Labels such as “African-American sculptor” or “Hispanic potter” or “woman critic” imply that white male art is the norm. Historically this is true, but not because art by white males is superior. In the art world, as in Western society, power roles traditionally have gone to white men; that’s who ended up setting the standards and conferring the rewards. For proof, check out the most popular textbooks for introductory art history courses. The lack of diversity in traditional notions of American art does not mean there were no minority artists working. Though some ignored artists have been rightfully resurrected, others are lost forever in the testosterone-scented snowstorm that was, and to some degree still is, the Academy.
Labels are also risky because they set up expectations, as in Shades of Clay at the American Jazz Museum. At least four factors contributed to my expectation that all ceramic artworks in the show would address issues of race: the exhibition’s title and catalog celebrating “work being created by artists of color”; its early promotion as a multicultural exhibition; the venue’s location in the 18th and Vine district (just off the lobby of the museum, a recording of Martin Luther King reiterates, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal….”); and, most consequentially, my own narrow mind. I assumed the preceding three factors must result in artwork with a political agenda.
How rewarding — and humbling — to be proven wrong. Although the exhibition’s fifteen ceramic artists are from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds (African-American, Chicano, Moorish, Thai, Mongolian), their ceramics explore issues and techniques as diverse and individual as the artists, and all with distinction and refinement.
Ceramic artist Paul Andrew Wandless, who curated the show, says he purposely chose artists whose works are very different. “I wanted to show, again, that minority art normally gets pigeonholed,” he says. “My intent is for people to look in and say, ‘This work is as strong as any that’s being made, and it just happens to be made by a minority artist.'”
Wandless, whose work is included in the exhibition and who, like the majority of these artist, is on the art faculty of a major university, was only the second minority to complete the ceramic arts degree program at Arizona State University. (Another Shades artist, Stephen Carter, was the first, graduating ten years before Wandless. The two have developed a Web site, culturalvisions.net, that highlights minority artists and their works.) In curating Shades of Clay, Wandless kept in mind his lack of minority role models.
“If you’re not seeing people who look like you succeed, then why would you want to go into that field?” he asks rhetorically. “There are so many options available, and so few young people go into art. Instead, they enter into an occupation where they’re certain they can get a job when they’re finished.” Shades of Clay demonstrates that minority artists can not only survive in the art world but rise to the top of their field.
Winnie Owens-Hart’s “Reclining Nude” is an extraordinary, evocative vessel in the stylized shape of a female torso. Its small size and faux-archaic surface in shades of smoky gray and ochre recall vessels unearthed from ancient tombs, whose contents were precious: perfume or nectar or kohl. The nude is also reminiscent of the Venus of Willendorf, its ample form an homage to, or entreaty for, fertility and abundance. The breasts are large and flat against the bloated belly, and the tiny navel is star-shaped, its luminous glaze sparkling. The pubic hair is also stylized, with black dots applied in a lyrical diamond shape. Beneath the hair is the pubis, the labia like the lips of a fish gasping for air. There are no legs, no arm and no head (the neck is the vessel’s spout), but the nude reclines unassisted, halfway between sleeping and sitting — a symbol of remarkable strength and endurance.
Ray Chen’s “Mother & Child” series reflects another type of endurance: the love between Chen and his mother during her ongoing struggle with Parkinson’s disease, according to the catalog. Chen uses the contrast between stoneware and earthenware in their crudest fired states to depict this complicated emotional and physical relationship. Read in tandem, the two works reveal an even more poignant connection. Each “figure” is made of massive lumps of folded, fractured, clotted clay, as if it’s in a state of becoming, a clumsy genesis of the human being and human condition. The stoneware contains shades of sienna and umber like dried blood; the earthenware is white, with hints of sienna. This is a dialogue between pure and impure, youth and age, health and disease. In “Mother & Child I” the larger figure is of stoneware, the smaller of earthenware. They are positioned as close as they can be without actually touching, the minute spaces between near-contact as dynamic as the forms themselves. In “Mother & Child II” the roles have been reversed: The child is now the adult, the adult now the child — and they touch at two delicate points as if beginning a bond that will eventually conjoin them completely.
But there are other bonds between mother and child, some noxious, as exemplified by Janathel M. Shaw’s powerfully disturbing “Krak Baby.” This stoneware sculpture is intelligently positioned on a tall pedestal so that viewers must confront the monstrosity before them. The baby has no head to think with, no arms to touch with. He is helpless and hopeless, oversized like the big burden he will be on society, his family and himself. His legs, with their inadequately developed feet, kick and scratch at the air. His skin is wrinkled like an old man’s and etched with the deep grooves of the artist’s fingertips. A raw incision runs down the middle of his torso, swollen and bloody. It’s difficult to tell if the wound has just been stitched or is about to rip open. Either way, something inside has been surgically and crudely removed or fixed or destroyed. Next to the child is a baggie of crack rocks, and one is being shat out of the baby’s bloody anus. The baby’s black color seems less indicative of race than of a child charred by the crack pipe’s fire. Here and there on the deformed body, a bit of gold shines through the black, providing a double meaning: the value of a human life to humanity, and the huge profits reaped by the illegal drug industry.
Shaw’s work is the most political, successfully taking on some of the country’s most difficult cultural and racial issues. Her other piece, “Salt n Pepper Niggah Shaker,” takes a pointed and meaningful jab at racial stereotypes created and sustained by whites in such “art” as the blackfaced white minstrel shows of the late nineteenth century, Al Jolson’s blackface song routines and Aunt Jemima and Uncle Mose salt and pepper shakers still collected with pride by upper-class whites who should know better.
Works by the other prominent artists in this exhibition — Sharif Bey, Richard Buncamper, Stephen M. Carter, Patsy Cox, Willis “Bing” Davis, Juan Granados, Leroy Johnson, Nori Pao, Bobby Scroggins, James L. Tanner, Wandless and James C. Watkins — are just as influential and deserve to be viewed, considered and interpreted with the same degree of attention. Not just today but in the future; not just once but often.
This is the third in a series of four articles about ceramic arts.