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New Trends in Clay? SOFA 2006 New York
Review by Rob Barnard


Change has a way of happening in incremental stages that are so small that we find ourselves accepting and adapting to them without noticing or, more importantly, without examining their importance and meaning. When a period of time, however, separates us from circumstances, we are able, upon retuning to those circumstances, to see the changes that have taken place much more clearly than we would have had we been constantly present while they were occurring. That is what happened to me when I visited SOFA 2006 in New York. It had been fifteen years since I had attended a SOFA fair and I was interested in seeing what the high-end galleries were betting would be the next commercially successful trend in the ceramics field.

Some in the field may wince at my use of the term “commercial”. I have had over the years countless conversations with both potters and ceramic sculptors who complain about how commercial galleries and SOFA represented the worst aspect of the marketplace. Potters, who rely primarily on high volume sales of their work to the general public, voice their disdain by adopting a quasi moralistic stance that that basically says that SOFA and the commercial galleries that attend, promote high priced objects that common, ordinary people cannot afford. The work exhibited at SOFA therefore is seen, by them as being elitist and serving only as social signifiers to the wealthy. On the other hand, ceramic sculptors who, for the most part, derive their income from their positions in academe, find nothing wrong with the high prices, their complaint centers around the argument that SOFA and commercial galleries are not showing work that is cutting edge and experimental, for example, their own. There is probably an element of truth in both of these arguments. However, I would argue that SOFA, like say, the publications in the ceramics field, gives us an unvarnished picture of what is taking place in the field at the moment. One may not like what one sees but that does not change the reality

Takashi Hinoda—AMORAL JOURNEY, 2003
H 41 x W 25 x L 16 inches
Presented with permission from Dai Ichi Arts, Ltd.

SOFA 2006 in New York had 59 galleries exhibiting, of those galleries approximately 13 were devoted to ceramics. Glass with 16 galleries was, as always, the predominant medium. There were 12 galleries that showed a cross section of medium, ranging from syrupy painting and sculpture to the other “crafts” mediums. Nine galleries exhibited jewelry and 4 were devoted to furniture. This is not a scientific statistical analysis, just an approximate breakdown to try and give the reader a sense of what was there. I struggled, as I looked at the offerings in ceramics, to find some kind of emerging trend, something “new” and “hot” that would occupy the ceramics field’s publications, galleries and collectors until the next trend has come along. That is, at least, how the ceramics field in the United States has evolved over the past 40 years and that is what one has come to expect.

It seems, though, that this tendency—this constant obsession with the “new”—has run its course. The ceramics field has broken all the boundaries it has been able to locate, save the ultimate one of abandoning material. We are left with the same categories, which, I would argue are the ones that we have always historically had—the sculptural vessel, abstract and figurative sculpture and the pot. All of these genres were represented at SOFA, even the lowly pot. There were, however, a number of significant differences from my previous visits to SOFA. Before I write about those differences, I have to say that the overall tone or sensibility of SOFA has not changed much. Glass, which has always had the largest presence, was just as saccharine and gaudy as it ever was. I was part of a number of conversations with ceramics collectors and dealers who wondered out loud if the attraction to this kind of superficial beauty could be explained by some yet unfound chromosome. Ceramics was not entirely immune to this tendency. The pervasiveness of kitsch masquerading as social commentary assaulted you from time to time. It was hard to take this work seriously when even the fig leaf of social commentary could not hide its seemingly wanton desire to appeal to the audience.

There were however some interesting changes in ceramics and I have chosen to write about them rather than spending time on the status quo just mentioned which continues to be a source of frustration to some and apparently a fount of unending joy to others. One of the most heartening aspects to this SOFA was that none of the genres in the ceramics field held a pre-eminent position; they all seemed to be represented to the point that it made it impossible to declare that one of them held a more important place in culture at the moment than any of the others. Perhaps the most interesting development though, was that approximately half of the galleries that exhibited ceramics exclusively were from outside the United States or were exhibiting work that was not American. The obvious inference one can draw from this is that the American ceramics market is still strong; the more subtle point would be that American collectors are, for whatever reasons, starting to look beyond their own shores for work that engages them.

