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Tashiko Takaezu
Large closed vessel

Edwin and Mary Scheier
Brown bowl with abstract decoration

Lolita Concho
Canteen with painted decoration
ca. 1980

Shoji Hamada
Plate with painted decoration

Adrian Saxe
Ampersand teapot

Raymon Elozua
Wireframe teapot #1
Golden Clay
by Jill Conner

"Great Pots: Contemporary Ceramics from Function to Fantasy," Feb. 14-June 1, 2003, at the Newark Museum, 49 Washington Street, Newark, N.J. 07102

A tightly constrained but nevertheless infinite universe awaits visitors to the current exhibition at the Newark Museum, "Great Pots: Contemporary Ceramics from Function to Fantasy." Via 175 examples of what the museum calls "artist-made studio ceramics," curator Ulysses Grant Dietz examines "what makes great pots." He begins with three divisions -- the beautiful pot, the useful pot and the wise pot -- and stays very much within the traditional parameters of the craft.

Several works in the show are typically rustic, embodying the earthen forms and textures that are usually associated with works of clay. Peter Voulkos, who is celebrated for semi-abstract works that play on notions of the functional vessel, is represented by a glazed plate so elemental in form and design -- a simple disc marked with curved finger-strokes -- that it melds the crude, organic nature of clay with a purely sculptural form.

Others seek ideal form in the spin of the potter's wheel. Tashiko Takaezu's recent stoneware vessels, large gourd-like forms coated in dark, rustic colors, function as abstract statements of the ceramist's art. A small porcelain sphere draped with white glaze, made in 1967, is intended to be held while playing upon one's desires and curiosity.

Several mid-century Asian ceramics each represent different material interpretations of Buddhist Zen. Fong Chow's plate made in the late 1950s represents iris motifs, which appear in the form of blue dots dripped upon the surface of an orange background. An appeal to the idea of perfection through form is reflected in Katherine Choy's white vase which is veiled with simple squares of red glaze.

Artists like Glen Lukens, Henry Varnum Poor and John Glick seem to synthesize a Zen esthetic with their formalistic Western artistic practices, as each one creates pieces which reveal the pursuit of either simplicity or painterly abstraction, using the application of glaze as a way to test the limits of the ceramics medium.

Many of the pots assert their strongly utilitarian form but also bear decoration that speaks to other artistic traditions and times. Vessels made by Edwin and Mary Scheier in 1948, for example, carry a stylish Picassoid design that is both primitivist and decorative. Shoji Hamada's plate from 1940-50, for example, has an rough, even brutalist presence, yet it is treated as a kind of canvas, and is painted mandala-like with a yellow blossom that looks as if it is descending gracefully through space, due to the lucidity of the glaze.

Additional works by Marvin Blackmore, Rose Gonzales, Rondina Huma and Lolita Concho pose as relics of a pre-Colonial era, moving the viewer through time as they attest to the historical significance that clay vessels have had within Native American cultures. Many of these works use intricate cubic and circular designs form intricate patterns which speak to an extinct mode of life.

Another small set of pots by the contemporary ceramist Betty Woodman, titled Three Egyptian Princesses, are also eclectic in both appearance and design, referencing both contemporary art and historical precedents.

Irony and humor also appear, especially within pots that were made in the late 20th century. Adrian Saxe's Ampersand Teapot toys with Western symbolism, imbuing function within the form of an overused conjunction. Visual illusion surfaces in David Regan's tureen from 1995 and causes the idea of the container to disappear beneath a pile of fish, moving the ceramic pot away from craft and more toward a decorative level.

Ruth Duckworth, Raymon Elozua and Robert Arneson successfully stake a claim to non-applied fine art with their interest in rendering the pot as an unusable object. For instance, a white vessel with two winged inserts clearly serves a sculptural purpose quite like Elozua's hollow Wireframe Teapot #1, which consists of small fragments of colored glaze hanging from a tangle of metal. Arneson disguises the container almost entirely within his sculpted self-portrait titled Huddle.

"Great Pots" strongly suggests that craft objects can be both materially and conceptually challenging, relying on the history and context of craft per se to take the medium out of itself. Clearly, the schism that exists between art and craft has evolved from an argument that based itself upon the value of particular art materials toward one that assesses how much an artist invests his or her creative self into the materials being worked with.

JILL CONNER writes art criticism for NYArts, Sculpture and Contemporary Magazine.