PARIS — Conversations about art and medium-specificity are almost always conversations about history. Yet in our postmodern, postmedia times we have tended to shy away from the Greenbergian concept of medium-specificity as a particularly relevant principle for organizing historical exhibitions. Partially defying this trend, curators Camille Morineau and Lucia Pesapane give us Ceramix, a sweeping, historical, ceramic-specific survey of the 20th and 21st centuries, with some earlier works mixed in for context. Its catalogue is sure to become an inescapable reference in every ceramic art department around the world.
The exhibition is split between two venues and laid out across a mix of chronological and thematic rooms, with titles like “Eros and Thantos” and “Sacred and Profane.” Taken together, its two parts form a richly sensual show that elbows its way out of kitsch (Guillaume Apollinaire disparaged 18th-century porcelain knickknacks as the height of bad taste) and into the thriving late postmodern culture industry, where previously “minor” art forms are receiving more attention. The curators’ view of ceramics as a sculptural medium offers a medley of recurring — and often conflicting — narratives about technology and art.
The show began for me a bit off the beaten path, just outside of Paris at the Cité de la Céramique, Sèvres’s national ceramic art museum. As such, it makes a perfect envelope for the more historical part of Ceramix. It is here that one can grasp a fuller context for the ceramic work of artists as diverse as the European Modernists Pablo Picasso, Joan Mirò, Henri Matisse, and Fernand Léger, and more contemporary practitioners like Anne Wenzel, Edmund de Waal, Eduardo Chillid, Antoni Tàpies, Leiko Ikemura, Klara Kristalova, Grayson Perry, Ai Weiwei, and Jessica Harrison.
Gratifyingly, the exhibition begins in Sèvres with a small, greenish head of a sad woman by Auguste Rodin. But the first real charmer for me was Paul Gauguin’s tiny “Petite jardinière” (“Small Planter,” 1888). This tiny marvel was soon superseded by my favorite pieces in the show, both by Rosemarie Trockel — the wall reliefs “O-Sculpture 2” (2012) and “Louvre 2” (2009). What makes them ultra dope is the harmonious contrast between the emerging disorder of their crusty, protruding exteriors, and the cracked, mirrored orbs at their centers. They are badass, grotty masterpieces of witchy enchantment, made even more magically powerful by their installation, intensely bracketing Lucio Fontana’s twisted “Crucifix” (1955), which is in turn being gazed upon from across the room by Karel Appel’s melting “Face” (1956). The exhibition layout also makes for a compelling contrast between the glazed, gazing surfaces of the cracked Trockel pieces and the smooth sheen of Émile Decoeur’s “Decorative Vase #8” (circa 1940), which was manufactured in Sèvres and is based on a mermaid drawing by Jean-Baptiste Gauvenet.
Louis-Robert Carrier-Belleuse’s extraordinarily lyrical “Torchère” (“Torch Lamp,” 1883), also created at Sèvres, struck another Neo-Classical contrast to the modern and contemporary efforts here, particularly the abstract porcelain “Nomade” (2010), by Setsuko Nagasawa, and the work of Katinka Bock. Bock began working with ceramics in 2007 and uses simple, bulky forms to fix her gestures. The malleability of clay plays an essential role by emphasizing the facility with which it records the deformations to which it is subjected, as evidenced in her clay wall relief “Gurdulu and Montizul” (2014). Contrasts and comparisons with the flair of “Torchère,” in terms of the use of glaze and color, may also be struck with Elsa Sahal’s provocative “Acrobate” (2012), Alessandro Pessoli’s “Legionari” (2014) and John Tahon’s “ZIII” (2014).
At Ceramix’s other venue, La Maison Rouge in Paris’s 12th arrondissement, there is a room devoted to California’s Otis Group, with strong pieces by Ken Price and John Mason. In 1954, Peter Voulkos founded the ceramics department at the Los Angeles County Art Institute (today the Otis College of Art and Design), whose students would eventually include Mason, Price, and Billy Al Bengston. These artists were inspired by functional objects, which they used as the basis for abstract sculptures. Shortly thereafter, during the 1960s, Funk art flourished in Northern California, particularly with 1967’s Funk exhibition at the University Art Museum in Berkeley, which brought together 26 artists, including Robert Arneson and David Gilhooly. That exhibition signaled the return to figuration, the use of ironic humor and Surrealist fun-weirdness, as seen in Arneson’s cocky “Captain Ace” (1978) and Viola Frey’s colorfully glazed group of figures at La Maison Rouge. Both works are boldly pleasing to the eye, but overshadowed in terms of verve and humor by the monumental female pisser “Fontaine” (2012), by Elsa Sahal, installed in the museum’s central courtyard.
Indeed, the exhibition features a lot of clay genitalia, from the erect phallus wall pegs by Michel Gouéry to Elmar Trenkwalder’s sexy circular daisy chain “WVZ206” and Hanna Wilke’s ceramic works in forms suggestive of vaginas, “Untitled” (1974–77). I found less provocative but more erotic Françoise Vergier’s heads of women in the image of Neolithic fertility goddesses and Guido Geelen’s “Anatomy Lesson 1” (2006), a laid out St. Sebastian figure pierced not by arrows, but by red roses. Another figure that captivated my eros bone was the flamboyant skull by Katsuyo Aoki, “Predictive Dream XLIII” (2013).
In retrospect, Ceramix seems to suggest that there are two kinds of art history at work today. On one side is a media determinism that sees the history of art merged with that of ceramic technology. But then there is a thematic insistence that suggests that the development of art is unrelated to the technological evolution of any given medium, that art is an open process capable of many different outcomes dependent upon social and economic forces that shape it and its reception. Ceramix straddles these two conflicting positions, looking at both art and technology through the muddy lens of clay.
Ceramix, from Rodin to Schütte continues at La Maison Rouge (10 Boulevard de la Bastille, 12th arrondissement, Paris, France) through June 5 and at Sèvres — Cité de la Céramique (2 Place de la Manufacture, Sèvres, France) through June 12.