Art-world, crafts-world, and crossover talents come together in Dirt on Delight: Impulses That Form Clay, a lively presentation, on view at the Walker Art Center through November 29, that features work in clay by 22 artists spanning four generations.
Examining the rich history of clay and showcasing some of the medium’s most important practitioners, Dirt on Delight embodies a wide range of form and scale by contemporary artists as well as historic and outsider figures who have had a sustained engagement with clay and its processes. The exhibition originated at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania.
Ranging from modestly scaled pots to figurines to large sculptures, the 88 works on view cross a spectrum that includes fine art, craft, and outsider practices. Collectively they suggest that clay appeals to basic impulses, starting with the delight of building form, coupled with the anxiety of completion. All of the works in the exhibition appear to be in some state of flux or growth.
Clay is a base material. From potsherds to porcelain fixtures, clay is synonymous with the building of industries and cultures. At the same time, its very materiality—its tactile malleability, earthen sensuousness, and humidity—makes it the medium of more elemental associations and expressions. The immediacy with which clay allows one to build form and create ornament underlies its appeal—especially in relation to current modes that seem to take fabrication increasingly out of artists’ hands. And indeed the hand is everywhere in evidence—patting, pinching, squishing, rolling, punching, and painting. Inherent to clay’s materiality is its invitation to play, but also its requirement of technical skills. An amateur approach can emphasize clay’s more raw manifestations, but expert knowledge of clay types, slips and glazes, the potter’s wheel, and firing techniques is critical to making objects. More specifically, Dirt on Delight is an opportunity to examine not only clay’s appeal but issues surrounding the concept of craft in general.
The artists represented include the current generation (Nicole Cherubini, Jessica Jackson Hutchins, Jeffry Mitchell, Sterling Ruby, and Paul Swenbeck), artists who emerged during the 1990s (Ann Agee, Kathy Butterly, Jane Irish, Beverly Semmes, and Arlene Shechet), those who established clay as a critical material during the 1960s and 1970s (Robert Arneson, Viola Frey, Ron Nagle, Ken Price, Adrian Saxe, Beatrice Wood and Betty Woodman), and historic and outsider figures (Lucio Fontana, Rudolf Staffel, and Peter Voulkos, as well as George Ohr and Eugene Von Bruenchenhein).
Image: Kathy Butterly, Cenote, 2004. Porcelain, earthenware, and glaze, 4-3/4 x 4-1/8 x 4 inches. Private collection; courtesy of Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York.