Something I noticed after the country went into quarantine was that people began to post pictures on their social media platforms of the foods they were making at home. For a while, many people baked sourdough loaves. I saw lots of ethnic food as well as views of elaborate meals, even though no one was coming to dinner.
I also noticed that little attention was paid in the photos to the plates and platters on which the food was served. It got me thinking: The vessel is integral to the history of ceramics. When we think of food, we might not care what delivers it to the table, but when we think of ceramics, we might wish that no food or beverage ever dirtied it.
Until the 1950s, ceramics was a genre connected primarily with function, and rarely accepted as fine art. Peter Voulkos is widely considered the first ceramic artist to break down the barrier separating the functional with the purely aesthetic object. Voulkos’s breakthrough, which has been well documented, took place during the 1950s, and culminated in his 1959 exhibition of huge ceramic sculptures at the Landau Gallery in Los Angeles.
Voulkos was invited to teach at the Los Angeles County Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design) in 1954. He remained there until his controversial Landau Gallery show, at which point he took a teaching position at UC Berkeley. Voulkos’s students at Otis included John Mason and Ken Price, both of whom gained a reputation for their ceramic sculptures. Robert Arneson, who was not Voulkos’s student, was nonetheless changed by his encounter with the latter’s work.
While Voulkos broke down the barrier separating craft from art, he acknowledged the long history of ceramics, making plates and vessels, as did Price and Arneson. It is the dialogue between function and aesthetics, those who play with it (for instance, Jun Kaneko, Mary Heilmann, Joyce Robins, and Kathy Butterly), and their juxtaposition of color and materials that interests me.
This interplay is evident in the ceramic sculptures of Jiha Moon and Stephanie H. Shih. I first saw Moon’s work in 2000, when she was in the MFA program at the University of Iowa. In 2012, she received a working artist’s grant from the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia. She used it to sign up at a local clay studio in Atlanta, and began incorporating ceramics into her practice. I first saw Shih’s work on Instagram, a social media platform that I began looking at while under quarantine.
The former artist makes ceramic fortune cookies, while the latter makes ceramic dumplings, both collapsing vessel and food. In fact, if we think of ceramics as intrinsically bound up with functional vessels then the fortune cookie and dumpling are perfect subjects; they are vessels.
There is something primary about folding and pinching together the dough — or clay — to make a fortune cookie or a dumpling. You don’t need to get an MFA to learn how to do it. Along with a snowman, a dumpling might have been one of the first sculptures you made as a child. There is a deadpan humor to using clay to make a foodstuff that is also a vessel that is heated (baked, boiled, steamed, or fried) and eaten. At the same time, there is nothing elaborate or fancy about their shapes; diners don’t sit at a table and decide which fortune cookie or dumpling to pick up because of its aesthetic appeal, and both are mass-produced.
Voulkos and Stanley Rosen (who taught ceramics at Bennington College from 1960 until 1991) set the formal precedents for Moon and Shih, both of whom begin with circular pieces of clay — essentially an abstract form. Voulkos used clay slabs to make many of his works and Rosen begins many of his sculptures with a coil that is less than an inch in length, pinched at both ends.
All four artists eschew the wheel. Yet while Voulkos was inspired by Abstract Expressionism, and Rosen has been influenced by vernacular architecture and the history of vessels, Moon and Shih are inspired by the forms of commonplace Asian foods.
Recently, I reviewed the exhibition Jiha Moon: Enigmatics at Derek Eller Gallery (January 4 – February 2, 2020). Seeing pictures of home-cooked food on social media reminded me of Moon’s fortune cookies, which I did not emphasize in my review, and made me rethink their importance.
It is one thing to incorporate hand-folded and pinched fortune cookies into your work and another to silkscreen green bottles of Coca-Cola, as in the 112 nearly identical bottles in Andy Warhol’s “Green Coca-Cola Bottles” (1962).
In his book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again (1975), Warhol gave this as his reason for making “Green Coca-Cola Bottles”:
You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.
Warhol’s anti-elitist statement has been read as implicitly political. Coca-Cola is easy to obtain, but then so are fortune cookies and dumplings. The difference is that Warhol’s subject is a mass-produced, widely distributed, inexpensive American product, which is sold all over the world, a triumph of US capitalism.
Warhol, the son of Slavic immigrants who changed his name from Andrew Warhola, wanted to assimilate, to become an invisible white American — which is to say someone whose cultural identity is deemed unimportant. Coca-Cola fit in neatly with that desire because it is a post-ethnic product, even more so than Campbell’s soup.
Although it originated in San Francisco, the fortune cookie is synonymous with Chinese restaurants. Makoto Hagiwara first served the cookies in the Japanese Tea Garden located in Golden Gate Park as early as the 1890s. Made of common Western ingredients (flour, salt, vanilla, and sugar blended into an egg-white mixture), it is an invented hybrid that has come to signify Chinese culture and folk customs.
Like bread, dumplings can be found in nearly every culture, and have been part of Chinese cuisine for at least 1,800 years. There are machines that make fortune cookies. A machine is available that makes dumplings and spring rolls, as well as samosas and empanadas, keeping its ethnic identity fluid. Neither Moon nor Shih use a machine.
Born in Daegu, South Korea, in 1973, Moon was in her mid-20s when she came to America in the late 1990s to earn her MFA at the University of Iowa. Having lived more than two decades in one culture and a similar length in another, the fortune cookie, which was both invented and adapted, seems a perfect form for her work. She always paints and draws on them. In some cases they exist on their own; in others, they are attached to her vessels to indicate eyes, ears, or hands. By granting the form different functions as part of her vessels, she underscores its adaptability to different situations and challenges, while maintaining its essential abstraction.
Shih’s dumplings are nearly indistinguishable from each other, an ironic commentary on the history of ceramics and its development of differently shaped vessels. They come in two editions: one that is white, like the actual dumpling, and another that is painted a glossy, lustrous gold. Like Moon’s, Shih’s work can brim with humor. On her website, she describes the white ones as follows:
Hand-Folded porcelain dumpling with a creamy, super soft glaze. Signed.
With her ceramic dumplings, she breaks down the barrier between making sustenance and making art. In addition to the dumplings, Shih makes ceramic versions of items you would likely find in an Asian grocery store: bags of rice, cans and bottles of sauce; instant noodle and soup packages; candy; Spam.
Shih’s parents emigrated from Taiwan to the United States in the mid-1980s to attend graduate school in Philadelphia. She studied journalism at Boston University and told me in an email that she was “lucky that my practice and career found me anyway.”
Shih’s food products speak to a seismic shift in America’s demographics that began to take place around the time of the Civil Rights movement. In 1882, the US passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting the immigration of all Chinese laborers. In 1943, 105 Chinese were allowed to enter each year. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 did away with the National Origins Formula, which set quotas in order to preserve America’s largely white Protestant population. Along with setting immigration quotas, with special attention to certain non-white and non-Christian countries, the current administration also wants to roll back gains made in the fight for equality because of the Civil Rights movement.
Like Moon, Shih’s work is both aesthetic and political, a commentary on assimilation as a process in which one’s national origin is not forgotten or erased. This resistance troubles a significant number of Americans. They might go to a Chinese restaurant and open their fortune cookie at the end of the meal, but they don’t like the colorful diversity that the future holds for them.