SJSU SHINES AT CCACA

By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

Spring, 2007

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Bryan Yerian: Stack

In its 18th year, the California Conference for the Advancement of Ceramic Art in Sacramento has an interesting history. A production of the John Natsoulas Gallery, the conference brings together the clay-as-high-art-medium sensibilities which artists like co-founder Robert Arneson brought to the Northern California art scene in the 60’s and 70’s, and the legacies of U.C. Davis and U.C. Berkeley, as the art centers where Bay Area Funk met ceramics in that same period. An increasing number of California art schools, students and artists that work with clay participate every year. The schools occupy galleries and storefronts throughout the town of Davis for their own exhibitions. Other galleries as well, including the multistory Natsoulas Gallery, dedicate their entire space to ceramic art. Three days of lectures, conferences, demonstrations, and social events, many on the University campus, create an energized atmosphere of professional networking.

I had heard of the CCACA event for years, but this was my first year to attend. With only one day to take it all in, I had to miss the many evening receptions and such attractive lectures as those by Jim Melchert, Betty Woodman and David Kurakoa.

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Monica Van Den Dool: Supine

 

I headed straight for the John Natsoulas Gallery to see the biggest and most comprehensive survey of what is happening in ceramics. Some of the high-profile ceramic stars of recent history such as Richard Shaw, Arneson, and Glenn Takai were represented along with the work of artists like Roy de Forest, who is better known as a painter than for his work in clay. De Forest’s recent benches combine a functional outdoor park bench with his famous dogs as guardian end pieces. Other works I appreciated were — Victor Spinski’s Large Paint Box, Monica Van den Dool’s Supine, and Stan Welsh’s Pilgrim. Large Paint Box is one of a series of tromp l’oiel works by Spinski in which he shows the ceramic sculptor, working his clay, to be as adroit in fooling the eye as the painter with his paint. Similarly, Welsh’s Pilgrim seemed tragically and comically caught between the medium of clay and the flickering horizontal lines of an old-fashioned TV set. Van den Dool’s Supine seems to be a wry social comment on the degree to which we are like and different from, or even better than, the animals. Her androgynous, anthropomorphic, simian figure reclines, exhausted, on the back of a donkey who appears to be having the last laugh.

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Stan Welsh: Pilgrim

 

 

Too many pieces in this show — maybe in too many of the galleries participating — were not so fresh and exciting. A lot of the work had the slick, cute, vulgar, cartoony, figurative quality of what is seen in galleries that sell work to tourists in towns like Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Case in point: Brian Baker’s Chuck. A stiff, skinny caricature of a boy, with a cartoony face stands with legs apart, holding the classical cartoon version of a child’s sucker in one hand. He wears red tennies and a red cock’s comb hat. His shorts are down around his knees revealing his itty-bitty weenie.

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Shay Church: Grey Whale

 

The Natsoulas Gallery had an incredibly eclectic range of work. Along with the greats, the superficial and the corny, there was a stunning installation/performance work by Shay Church on the third floor balcony. Church’s Grey Whale was a sequel to a giant clay elephant he wedged into a very small gallery at San Jose State University in the Fall of 2006. His life-sized Davis whale was also constructed en situ, and crammed into a space big enough only for a scrunched-up baby whale. Church and his crew put it all together — matrix and exterior clay — on the opening day and night of the conference. It was made of clay Church found on the Internet and dug up in a San Francisco back yard, carried in buckets to the gallery, and daubed onto the skeleton of the whale. The whale remained a work-in-progress throughout the two following days, as a few modifications occurred and the clay dried, cracked and weathered. (The amazing arrival of wayward whales Delta and Dawn, up the Sacramento River, followed CCACA in May.)

As well as showcasing the ways that ceramic art functions traditionally and experimentally, CCACA has become a competitive site for academic programs in ceramics to strut their stuff. Next door to the Natsoulas Gallery were the exhibitions of ceramics students of Chico State and San Jose State Universities. San Jose State University was a participant in the beginning when there were only about six or seven schools at the conference. Now, among 30 participating schools, SJSU continues to set the bar for student work that shows at a professional level. As much as I had heard of the strength of SJSU’s ceramics program, I had to see this show to appreciate the conceptual and formal sophistication of the work.

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Shay Church: Undergrowth

 

 

In the San Jose State exhibition, Shay Church was represented by a gothic metamorphosis of brown forms that mesh clay, animal forms and the impression of wood. In Undergrowth, Church continues to explore the connection between animals and the earth. Undergrowth is constructed of terra cotta mixed by the artist. The base of this powerful piece shows itself as clay or perhaps stone on several sides, and then, as a plane of roughly hewn wood on one façade. Above, the large head of a wolf emerges, and from its neck, facing the opposite direction, springs the body, arched neck and head of a crane. Rising from their bodies and the sides of this mass are a forest of ragged tree trunks, charred at their tops, with limbs crudely severed. Some trunks have been cut summarily at their base. Are the animals being reborn from this ravaged landscape or are they equally deformed and doomed to extinction?