Kouichi Uchida—Yamaki Art Gallery

New York based Dai Ichi Arts and Joan Mirviss Ltd. both exhibited ceramic work from Japan. Dai Ichi exhibited the sculpture by Takashi Hinoda and Tsubusa Kato while Joan Mirviss showed sculptural vessels and pots by Mihara Gen and Kato Yasukage. Yamaki Gallery from Osaka was also present and highlighted sculpture by Etsuko Tashima that combines clay and glass and pottery by Kouichi Uchida. Uchida’s work was perhaps the most compelling pottery at SOFA by a living potter. His pots were complex and dramatic without being predictably Japanese. What was interesting about the offerings in Japanese ceramics by these galleries was that they were by younger artists (that of course is a relative term that has meaning perhaps only in Japan), not the more well-known names to which we have become accustomed. You could sense that American collectors are outgrowing the notion that all Japanese ceramic art is made in the Yanagi/Leach mingei mold. It was refreshing and something that I hope will continue into the future. The Korean Craft Promotion Foundation sponsored by the Korean government exhibited 14 artists in a variety of media and was an unexpected treat that also challenged that same mingei premise. Gee-Jo Lee’s architectural sculpture was done in porcelain with a clear glaze that not only transcended both our notion about what Korean porcelain should be, but also did not succumb to the tendency that is often present in porcelain sculpture to appeal to collectors by focusing on the beauty and preciousness of the materials and the expense of conceptual density. I have heard the term “ceramic painting” used since I first started studying ceramics in 1971. Hun-Chung Lee’s work has come closest to that category that I have seen. It succeeded in this, in large part because he uses kiln shelves as the canvas thereby eliminating the handmade surface as part of the equation. The result is that we are forced to focus on the aspects his “ceramic painting” that separate it from conventional painting.

Tsubusa Kato—NO. 14 OBJECT, 2006
H 34 x W 24 inches.
Presented with permission from Dai Ichi Arts, Ltd.

Galleries from the European Union also presented a strong showing. Galerie b15—Renate Wunderle from Munich exhibited the ceramic sculpture of nine European artists. I am embarrassed to say that I had never seen the figurative work of the late Gertaud Mohwald. Her torsos and busts were so full of emotion and gravitas that I found it difficult to be ambivalent and unmoved. The work of these European ceramics artists was a welcome antidote to the frivolous tendencies demonstrated in American ceramics. Another aspect of SOFA was the inclusion in all media of what we now have come to think of as historical pieces of modern crafts. Joanna Bird from London, who probably represented the pottery genre the best, exhibited not only contemporary works by artists like Julian Stair, Svend Bayer and Edmund de Waal, but also displayed works by Cardew, Leach and Hamada. One particularly interesting historical piece was a small slipware covered jar made by the young Hamada while he was residing in St. Ives in the 1920’s. Moderne Gallery in Philadelphia which primarily exhibited vintage American craft furniture also showed early pieces by Ken Ferguson, Robert Turner and Peter Voulkos. A piece I found extremely interesting and unusual was a small, square Voulkos slab plate that was glazed in an unremarkable clear glaze that covered the outside edge of the plate, but that left the inner part of the plate raw, the sensitive handling of the slab and the counterpoint of warmth of the raw clay with the cool wetness of the glaze reminded me of some of the early Noguchi plates made at Rosanjin’s studio in Kamakura. The gallery that had the strongest of historical perspective however, was Galerie Besson from London. Besson focused Lucie Rie and Hans Coper and exhibited their work with museum like attention. Seeing lilies displayed in deceptively simple Lucie Rie vase seemed to make the point that pottery can have all the abstract, iconic and modernist elements that modern sculpture aspires to and yet maintain its essential nature. I imagine that there were critics who dismissed this showing of Coper’s and Rie’s work as purely historical. Yet it did not seem to me historical at all (even though intellectually I knew of their already existing status in the ceramics field), it seemed, in fact, contemporary and alive. This may partially be attributable to the visually frenetic atmosphere at SOFA where the examples of serious and thoughtful ceramic work of a vessel oriented nature were few and far between. Whatever the case there is no question that Coper’s and Rie’s work will continue to be as relevant and challenging in the future as it was when it was made.

So is there a new trend in ceramics? I would argue that there is the beginning of one and that is that the ceramics field is becoming more eclectic and diverse. Fifteen years ago, for example, the overwhelming majority of galleries at SOFA were American and they exhibited the 10-15 most well-known American ceramicists at the time. SOFA then, was in many ways very predictable, whatever was on the pages of American Craft or American Ceramics was what we saw at SOFA. This current diversification, however, suggests to me that American ceramics collectors are becoming more sophisticated. They no longer rely on a few publications as arbiters of taste—to tell them what is hot and what is not. American collectors also are showing a curiosity that has caused them look beyond their own shores to Europe and the Orient for work that resonates to them personally. Perhaps the real boundaries that needed to be broken were of the self-imposed taste and the collective desire to be alike. Whatever the case, I came away, rather unexpectedly, feeling good to have experienced the work I did at SOFA and hopeful that this is only the beginning of things to come.


Author Bio not provided


SOFA 2006

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