Clay Gulgong 2016: a novice guide (part 2)
It’s a rarity, in my re-embraced student life, for 9am Monday to find me sitting transfixed, listening to another. So last Monday at Clay Gulgong was testament to the impressive force that is Beth Cavener.
Beth is an American ceramicist who makes anthropomorphic animals on an extraordinary scale (see photo above). After watching Beth make, and speak about, her work over several sessions through the week (as all the Masters do regular demonstrations in addition to their scheduled artist talk) it is hard to say which is more impressive; her meticulous attention to detail or her unsparing honesty.
I had seen Beth’s work in reproduction and, I have to admit, I thought it was quite nice but maybe a little bit twee? I mean, what kind of person exclusively makes ceramic animals for over a decade? I definitely would’ve said, if asked, that it wasn’t really my cup of tea (if you’ll allow the awkwardly functionalist pun).
Which brings me to two of the best things about Clay Gulgong: (a) it challenges your aesthetic preconceptions by providing incredible access to the creative process and (b) it deepens your knowledge of the artist’s practice directly and sometimes intimately through (largely) no-bullshit talks.
Hearing Beth speak about her process was gripping both because she is a wondrously natural teacher and because her process is so extensive and intensive as to almost qualify as self-flagellation. