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Conspicuous Consumption

John Byrd, University of South Florida



The perception of contemporary artwork is still hindered by a material hierarchy that finds clay at or near the bottom in rank. Coming from an academic background, I have always been acutely aware of clay’s understood contextual merit relative to other media. While my practice involves additional materials, it is my experience in clay that continues to guide all formal decision-making. In my work, I explore the issue of value by creating highly crafted objects derived paradoxically from the debased history of ceramics and other ‘low’ cultural productions including taxidermy mounts, Lucite paperweights, and chalkware figurines.

Key words: kitsch, taxidermy, value, figurine

By nature, my work is inherently biographical. While many of my visual sources are not aesthetically sophisticated, they each have specific qualities that shape the way I view the world. I grew up in Hendersonville, NC. While the town has grown a lot, I am aware of the fact that my childhood encompassed many standard features of the rural American experience. While there were certainly many positive aspects I associate with this, my cynical nature generally finds negative angles as well. For example, the mountains of North Carolina offer an unparalleled natural topography. Yet, while all who lived there seemingly appreciated the beauty, the locals were also more than willing to blight the scenery with tangles of billboards and other clutter.

In my mind, I believed Hendersonville’s most outstanding and positive cultural contributions were Benny and Billy McCrary. Praised by the Guinness Book of Records as the ‘world’s largest twins’, I was proud to be raised in the same neighborhood as the good-humored brothers. I do not mention these men to either mock or criticize them for their heavy statures. In an area of the country both religiously and politically conservative, they were truly considered local heroes for making it on their own terms, by and large with a god-given talent for eating.

There was, and is still, a sense of the history of the North Carolina mountains as a summer haven for wealthy, worldly southerners. Just hidden in the hills, however, are mountain folk living culturally isolated lives. There has always been a strange co-dependence between the two extremes with the tourists somehow in need of the Appalachian amenities (or quaint lack of) to make them feel as though there are getting back to some simpler notion of life. Many locals with any knowledge of cultural heritage that can be capitalized on oblige and create a simple spectacle of that ‘mountain’ experience, whether it’s picking apples at local orchards, or visiting roadside markets that are lined with jellies and NASCAR collectables.

Growing up, I was acutely aware of being caught both culturally and financially in the middle. Neither of my parents was from North Carolina so the culture was as alien to them as it was to me. I had few cultural experiences that might be considered ‘Appalachian’ or regionally significant– that is to say, I never really hunted and I probably fished or went camping only a couple of times. Financially, we were a very middle-class family, but considering that the bus dropped me off in front of a neighborhood with houses rather than a trailer park like most of my classmates, we were considered relatively ‘well to do’. That said, for lack of money most of my childhood summers were spent washing dishes, mowing grass, or dumping trash for the wealthy summer visitors.

I was always aware of the strong historical presence of clay and ceramics in the region. To a great extent, its influence shaped the aesthetic understanding of people in the area. I came to clay having an aunt and uncle who were both potters in the western mountains of the state. At the beginning of my education in clay, I intended a career making pots. I enjoyed the repetitious processes involved in building a series of pieces and the possibility of creating work that served specific utilitarian roles in the lives of their owners. Toward the end of my undergraduate education, I realized that utility had become a distant second interest in the forms I was making. While industrially inspired vessels might have had appeal for some, my teapots began pouring with a grace of a fire hose. I eventually abandoned function completely and applied my physical construction processes to other issues.

For the last few years, my work has, for the most part, involved animals. Therefore, I should briefly mention that the initial interest in this theme was instilled in me at the greyhound tracks passed in Alabama when driving to and from Louisiana State University, where I attended undergraduate school. While I’d grown up with dogs as pets, it was clear these greyhounds had a much different life experience. I saw these animals, not necessarily as victims, but as a simple and obvious example of an industry-fueled species much in the model prescribed by René Descartes with machinelike qualities bred in and out to best design the animal for a very specific task. Physiologically, the dogs really appealed to me; the fact that they are bred and trained with singularity of purpose and function. In many ways the track dog is a very minimalist animal. There are no traits bred into these animals other than to allow them to run at breakneck speeds around a 5/16 mile sand track.

In terms of clay, I was initially drawn to its inherent physicality. In learning to use it, I found ceramics to be an enjoyable and very tangible learning process, one of disciplined time focused on a physical, creative task. The harder I worked, the greater my skill, and the larger my formal vocabulary. Ultimately, it is the physical nature of clay that still draws me to it: the fact that clay can so intimately reveal each action against it, or hide any reference to the human hand, or resemble a different material entirely.

