Book Review – Utopic Impulses: Contemporary Ceramics Practice

Chambers, Ruth, Gogarty, Amy and Perron, Mirielle editors,

UTOPIC IMPULSES: Contemporary Ceramics Practice.

Vancouver, Canada. Ronsdale Press, 2007. 302pp., 40 colour plates, biographies, index.

Paperback, Can/US $26.95.

Reviewed by Moyra Elliott.

The book is divided into two parts. The first offers ten Critical Essays in three categories: Explicating Histories, Generating Theory and Performing Activism. The second part encompasses an anthology of Artist Projects that cover: Strategic Activism, Social Activism, Critical Domesticity, Remediation, Dynamics of Process and Systems of Knowledge. Following the introduction written by the editors, the essays in the Critical Essays section are all written by artists who, in the editors words, ‘believe that their histories, theories and activities are too important to be left only to other specialists to record’. The twenty Artist’s Projects under the six headings reflect the editors’ selections from a wide range of projects that invite dialogue with the work so as to ‘learn to inhabit the world in a better way’. Uplifting? Yup. Utopian? Yes of course. Science Fiction? I don’t think so.

The title tells you much. The book is a compendium of contemporary ceramics practice; practices that are in themselves idealistic in some sense or other. Principally Canadian in origin there are also inclusions from Great Britain, Ireland and Australia. As a reader from far away in New Zealand who has never visited Canada but with some, rather limited, knowledge of the ceramics there, I had some appreciation of the similarities between our two countries – despite the size differences – and of the histories in clay that have the same grounding within the functional and later movements into the conceptual. After reading this book, I also acquired some understanding of the benefits of a viable education system in ceramics based upon American models instead of our own (now pretty defunct) version founded within a miscarried British system.

The initial group of five essays presented a range under the title Explicating Histories and aimed to unravel histories that have been overlooked or misconstrued.  The group began with one on Walter Ostrom, of whom I had some knowledge, and his students, of whom I had little, at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design – now renamed NSCAD University. The essay, by Naomi Clement, offered greater depth and some illuminating insights into a department of education, its teachers and alumni, which, over some forty years, built a tradition of honouring function, as both physical attribute and philosophical stance. This tradition was founded on the notion that well made and decorated pottery can carry as much significance and conceptual weight as any other ceramic. The confluence of teachers and students over years and what was forged by this became a NASCAD style – a recognisable way of dealing with form and surface originating within Ostrom’s beliefs and continued by many of his students The NSCAD style has clearly not simply been a way of making pots with the characteristic folding and darting, cutting and pasting but has been about forging a community that upholds fundamental principles like sharing and nurturing the following generation. This was an illustrative start to the book and one which underlined the premise.

If the first essay was uplifting the next plunged me into despair in places. A discussion on landscape and identity within ceramic expression, I began it with interest as I anticipated that I’d find reciprocities with my own national situation. There are indeed correspondences where our respective histories were conterminous it was a difficult essay to read as there were too many names, places and events particular to Canada for an international reader. While I think we have similar official histories around professional institutions, without that insider’s knowledge it became a frustratingly stop/start affair. I thought my reaction might have been a tad hasty but when I counted two pages of explanatory notes and something like seventy citations/footnotes for the seventeen page essay, I decided not.

The Brown Pot and the White Cube, by Paul Mathieu, was however an essay anyone with an appreciation of pots could enjoy and savour. It’s a celebration of an exhibition of Leachean, quietist palette, cone ten down, unassuming, robust pots displayed in O’Doherty’s ‘neutral’ space. Mathieu wanders lyrically through that ideological space, discursively presenting arguments about how such objects, born of utopian lifestyles and hopes, operate within contemporary culture; how they generate parallels with avant-garde art; are in themselves conceptual art. Then, how these pots failed, ideologically, socially and economically, and why; then how and why they succeed, aesthetically. This is an essay I shall return to and mine, time and again. And, only four explanatory notes and no citations! This is a superb essay and I am sure , one that will enter many anthologies.

