"Ceramics have long occupied the sidelines of modern art practice," reads the opening sentence of curator Allison Glass's essay for SFMOMA's current New Work exhibition. While the exhibition makes an effort to nullify past disregard of the medium, using this as the starting framework unfortunately places the viewer within its constraints, undermining the work with the same marginalization it claims to leave behind.
Undeniably, the ceramic works of Tiago Carneiro da Cunha and Klara Kristalova are strange and evocative. Kristalova's fragile child-sized figures enact dark fairytale narratives and Carneiro da Cunha's smaller sculptures are messily bawdy, demonstrating a gleeful lack of restraint in their making.
Klara Kristalova, "The Catastrophe"
In Kristalova's The Catastrophe, black liquid pours out of the ears and mouth of a pale, slightly surprised child, pooling around his torso, submerging his arms above the wrists. The figure resembles an unfortunate victim from an Edward Gorey drawing. His ceramic companions don't fare much better. Calamity strikes them most noticeably on the head: Kristalova depicts children with donkey heads, owl heads, butterfly-covered heads, bag-covered heads, blindfolded, and screaming.
Klara Kristalova, "She's Got a Good Head"
Carneiro da Cunha's work is no less unsettling, though at least his figures, while they may be drawn from a child's interests, depict fully-grown creatures. Homem de Lama Grande (Large Mudman) calls to mind a swamp thing or the villain in a Scooby Doo cartoon. Bright purple and gold streams of glaze begin at the peak of his head, cascading down to his furry, drippy arms. Many of Carneiro da Cunha's figures hold their arms outstretched, some in the pose of a beggar, others grasping weapons. Mouths agape, they enact violent and menacing situations heightened by the painterly effect of the running glazes.
After gleaning all I could as an average viewer, I wondered if the exhibition differs through the eyes of a ceramicist. I visited a second time with the artist Carlos Ramirez, a self-admitted "ceramics nerd." He noticed plays on form and some of the more technical elements of glazing, but all in all, his experience was markedly similar to mine. Where our understanding of the exhibition differed significantly, however, was in the historical contextualization offered by the wall text.
Tiago Carneiro da Cunha, "Homem de Lama Grande (Large Mudman)"
Ramirez was quick to notice that just outside the New Work gallery stands Robert Arneson's California Artist (1982), a prime representation of Funk Art. This movement, a reaction to Abstract Expressionism, used familiar forms humorously to engage more directly with social issues and argue against the premise that art objects require aesthetic perfection. Specifically, ceramics within this movement lack a utilitarian purpose, extending from portraiture to visual jokes on household objects.
"The Funk artists were approaching their work with the same aesthetics as the New Work artists seem to be -- imperfect, muddled, sloppy," says Ramirez. "They blew away this whole notion [of perfection] if it was even there in the first place. One could also argue that Peter Voulkos did that before the Funk artists as well." To Ramirez, the conversation currently taking place in contemporary ceramics is significantly beyond what Glass proposes.
Its presence at SFMOMA already positions this New Work exhibition within a 'high art' context. So why is it necessary for Glass to point out that Carneiro da Cunha and Kristalova "intentionally invoke the aesthetics of outsider art or craft projects?" This explanation -- it's okay, they made it this way on purpose, we know -- places the artists' intentions at the forefront and thereby minimizes the freedom a viewer has to come to his or her own decisions regarding the work.
When I first entered the New Work gallery, I saw contemporary art, not ceramic art, not outsider art, not craft projects. It is unfortunate that the exhibition itself would seek to pigeonhole my reception of its contents. I suggest visiting New Work: Tiago Carneiro da Cunha and Klara Kristalova without the aid of the wall text or the handout. Simply enjoy the opportunity to view contemporary ceramics in your city's art museum and follow the artists' cue to dream darkly, with unexpected and tantalizing results.
New Work: Tiago Carneiro da Cunha and Klara Kristalova is on view through October 30, 2011. For more information visit sfmoma.org.