BWW Reviews: Clay in a Blaze of Glory at the Clay Arts Center
Clay in a blaze of glory at the Clay Arts Center
By Barry Kostrinsky
Sometimes art is not about Museum blockbuster exhibits, 50 minute interviews on Charlie Rose and opening night attendence by a who's who list of celebrities from coast to coast. Most times art is about artists making art in isolation and occaisonally communing with a small group of cohorts. At the Clay arts center in Portchester 'Two Vigiles: Bruce Dehnert and Shawn O'Conner " opened Saturday August 2nd and runs through September 20th. The 2 person show gathered a small grouping of some of the over 50 clay artists that are associated with the center. What was so memorable about this small show and a quiet opening for an exhibit behind the Don Bosco Prep School and adjacent to the Firehouse in Portchester?
There was an element of the REAL in the air: a lack of pomp and circumstance, emporeror's new clothes,wordy hype and prices only affordable for the wallets of the 1 percent of the 1 percent. The two artists spoke about their work with some prodding. What they said was true and simple, they did not care to throw out catch phrases like a Koons Kat might do to sound Kool.
Bruce Dehnert's work has the feel of architectural remnants. The forms were developed from his unique process with a carefree spirit and a sense of exploration. Personal memories of Pinocchio show up in line drawings on the forms and add an element to the work that beligns anaylsis-in a good way. His method of subtracting material to create form is a present trend many contemporary painters employ; I like to think of it as absence-presence thing.
Shawn O'Conners wall of plates reveals the unexpected and unpredictable nature of firing clay.
With both Dehnert and O'Conner respect and an almost religious acknowledgement of the power of the fire and its uncontrollable influences hits on a critical theme unique to clay but investigated by artists before and after the Surrealists in their efforts to unleash the subconscious and open up a way of seeing. Shawn O'Conner's wall of plates covered in simple slip shows the unique patterns each plate reveals due to their placement in the fire and the miniscule butterfly effects that go on in a hot fire.
In a way potters are a part of one of the earliest religions. Their respect and awe for fire and it's effects recalls the way early caveman and cavewoman felt about fire. Fire was a powerful god, able to give light, warmth and life. These contemporary potters are doing something new and something old in their own way. They are exploring the unknown with eyes wide shut to see beyond the retina. Science can only give us some much with it's reliance on rationalism and logical thoiught. It is art that is allowed to play with the tools of magic to reveal what is really REAL.
Outside the 11,000 square foot amalgum of buildings that make up the Center was a very beautiful and simple installation of unique clay bricks arranged creatively and spontaneously by Gail Heidel. Visitors are encouraged to take one brick home for free. Yoko Ono's participation projects and some of Ai Wei Wei works come to mind for similar free-giving projects.
The Shop at the CAC
Much of clay's history is brandished in our minds from it's lowly functional building roots. As a result it has been looked down upon for years for a variety of reasons. Clay is associated with craft and even the American Craft Musuem changed it's name to some MAD nonsense to run from the word. With the developement of abstraction and the search for a pure art ever since Malvich left the square white, function and usefullness has gotten a bad name and has been seen as a less lofty goal. O'Conner work is more functional than Dehnert's but both seem to be going beyond the functional or at least trying to add to mundane objects a touch of life, a touch of art. To me, it is even harder to embue a functional object with aesthetic measure because of the pull the functional has on our minds and its ability to stymie us from seeing beyond the function. It may be for just this reason that these potters and many like them have a tougher road to climb and thus a richer reward when they reach the zenith.
The Clay Arts Centers history predate me by three years-yes, it too is old; Founded in 1957 by Katherine Choy and Henry Okamoto it has grown to be the largest and most active clay center in Westchester County. Choy's passing in 1958 left Okamoto with the task of fulfilling his friend's vision. What has come of the vision of two people mostly carried out by one man? Today over 150 adults visit the center weekly for clay related programs plus hundreds of school children benefit weekly. Cuts in arts education have made institutions like the Clay Arts Center even more pivotal in the fight to keep art a part of education and not just a hobby item. Much like Agnes Gund's Studio in a School program in NYC plants artists in schools, the clay arts center has found a niche bringing pottery and clay to the local Portchester schools and more.
Today the work is carried on by a dedicated and friendly staff at the Clay Arts Center. Leigh Taylor Mickelson, the executive director is exceptionally friendly and warm. As I recalled a few artist I knew who worked in clay in Westchester I was glad to hear they were all familiar names to Mickelson. Five years ago they became a non-profit and as with all tall ships they must navigate new waters and evolve or be history. My money is on this place staying around for quite some time. With important clay woman like the vivacious and brilliant Judy Schwartz on board, they are set to sail and to explore the fathoms of the deep, rich and serious field of clay arts with a long history still being spun.
In Portchester, Hubba's currency covered walls and ceiling is one of the best surprise installations you'll find anywhere. Add incredible chili cheeseburgers and it may just be that mix of art and food you're looking for.
So take the train to Portchester, have a drink at the new beer garden by the station, eat at at one of the great (and yes cheap!) peruvian restaurants in town or chow down on one of Battalli's gourmet pizzas at Tarrylodge and then head over to the Clay Arts Center. Afterwards you can see some rockers turned grandparents at the newly reopened Capital theatre and then have a great chili cheeseburger at Hubbas or Texas Chili and enter the debate as to which is the best dive in town. If the sun has awoken before you slumbered head to the Kneaded Bread for some Chocolate Brioches or other morning pastries to start your go round once again on our little spinning blue ball.