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Towards Incongruence

Michael Jones McKean Virginia Commonwealth University



As practitioners, ceramic artists have mostly been left to use and borrow from a stagnantly dysfunctional critical canon, one that often wrongly assumes the following: that ceramists are trying desperately to make ‘art’, that ceramic practice is primarily routed through material investigations, and that a clay object’s meaning must be refracted though ceramic art history. I would argue that much of what is currently being produced within the field doesn’t have much to do with or much use for the established canon. Ceramic practice at the borders is often way ahead of the critical discourse that attempts to package it. Meanwhile, production at ceramic’s center seems encrusted and stagnated. The agitating, befuddling gap between ceramic’s available discourse and its actual, pervading practice creates a space where some of the field’s most wild innovation is currently couched.

Key words: material specificity, canon, discourse, multi-media

My talk is framed as an opportunity to speak about my work in specific relation to ceramics. Although I don’t consider myself a ceramic artist, clay is a material that shows up often in my work. Because of this, what I’m able bring to a conversation about ceramics is probably different than what a ceramist proper might offer. In organizing my thoughts, I noticed a difficulty in trying to understand my own work through the lens of ceramics without somehow placing my practice in opposition to clay’s standard narratives and agreed-upon paradigms. I’m not happy about this. That said, it’s my hope that any differences are not construed as gratuitously oppositional, but simply as another voice that further complicates the vast field of ceramics as it is practiced today.

I have always been somewhat terrified how clay, before we touch it, doesn’t really have scale. It no doubt has size and mass but it does not really have scale. Its plasticity in relation to our bodies is always undetermined and ghostlike. Scale is something nearly universally present, yet here within an ocean of cultural production clay is still a thing that doesn’t inherently possess scale. It doesn’t grow into anything organic like a tree or a flower or polar bear or anything we need or make or consume like an iPod or a pair of jeans. It’s also not fixed like a rock or a brick. It’s just lumpen possibility, scale-less matter. For me, this issue with scale is important. I’m always startled and slightly frightened the moment I put clay in my work. It immediately causes a rift. It’s as if a rogue element has entered the composition and de-centered the gravity of the space. It disrupts the stability of things while speaking to a more disorganized, complex compositional structure; it engages the sly, harmonious order of entropy. Intellectually, its presence incites and urges to be reconciled with.

There’s also something about clay’s posture in its lumpy, wet state that’s a little sad. It seems to fail in its own base and drunk materiality. But lately I’ve begun to understand failure and success as living in close proximity to one another. When you have these two opposing forces occupying nearly the same psychic space, the small gap between them becomes an extreme location. I like to imagine my work trying to negotiate this charged space, where it has to strain to keep everything together. But this stress also forces the work to cultivate its own inner logic, its own bizarrely syncopated cadence.

It’s no secret that clay is ancient. It races through a continuum linking us to 10,000 years of cultural making and 6 billion years of geological time. Yet when it is inside the work its presence is always out of time, it's neither old nor young, neither modern nor nostalgic. It sits there like a measuring tool or mystical gauge. It has been said that one can measure a culture or society’s level of sophistication and modernization by looking at their ceramics. I agree with this comment, yet this proposition becomes a bit thorny when one begins to consider that the complexity of art practices today far surpass traditional models and formulations of what would indicate progress. Yet in the ceramic community, increased technical innovation and virtuosic handling are still largely accepted as signifiers indicating achievement, progress, and linear movement through time. But we’re clearly living at a moment when these parameters tell only part of the story. In this sense, I’m interested in trying to ‘reboot’ the material, defaulting it back to ground, to dirt, to mud. I still believe clay has the possibility to tell us things, but as we begin to discard our overly tidy narratives, the conversation becomes decidedly more complex.