The next essay in the first section was one from Ireland on the origins and evolution of Irish Studio Ceramics of the Twentieth Century. Michael Moore begins by explaining that the thrust of Irish cultural history has been verbal. And when you think about all those poets and novelists, those musicians and singers, it’s easy to comprehend his concern for a small section of Ireland’s material culture. So he wrote it down. As inhabitant of another island nation I could understand that transporting culture is best done orally when emigration is undertaken. The Polynesians of our part of the world did the same, taking their stories and leaving their pots with their ancestors. Moore reflects that their education system now makes provision for the hope that in the new century ceramics in Ireland ‘will define itself as a new movement in the applied arts’. All very fine but it was difficult to find its relevance in this book.

The completion of the section on histories is a tour de force of primary research by Leopold Foulem on some origins of Picasso’s ceramics. I wondered in places if this was actually originally designed  to be accompanied by a PowerPoint or other visual expansion as, while finding the text engaging, I might have found it more so had it been illustrated some way, here and there. An image is worth a thousand words. Nevertheless, Foulem’s premise that Picasso had been looking, all along, at certain books on ceramics while conceiving his own works in clay and that his understanding of ceramics’ specificities led to his revolutionary objects, gathers credence within this accomplished work.

What was of particular interest for me, as I read through the historical essays, was that these were from writers not only knowledgeable on ceramics. There are insights in these texts that could only come from someone who knows, and cares about, how to make a pot. From Moore asking if he didn’t write, who would? And time was running out. Mathieu’s affection for, and understanding of the complex difficulties involved in making something so apparently straightforward as those small brown pots.  Foulem’s analyses of Picasso’s working and thinking, is from someone deeply immersed in making processes and demonstrates insights only someone who knows how to manipulate clay could make. I was reminded of a photographer who once explained to me how the paintings of Vermeer and Holbein could only have looked the way they did via the painters’ use of camera obscura. Something only a comprehensively well-educated photographer could recognise. So it is with these insights.

The next section is on theory. While each is very different, the three essays make useful additions to the currently rapidly growing numbers of discourses around craft practices. Amy Gogarty offers a well-argued extrapolation from one mode of critique into an examination of its relevance for contemporary craft using some interesting and lucid examples. Paul Mathieu, in his second essay for the compendium, discusses a re-examination of the role of the handmade object within various theatres of the visual and offers definitions that are cogently, engagingly nourishing for readers embedded within ceramics while making a case for a theory for handmade objects within culture. A different examination of the positioning of studio ceramics within the ‘ebb and flow of a postmodern era’ is made by Penelope Kokkinos. She posits that many ceramic objects are ‘transitional’, symbolically representing bodily experiences, and uses a number of makers, as well as her own work to illustrate this fluidity of contemporary ceramics.

The final section of essays provides case studies of socially engaged work. The first seeks meaningful ways to honour memories of tragic events in history by constructing ‘participatory architectural ceramics’. The participatory mural where many make contributions is something not unusual in communities in many parts of the world. In this case it involved histories unknown to me – Metis, First Nations, East European, French and English ancestry, all clearly politically charged. Coming from another colonial structure that also includes a rich variety of cultures, some remembered and some still very much living, I found Judy McNaughton’s essay thoroughly absorbing.  Nicole Burisch also finds ways in which craft, in her case knitting and ceramics, can engage social and political issues via sustainable, ethical means. Meanings come as much through how something is made as well as the content expressed through the work which ranges from subversion to ‘constructive revolution’. I personally cherished the ‘random acts of pottery’!

Finally, I turn to the Artist Projects which number twenty under categories listed at the beginning of this review. Written mainly by the artists concerned, some are expressively individual while others are third person reportage. It matters not, as every project is recounted with brevity, well illustrated and engages the reader with socio-political content rather than writing style. Some artists whose projects are covered in the earlier essays are here given the opportunity to further explicate their work. The range is impressive and covers object making to installation, performance to digital media, and the expansively international to the diffidently personal. Ceramics can be central or peripheral.

