Clay’s Tectonic Shift Captures a Pivotal Moment in Ceramic History

Scripps College’s Ruth
Chandler Williamson Gallery opened Jan. 21 Clay’s Tectonic Shift: John Mason, Ken Price, and Peter Voulkos, 1956-1968a piece that highlights the redirection of ceramics as demonstrated through the distinct styles of artists Mason, Price and Voulkos.

Clay’s Tectonic Shift is the Williamson’s latest installment of “Pacific
Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980,” an art initiative of the Getty Museum on which 60 Southern California institutions have collaborated to
celebrate the Los Angeles art scene. Events began in October of 2011 and will continue
through April of this year. The series
includes exhibits of sculpture, painting, performance art, photography and
printmaking, as well as discussions of cultural and political identity through
art and a history of art spaces in Southern California.

In the 1950s, Voulkos moved to promote ceramics from its status as a craft to a higher position in the world of fine art. Voulkos, along with students and colleagues (including Price and Mason), began to stretch the traditionally
utilitarian aspirations of studio pottery and to construct purely structural

work primarily plays with concepts of symmetry and rotation and has a trademark
of impressive size. Many of his tower-like ceramic sculptures seem to defy gravity and physical odds, twisting and turning so wildly that they appear ready to topple. Surprisingly, some of these geometric sculptures still appear as if they could appear in nature despite Mason’s obvious stretch of the medium’s technical boundaries.

One of Mason’s most impressive pieces
in the exhibit is Red X, a stoneware sculpture constructed in 1966. The piece, as its title indicates, is a giant X glazed with an eye-catching candy apple red. Despite a seemingly simple concept, the piece’s unique dimensions and vibrant glaze warrant viewers’ attention.

pieces in the exhibit are of significantly smaller size, but they are clearly defined by his use of color. His work takes on simple, organic forms, allowing the pieces’ dynamic colors to stand out. Price’s works appear to move on their pedestals, and tube-like ceramic forms seem to actively bore their way out of shiny stoneware eggs all over the gallery. In addition, Price’s use of color redefines the forms by manipulating space with the
intensity and contrast of the lacquer and acrylic applied to the
stoneware, contributing to the appearance of movement.

Voulkos’ pieces are, like Mason’s, visually weighty, but his style is set apart as his construction process is more exposed—many of his sculptures combine a number of
techniques to create one final product. Voulkos was
known for enthusiastically interacting with his sculptures by scoring and
pounding the clay, rendering the sculpture a map of his creative actions.

If uninformed, exhibit-goers may be unimpressed or chalk up the exhibit as just another stock modern art offering. However, understanding the pivotal place in ceramic
history that these artists and sculptures hold significantly enhances the
experience. In addition, the selection
and presentation of the pieces is thoughtful and the collation of contrasting sizes, uses of space and varying colors is remarkable.

In conjunction with Clay’s Tectonic Shift, the Williamson Gallery is hosting Clay Days Feb. 18 and 19. On Clay Days, the gallery will offer walkthrough tours of the exhibit, and Bixby Court (adjacent to the gallery) will host music and dance performances, along with space and supplies for participants to create ceramics.

Clay’s Tectonic Shift will be on display until April 8. The Williamson’s hours are Wednesday through Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

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