Art Focus: Scripps College Ceramics Shatter Conventions

A male figure stands naked on a red, barren rock that is broken in jagged concentric circles centered on the primordial earth beneath his feet. The spotlight resting on his head renders him alone, isolated, and a polystyrene screen encloses his world. This is Walter McConnell’s “Itinerant Edens,” part of the 66th Scripps College Ceramic Annual. One of the largest pieces in the exhibit, its structure is composed entirely of moist clay. The plastic allows for the retention of moisture while preventing the viewer from entering the realm of the sculpture. A full-sized version is positioned next to a smaller prototype.

The Scripps Ceramic Annual has been held since the end of World War II, and it was curated by Scripps professors from 1945 to 1995. In 1996, the series shifted to assigning guest curators who are significant contributors to ceramics or education. This year’s curator is Wayne Higby, the Robert Chapman Turner Chair of Ceramic Art and Kruson Distinguished Professor at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University.

This year’s theme is “Material Matters: Art and Phenomena.” Higby said he intended the exhibit to “address the important relationship of material and process to idea and meaning in our critical engagement with visual art.” It represents a reaction to the current claim among philosophers of art that value is based in the artist’s intellectual concept rather than the execution.

The exposition is a compilation of works by both American and international artists. The creators, who are as diverse as their pieces, range from Zhou Guozhen from the Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute in China to Betty Woodman, who fired her porcelain in Svres, France to Paul Soldner, a former curator and Scripps professor.

The exhibit is laid out with four columns in the middle of the room, showcasing Woodman’s cup and saucer works along with the decal plates of Howard Kottler. The larger pieces are arranged along the four walls of the square room. Each work displays a uniquely innovative use of materials. For example, Claire Hedden’s “Durga” is a mixed-media construction that includes earthenware, carpet padding, foam, and paint. The clay structure perched atop layers of cloth is simultaneously inspired by the Hindu goddess Durga and the modern feminist domestic. As Hedden describes, “With fiery presence astride her tower of stuff, she wields her multi-tasking arms.”

Another mixed-media piece, Eliza Au’s “The Meditation of Order,” combines ceramic, paper, and metal to create a detailed design using a circular mandala template. The durable materials situated at the center convey stability and permanence. As the viewer moves outward, the sense of order dissolves into delicate paper loops delicately attached, suggesting vulnerability.

Tom Schmidt’s “Sampled Spaces” is one of the more impressive works in the showcase. The sculpture is an array of white, cast-porcelain squares with an unruly topographical surface of contours and shadows. Some of the sections connect while others join at uneven edges. Schmidt’s work is true to the exhibit’s focus: It explores form rather than a centralized idea or image.

This exhibition can be enjoyed without much knowledge of ceramics or the background of the featured artists. Visitors should follow Higby’s intentions and simply appreciate the pieces visually first. For more information, guests can buy a program for $20, which includes an essay by the curator and explanations of each work.

Mary Mikkelsen, a potter from North Carolina, voiced her appreciation for the risks the artists were willing to take. “It…stretch[es] your perception of clay and what you can do with it,” she said. “Definitely non-traditional.”

The 66th Scripps Ceramic Annual runs from Jan. 23 to Apr. 4 at the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at the corner of 11th Street and Columbia Avenue. Admission is free.

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