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Kitsch as Avant-Garde   1      2      3      4      5      -      PRINTER VERSION

>> Like Shaw, fellow California artists Ron Nagle, Ken Price, Peter Shire, and Tom Rippon are obsessed with craft. In Nagle's and Price's cup fetishes, craft masquerades as content. Their meaning sits on the surface; indeed, one could safely say that their surface is the meaning. Halper describes Nagle's work as "an orchestrated discourse on the relationship of contour to painted plane". This sounds like artspeak that means, "what you see is what you get". The only California artist in Clay Revisions not bitten by what Robert Hughes calls the "California cute fly" is Peter Voulkos.

Voulkos has been doing his "Stack Pots" since the early '60s and his "Ceramic Drawings" since the mid-'70s. They have never appeared pretty and have always emphasized raw energy as opposed to controlled refinement. These earlier vases and plates, once the conceptual archetype for the new "vessel", were marked with rips, holes, and slashes that actively denied function.

Voulkos' recent plates (no longer called ceramic drawings) and stacked vases, while as vigorous and powerful as ever, no longer seem as intent on destroying the integrity of the vessel. Clay Revisions includes typical examples of both. His plate Untitled, RBII, for example, has no holes; the thick rim is torn and a shallow gash bisects the whole, but neither of these elements "destroys" the plate. Unlike the other plates in the show essentially "round paintings" made to be hung on the wall Voulkos' piece could be better appreciated resting horizontally on its foot.

His stacked vase shown here, Untitled (1982), has a surface distorted with distinct handprints, incised drawing, and long, thin linear indentations, but unlike earlier versions it is without holes that violate its cavity. It is, in other words, a potent and mysterious container in stark contrast to many of the vases in Clay Revisions, which are nothing more than clinquant and shallow caricatures. Just as Voulkos' work was once at odds with dogmatic functional potters of the '60s, his new work seems at odds with the vessel makers of the '80s who place pictorial imagery and a bold palette above form and content.

The question is: why do so many of the artists in Clay Revisions cling to clay, the vessel, and the ceramic field itself, long after they have rejected its history and language? One could speculate that, at best, these artists feel that clay is not just the appropriate material, but the only material that will allow them to realize the full aesthetic potential of their vision. At worst, one might theorize that these artists find the small, intimate, and chummy world of ceramic art a comfortable haven from which to make occasional sorties into the fine arts.

The new intellectualism in the ceramics field has done little to address this inconsistency. In fact, much of the writing, by critics both within and outside the field, seems directed at creating a new lexicon, flexible and agile enough to adjust to any intellectual contortion one might apply to ceramic art. If Halper's catalogue essay for Clay Revisions typifies the insider's perspective on the field, the crafts writing of fine arts critic Jeff Perrone exemplifies the outsider's approach. His article, "More Sherds/Breaking the Silence" (American Ceramics, 4/4), epitomizes the kind of convoluted prose that the crafts world accepts as fine arts imprimatur. Try to follow this: "The ceramic 'sherd'," writes Perrone, "as the extra, residual, unreappropriable, odd, third term, intervenes within and between oppositions—it 'both' breaks

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