I am specifically interested in the nature of the object and the perception of finely crafted skill as it is used to exhibit an artist’s persistent commitment to an idea. Contextually speaking, my work tends to be derivative of specific aesthetic qualities. Most often, I use those rural aesthetics that I associate with my childhood and the biography of those who have had little exposure to art. I am interested in the particular hierarchy of materials that I associate with this aesthetic especially as it is relative to what is often considered ‘high art’. While some of my pieces are modeled after objects that might be considered ‘low-brow’, it’s never intended to be judgmental. I resent the notion of ‘kitsch’, and attempt to manipulate much of the media to make the work of an impeccable quality that separates it from this descriptor.

I hate to admit that my formal influences are so banal, but I can trace much of my formal decision making to two early sources. Around the age of seven, I received as a gift, a Lucite paperweight with a scorpion embedded inside. While I could see the scorpion clearly through the plastic, the fact that I couldn’t access it to see what its shiny exoskeleton felt like was extremely frustrating. As well, one of my favorite childhood toys was an action figure named Maskatron (the nemesis of Steve Austin a.k.a. the Six Million Dollar Man). Now there is nothing about the narrative of the character that’s important. What made him irresistible was the sealed plastic ‘bionics’ that fit into his body. These were encased much in the same way as the scorpion. As a kid, I would often remove these jewel-like pieces with a pocketknife and carry them to school in my pocket. The simple concept of those encapsulated forms lead me to encase the specimens I use and guided how I attempt to incorporate disparate media within the finished object.

While in most cases my work is comprised at least partially of clay, I often try to suggest a context that has little to do with the history of ceramics. For instance, sometimes the surface is applied to make it resemble metal, plastic, or polished to look like ivory or stone. As well, I rarely use molds to create work. Though I’m certainly not opposed to them as a process, I rarely have need for more than one of a particular modeled form. That said, I like the idea that the object I’ve made might have been reproduced, and so I will sometimes manually apply seam lines to make it look as though it’s been pulled from a mold.

As subjects, I’ve been attracted by the dualistic roles animals play in our lives. While we honor them and seek their companionship, we are also quick to salt their meat. Animal specimens are collected by game hunter and scientist alike. The hunter eliminates life only to reanimate it in the form of a trophy mount. The scientist collects, destroys, and dissects a specimen to better understand its life. I am precisely interested in the hypocritical and often divergent nature of this relationship.

In regards to my use of taxidermy specimens, I’m interested in it to directly access viewer empathy. While a ceramic representation of fauna may be highly realistic, the physical limitations of the clay have it falling short when compared to the specific qualities of an actual animal specimen. I must expect for some viewers, taxidermy will have some shock value. That said, in many cases I feel the work is only shocking within the context of the art gallery. The context on which the work is based often refers to decorative taxidermy or ‘natural history’ type displays, and when compared to the dioramas assembled in those settings, I would argue my work often appears quite tame.

In terms of the animals I use in my work, I often try to choose specific species that I think have a greater perceived relationship with people, potentially even with an association which might be considered almost anthropomorphic. I am drawn to using domestic animals due to their placement in family homes as well as other animals, such as fawns, which I feel culturally reside between the domestic and wild largely due to their Disney representations (e.g., Bambi). My creative process tends to be one of an experiential nature. Such that it often seems to require me to suspend the emotional association that one would rationally consider when doing such an activity (the dissecting and skinning of animals for example).

I feel that absolutely all people, in one way or another, act to both honor and consume animals. My own direct use of animals forces me to more readily acknowledge my own conflicted, consumptive role. To some extent, I am interested in the ego attached to this process and attempt to almost ‘justify’ the death of the animals by including them in a ridiculous setting that might make them seem more like humorous participants rather than victims. In regards to the potential empathic response of the viewer, I find that people are apt to draw their own defining ethical lines in regards to their connection with animals, often influenced by the cultural class in which they reside or were raised. I make no attempt to be a moral compass on this subject. That aspect of my work is simply a personal study of my own hypocrisy as a participant in the notion of both the honoring and conspicuous consumption of these objects.

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Introduction from
Walter McConnell

Welcome from
Mary Drach McInnes

On Function and Content

by Sanam Emami

Courting Risk

by Linda Sormin

Conspicuous Consumption

by John Byrd

Functional Languages

by Anders Ruhwald

Towards Incongruence

by Michael Jones McKean

Edited conversation, discussion panel

Listen to the speakers presentations (mp3 files)

Walter McConnell

Linda Sormin

John Byrd

Michael Jones McKean

Anders Ruhwald

Sanam Emami

The complete recording of session number CA07-054 (“Ceramics: Five Emerging Artists Survey the Discipline”)and other sessions from the 95th Annual Conference of the College Art Association may be purchased online by going to the Conference Media web site.

Eddie Hopkins
(obituary by Ron Wheeler)

Conspicuous Consumption • Issue 9