCC Auxiliary Student Success Grant.
Please vist the Art Exchange website for the venue’s hours: http://artexchangelongbeach.org/