Some of those included are:

Replacing urban decay, in the form of damaged sidewalk curbs, with more expensive and decorative ceramic covers for the missing bits, questions values within public spaces. (Christchurch take note)

Making enough bricks to build one home points out abjectly inhuman discrepancies between relative costs for labour and production, between a bonded labour market like Pakistan and the ‘fair’ market in Canada.

The residency programme at Medalta, (where Paul Maseyk was recently) that allows international artists common ground for work experience in a culture of philosophical exchange so that ideas can be evaluated from a breadth of perspectives.

An artist’s project in the guise of a census around a unique industrial ceramic history that invokes recreation of the ceramic historical plaque, often found beside front doors explicating histories of former or current residents within the building.

A conflation of classical forms and universal symbols raises issues of identity with captivating objects as result.

And more…

Ceramics as socially responsible practice is explored from many perspectives in this thoughtfully edited compilation of essays and projects. Issues and discourses on history, critical theory, professional and studio practice are brought together to make an engaging and challenging anthology that encompasses culture, science, technology, process, aesthetics, tradition and innovation. While principally sourced in Canada, this has international appeal. Here and there a little interpretation for the international reader may have helped clarify but this is a small issue when accounted within the comprehensive cover given these texts and ideas. Beautifully illustrated and well designed the volume is large and heavy with good paper – as an object it is as worthy as its subject matter!

The local and global concerns expanded upon here are issues for every country, with some stake in contemporary ceramics, to place under consideration for they demand active interpretation and participation. There are concepts here that can apply to many other regions where the preservation of cultural knowledge, diversity within contemporary practice and an appreciation of ethical, socially based approaches to art are valued. This is a book stocked with some fine writing and even better ideas, deserving of time spent and many revisits.

The editors, Ruth Chambers, Amy Gogarty and Mirielle Perron combine experience as educators, writers and visual artists. Chambers is Associate Professor of Visual Arts/Ceramics and Associate Dean of Fine Arts at the University of Regina. Perron teaches visual arts history, theory and studio at ACAD (Alberta College of Art and Design) in Calgary. Gogarty recently relocated to Vancouver after teaching at ACAD for sixteen years and works as an artist and researcher. Additionally, each editor contributes an essay or project to the anthology.

My copy came as a review copy but get it through Fishpond.



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4 responses to “Book Review – Utopic Impulses: Contemporary Ceramics Practice

  1. Cheryl Lucas

    Will have to get this book! I get the impression that it comes without images…. I enjoyed reading this review – particularly interested in the artist’s projects section but all sections sound interesting. thank you.

  2. Cheryl Lucas

    Further to my comment yesterday, I apologize for not reading the introductory piece properly and therefore thinking the book may not contain images……” 40 colour plates”…..wonderful.

  3. A very comprehensive and useful review.

  4. Amy Gogarty

    Hello Moyra,
    I remember well when we were corresponding about this review, but I did not
    ever see it until my friend and co-editor, Mireille Perron, sent me the link to this blog. I have signed up to receive notices of new posts as it is always interesting to us in Canada to read about “down under.”
    The review is a wonderful, thoughtful and very extensive –we could not
    ask for anything more. Thank you very much for giving it such careful
    attention. I especially like that you singled out a few essays by the
    younger writers. That is very encouraging for them. And we really appreciate you making us more aware of how a book functions internationally. We were so focused on our immediate Canadian audience and hadn’t really dreamed that people outside of Canada would be interested. Your points about certain artists, institutions etc.being obscure to outside readers is very important, and something we will keep in mind if we do another anthology (??? Are we masochistic enough?? )
    Reviews like this remind us of why we put in all the work, and what a
    pleasure it is when someone reads and appreciates it!
    Thank you again, if belatedly, and all the best on your many projects and accomplishments.
    best, amy gogarty

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