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Max Rain: Pig

 

Max Rain’s Pig is another work with as strong social message and a powerful impact. A magnificently realistic sow lies on her side displaying fourteen teats that run the length of her belly. The teats and nipples are modified, perhaps genetically or mechanically, to be suckled to maximum benefit by fourteen piglets that we may assume to be as tragically mechanized and controlled as she is. Her eyes are glazed. He entire belly, haunches, shoulders, legs, face and the inside of her ears, all are tattooed with the story of her life. Using shoe polish and latex, Rain has painted a detailed narrative of the farmer and his pigs giving way to the contemporary factory farm. Behind her ear she wears a dandelion and a banded dove flies out toward the viewer. Is she dreaming of a metaphorical escape from her servitude?

Hawaiian culture, up-for-sale and at risk, are the concerns of Gabe Toci, a Hawaiian native. Toci’s Encroach points to objectification of the alluring Hawaiian culture and its nearly invisible decline as it is consumed by a material culture that has arrived from other shores. On shelf upon shelf, are neatly placed, identical, white porcelain busts of a lovely young Hawaiian maid, head turned to flirt with the viewer, wearing a flower in her hair. As the consumer approaches to buy such a souvenir, he may not notice that at the margin of these seemingly endless figures, the youthful girl’s face has become that of death.

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Amanda Lynch: Girl with Golden Goose

Girl with Golden Goose is a child’s parable on a ceramic relief plaque by Amanda Lynch. A girl stands on the edge of the woods, barely into the trees through which we see rolling hills and some kind of stone border. She is in an awkward embrace with a goose. He has pulled her hair, and her frown suggests that he may be more than she bargained for. The landscape, its tree trunks, the girl and goose are painted with china paint. Someplace in the process Lynch also uses screen-printed decals. On the tree trunks are three-dimensional leaves and flowers that make the illusion of nature’s benign terrain all the more real. A lovely, decorative painting style adopted by Lynch is that of a 1950’s a children’s book. Somehow, this work is about the end of innocence for both the girl and an art historical epoch.

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Gustavo Martinez: Ginete/Lucha de Gallos

SJSU undergraduate, Gustavo Martinez says he may have finished with his series of bobble head figures. They exit the stage with a bang in the form of three life-sized mariachi busts. Ginete/Lucha de Gallos, which is seen in the CCACA show, adeptly captures the fascinating features of a weathered Mexican street musician — the often impassive facial expression, the hand gestures of a guitarist, his posture and costume. The Martinez mariachi is not a handsome young musician from the Mariachi Cobre, but a people’s musician, with heavy earthy hands, who has made his living on the streets for years, traveling with his small group of compa√±eros. That this is a humble figure, a little out of place in the rarified gallery setting, is further signified in the rough recycled wood crate-pedestals Martinez built for his mariachis. Lucha de Gallos (Cock Fight) refers to the embroidered scene on the back of the mariachi’s jacket, which Martinez gives us in relief and expressionistically painted color.

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Bryan Yerian: Tricycle

 

In the SJSU exhibition, Bryan Yerian shows two works that may reflect thoughts on his impending status as a father. Stack is a tower of child’s letter blocks that rises precariously to a height that a child could only achieve with a ladder. It has all the loose, slightly skewed stacking and random placement of individual blocks that a young child would allow, and an intuitive grace and charm, as well. Yerian’s Tricycle is even more amazing for its obviously smaller-than-life-sized scale combined with the appearance of fragility. Both works are the matte white of unpainted, unglazed slip cast. The slip is incomplete in places revealing that the forms are a hollow shell. No saccharin baby portraits could ever communicate the vulnerability of childhood, or a parent’s anxieties for their offspring, as well as these two moving works.

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Rachelle Kaldani: Ashna, Edna and Alma

 

Rachelle Kaldani’s small raku-mix figures are three lumpy older ladies from three ethnic backgrounds that we recognize. Glazed colorfully, Ashna, Edna and Alma are comic gossips, rendered in an honest, simple style recalling the figures of Viola Frey.

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Coleen Sidey: Disorder

 

Disorder is Coleen Sidey’s small parade of adolescent nurses, who, like Henry Darger’s little warrior girls are all carbon copies of each other but sport different facial expressions appropriate to their specific battles. Sidey’s nurses are made of low fire San Jose white clay, and all glazed in a d’rigeur hospital white. They busy themselves with the application of band-aids, blindfolds, and bindings on their mates’ mouths, feet and arms. Some are pouty or angry, some carry a neutral expression, but none appear to be very endearing little girls. Rather than playing “dress-up” in earnest, they seem to be unwilling recruits to the service of the sick. Anyone whose life has been suddenly redirected to the constant care needed by an aging or ill parent recognizes some of the feelings represented.

The San Jose State exhibition at CCACA was rich enough merit a lot of time engaging the work and contemplating the content. There were a few bright spots in the other shows representing academic programs, too, but for the most part they were full of clichés such as molds of female torsos or well-crafted but highly decorative vessels. Many works that attempted to address issues fell short. San Jose State, nevertheless, did an outstanding job of proving the potential for clay to carry a mature message and be seen primarily as sculpture. Further, the seriousness of the work gives momentum and credence to clay as a medium for the gravity of our time, taking us beyond the light-hearted years of Funk where it all began.

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