CLAY, KITSCH

The aesthetic embrace of the “low” and the critical reappraisal of kitsch have been accepted as central strategies by postmodern artists and art historians.  Many contemporary sculptors working in the medium of clay have been increasingly enamored with mining the “low” culture of modern ceramics and have quoted the curio, the tourist souvenir, and the craft collectible. This talk will examine the nature of this appropriation of debased imagery, which raises questions of economic value, ceramic history, and critical distance.  

 

Walter McConnell is one ceramic sculptor, among many, whose work sites astride serious discourse and low humor. The singularity of our initial view of his immense stupa forms gives way to a cornucopia of kitsch images. Duck, unicorn, skull, Buddha exist side by side. As we step closer, we are overwhelmed by the sculpture’s many disparate elements. Elf, teddy bear, Christ, pin-up girl commingle. Jostling over the surface are a pumpkin, Lincoln, fir tree, column. McConnell gives us a menagerie of kitsch and it is a strange and wonderful inventory: self-deceptive monkey, supplicant Indian. Confusion reigns and the sheer abundance of images forces a visual scattering, an optical restlessness generating a circumambulation of the work.  Each figurine is carefully molded, specific in its form and detailed in its features. With each, there is a sense of the particular; among all there is the peculiar and a decidedly profane cosmology.

 

In this talk I will address the following questions:  Do ceramic sculptors who use a devalued source from ceramic’s own history have an inherently different relationship to their source material than other artists?  Already seen as a participating in a marginal practice, do ceramic artists compromise their work--critically or economically--in their appropriation of kitsch?  Do artists who work in clay risk devaluing their own work by quoting low forms that remind their audience of cheap goods?  Does the quotation of the curio or souvenir place ceramic sculptors in a double bind, in which they trap themselves aesthetically and critically?