Is it fair to compare apples to oranges? Only when you are learning what fruit is, and in this case many of us do not really have a context for clay as a medium in contemporary art. So I will proceed in comparing two ceramic artists, one an apple and one an orange in order that you can understand what “fruit” is, or in this case ceramics. While I clearly appreciated one over the other, neither are better or worse really – one appeals to artifice and if you don’t like looking deep inside, this will appeal to you (think Jeff Koons). While the other deals with the internal, and if you frequent that space you will like her work more (think religious sculptures of many creeds).
Ceramics has one of the longest histories as a medium in an artist’s repertoire. However, it has often been pushed in the corner of the decorative arts – damned to the kitchens and tabletops, and it is rarely celebrated as a fine art. A handful of contemporary artists have crashed the stereotype of ceramics as craft and decorative by sublimely subverting the medium into powerful statements. British artist Grayson Perry, one of my favorite artists, has done this with aplomb. He has made a major name for himself by creating gigantic and fragile pots with terrifying decorations that include words and pictures about war, sexual abuse, and other very, very bad behavior. The result is shocking and honest. Aren’t we really these fragile beings like the giant urns carrying around sometimes grotesque histories or fears? Clearly a brilliant use of the ceramic medium – right thought, right material.
Cynthia Lahti and Chris Antemann both have shows on right now in Portland – the former at PDX Contemporary Art and the latter at the Portland Art Museum (PAM). Chris’s work is baroque, over the tabletop, saccharine ceramics while Cynthia’s is of the earth, of the mind and of the heart.
I recall seeing Chris’s work for the first time of the Portland Northwest Art Awards – a (by definition) provincial exhibit of artist known by a curator who live in specific areas of the northwest). The artist and curators see her as “reinventing and invigorating the great porcelain figurative tradition”. Her “grand installation” this time in the PAM is said to be a “new narrative on contemporary morality”. Holy cow. OK, so upon closer inspection there is not exactly a new narrative – it is the exact same take on the tales of ribaldry in the 18th century that Watteau famously depicted in paintings – even down to the costumes. In fact there actually may be less ribaldry in Christine’s work. And morality? Nope, the work is just about sex – that is neither moral or immoral it’s in our bones and timeless, not new or necessarily moral. And everybody is white, like the porcelain. Is that moral to display in these racially charged times? Or the women in “sexy time” poses? Don’t get me started.
This installation “Forbidden Fruit” is a giant place of real estate in the museum – so important that they actually painted the walls a 1950’s kitchen mint green to match some greenery in her sculptures. The green is painful to look at, it’s not the hue they were aiming for I’m sure. The gigantic and meticulously finished piles of porcelain were commissioned by the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory. I can see that the pressure was too high to make the work thought provoking, let alone actually salacious. It’s a corporate commission and not a piece of fine art. In other words, the work was not successful because the artist used the bacon (porcelain) with the usual eggs – it would have been AMAZING if she dipped the bacon in honey, as we all know how wrong and right that is. Don’t get me wrong, if you are hungry enough the bacon and eggs can taste sublime.
Cynthia Lahti’s work in clay at PDX Contemporary Art, titled “Battle” resides on a totally different plane. Like many artists she uses visual analogies in her creative process. These are a way to trick the mind to operate differently – an exercise in a non-sensical image rebus in order to keep the mind open and flexible. Famously John Baldessari does this by mashing image and text together, and image and image together to create a third meaning. Her 2D visual analogies surround the room on the walls, and in the middle of the room are the sculptures where she has smashed the clay figures with 2D images too. Literally she drapes and tops the clay with paper images that create new stories, unrepeatable anomalies. Unlike Chris whose work is overtly sexual, Cynthia’s work is indirectly and very powerfully sexual – from the use of colors to the use of images, there is no question that the artist is exploring the narrative of sex in all of its natural and inappropriate ways.
One of my favorite pieces by Lahti is a perfectly androgynous blend of image and sculpture, where the subject is neither male nor female, but a perfectly neutered and tender picture of grace.
In sum the artists are entirely different – the decorative, versus the internal. The advertisement of the medium versus the actual engagement with the medium. One artist choosing to copy the traditions of the past with no major addition to the dialog, while the other is using the medium to explore in a deeply personal way some universal themes. Finally, and important to note, Cynthia’s work references art history versus Chris’s whose work references only itself and the 18th century decorative arts – art history is not implicit in her process. I hope PAM can have a giant installation, perhaps a tabletop parade, of Cynthia’s figures battling one day.
Tagged: Ceramics, Chris Antenmann, Clay, Cynthia Lahti, Grayson Perry, PDX Contemporary Art, Portland Art Museum