Despite all these critical comments, I’m still very much trying to just understand what clay is. The most direct way I can do this is to do things with it - to weigh it, to carry it around in a coat pocket for a month, to push it into the orifices and holes and gaps of things, to drag a duffel bag full of it around, to take naps with it, to build a 12,000 pound slab with it, to do impossible things to it like make it disappear or to fire it in a second. Although these actions are kind of strange, they are clearly nothing new. But as I rattle off this list what really startles me - and what’s really strange - is how collectively we’re in near agreement about what we should do with clay, about what constitutes appropriate responses to this material. For the most part, we want and are taught to make things out of it. That is, to make clay represent something, to put it in the shape of something else. Whether we’re making another slip cast plumbing thing or an animal or a pot or a figure or even the skilful representation of a technique itself, we find pleasure in making things out of it and sticking these things into very hot boxes. While making clay into the shape of referents exists as part of my practice, I’ve always felt estranged from these strategies as wholesale exercises. It’s as if they exist in a self-perpetuating feedback loop that’s entirely too closed-off for me to enter.

Another way I’ve been trying to figure out clay is by being as inclusive in my practice as possible. This might seem counterintuitive to the more orthodox, tried-and-true methodology that craft-centered, material-specific research has sponsored through the millennia. For me, this traditional strategy has always felt flat and monastically theatrical. But as I say this, I fully believe that the challenges of material specificity are at once what makes clay interesting but what also prevents ceramics from having a meaningful relationship within a larger discourse about art and ideas. For me, in order to have a meaningful relationship with the material in 2007, divorced from mannerism, I need clay next to a J-1 Promax boom box made in 1986 that sits on top of commercial carpet, which is next to a fluorescent light that leans on wreckage from a boat that tried to circumnavigate the earth in 1968 and failed. I’m curious about what clay has to tell us when it moves outside of the logic of its own conventions, its own set of rules. In my own work, it’s more useful to imagine clay and the objects within a project simply as points in a constellation. Together they form a shape, an abstraction larger then themselves, yet separately they still maintain their own discreet measures of value and meaning.

I started off saying that my work doesn’t live squarely within the world of ceramics. And clearly, it doesn’t abide by established norms of material specificity or craft virtuosity. When I look around some of the things that seem interesting within the field don’t have much use for these tropes either. Ceramic practice at its borders--like most marginal art productions--is usually way ahead or way outside of the critical discourse and the historical narratives we develop that try to contain and package our practices. Inversely, what generally gets made near ceramic’s center seems encrusted and stagnated because of these reductive formulations. Somewhat in spite of itself, a beautiful kind of conceptual incongruence has occurred within the field with progressive innovation being the by-product of (conventional?) entrapment.

Innovation through entrapment might seem counter-intuitive. Yet, if one believes they are trapped or caught, there’s often an attempt to invent creative solutions to break free of their constraints. I often see that the more rigid the entrapment, the more wild the innovation. In ceramic’s case this entrapment has something, maybe, to do with the ferocity of its historicity or perhaps the tiring and ridiculous debate over why ceramics isn’t accepted in the art world. Or perhaps it’s just that being beholden to a single material is a rather odd arrangement given our hyper-plural trans-media obsessions. In either case, what happens on the ground floor in the studio is often wild chaotic innovation. The kind of act is not tethered to a concurrent language or established movement but is a wild, un-syncopated doing. Like speaking in tongues, creativity comes from a place of urgent necessity, but a place that can't be wholly accessed through logic alone. This is a good thing.

To me, ceramics feels like a wide-open field in part because no one outside of ceramics is really paying much attention to it. By simply being left alone, ceramics has mutated and gestated to develop a set of incongruent strategies and standards, an elegantly flat-footed syncopation, and an often beautifully awkward aesthetic. But strangely, these innovations have occurred without being tethered to a concurrent revision within the discourse of clay or for that matter any discourse that attempts to consider the plurality of its disparate practices. Ceramic artists have mostly been left to use and borrow from a stagnantly dysfunctional critical canon, one that often wrongly assumes the following: that ceramists are still involved with trying desperately to make ‘art’, that ceramic practice is primarily routed through material investigations, that a clay object’s meaning must be refracted though ceramic art history. This agitating gap between ceramic’s available discourse and its actual, pervading practice pronounces a problem. However, it is a problem where some of the field’s most wild innovation is currently couched.

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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)

Towards Incongruence • Issue 9