Build: Sculptural Ceramics
In recognition of the 2017 National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) Conference in Portland, the Elizabeth Leach Gallery presents an exhibition of contemporary ceramic sculpture curated by Bruce Guenther, independent curator and the former Chief Curator and Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Portland Art Museum. BUILD explores the use of clay in the creation of sculpture based on the radical redefinition of the traditional ceramic vessel by Peter Voulkos in the late 1950s. Voulkos’ work continues to inspire a new generation of contemporary artists influenced by his spirit and methodology such as Sterling Ruby who subvert both the situation and materiality of clay in the creation of his work.
The revolution instigated by Voulkos and his first generation of students, Paul Soldner, John Mason, and Ken Price gave rise to the Craft-to-Art movement and moved clay from a traditional modeling medium and the constraints of utilitarian ceramics to the status of avant garde sculpture. Embracing incident and accident within his working process, Voulkos explored the boundaries and meaning embodied in the gestural spontaneity and visual momentum of Abstract Expressionism through clay. An open permissive medium, Voulkos pushed clay both into monumental abstraction and a poetic delicacy that reveled in the material’s capacity to record the creative working process of the artist. Clay in his hands conveyed what his friend Robert Rauschenberg once called the “gap” between art and life, existing both as evidence of the dynamic of making and the resolution of art in the viewer’s experience.
BUILD presents the work of contemporary artists who embrace Voulkos’ legacy and continue to push it forward through experimental activity that often subverts the situation and materiality of both sculpture and clay. Working inside an evermore fragmentary contemporary culture, these artists present the infinite array of choices and experimentation that has placed clay in the center of contemporary discourse once more. From the muscular rawness of the works of Dennis Gallagher and Brad Mildrexler through the sly stylistic and ideological subversions of decorative form in the sculptures of Alwyn O’Brien and Matt Wedel, clay provides a uniquely visceral and sculptural syntax for contemporary sculpture. Sterling Ruby pursues strategies of contingency in which cultural disremembering and the questioning of temporal hierarchies results in hybrid forms which insinuate themselves into the world and alter the viewer’s experience of material and sculpture form. Clay in the present, both as a genre and in its physical essence, is a medium to be exploited at will, creating a hybrid art form more than finished object that tests the limits of materiality and inspiration for the mind of the artist.
Dennis Gallagher’s (1952-2009) abstract ceramic artworks reflect an attraction to the visceral qualities and the sometimes precarious balances of life. His works often consists of large irregular shapes inspired by natural formations or tools, architectural fragments, and a passion for form and space. Gallagher’s works are in the permanent collections of the Crocker Art Museum (Sacramento, CA), Fresno Art Museum (Fresno, CA), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (San Francisco, CA), San Jose Museum of Art (San Jose, CA) and the Boise Art Museum (Boise, ID).
Brad Mildrexler (b. 1955) is relatively unknown by the general public but celebrated in the fine art community for his experiments with high-fire glazes and melting rocks. His investigations into the process of manipulating extreme heat strategically document his contributions to the important developments in contemporary ceramic sculpture. Mildrexler’s work has been included in exhibitions around Oregon and and Washington including the Backspace Gallery (Portland, OR), the Art Center Gallery at Clatsop Community College (Astoria, OR), the Newport Visual Arts Center (Newport, OR) and the Northwest Craft Center (Seattle, WA).
Louise Nevelson (1899-1988) was an American sculptor best known for monochromatic wooden assemblages. She created unique arrangements contained in wooden frames amassed from a range of found objects that were then painted a uniform black, white, or gold. Nevelson’s work is in the collection of many public institutions including the Brooklyn Museum (Brooklyn, NY), The Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY), Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington, DC) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Los Angeles, CA). In 1967 the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, NY) gave the artist her first retrospective.
Alwyn O’Brien (Canada, b. 1975) received the Gardiner Museum’s Emerging Artist Award in 2008 and was nominated for the RBC Emerging Artist People’s Choice Award in 2011, among other distinguished awards. Her work can be found in the permanent collections of the MacKenzie Art Gallery (Regina, Saskatchewan) and the Surrey Art Gallery (Surrey, British Columbia).
Sterling Ruby (b. 1972) is a multidisciplinary artist who makes handmade ceramic works often addressing the conflict between individual desire and social structure, and the influence of institutional architecture, both literal and figurative, on human behavior and psychology. Ruby’s work is featured in numerous museum collections, including the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, NY), Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago, IL), Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Los Angeles, CA) and the Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris, France). Ruby’s work was included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial.
Peter Voulkos (1924-2002) is one of America’s most significant sculptors of the 20th century. He is often credited with contributing to the demolition of the traditional hierarchies between the fine arts and craft, and the elevation of ceramics out of the decorative arts to which they had been consigned. Voulkos’ work is represented in major museum collections, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Los Angeles, CA), Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY), Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam, Netherlands) Oakland Museum of Art (Oakland, CA), Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Houston, TX) and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Boston, MA).
Matt Wedel (b. 1983) steps away from the notion of ceramics as a functional craft, intricately modeling vegetation, minerals, and animals, all of which, while familiar, suggest they have roots in the unknown, creating mythological objects and creative stories from mud or clay. Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, (Halifax, Nova Scotia), Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery (Halifax, Nova Scotia) and Long Beach Museum of Art (Long Beach, CA).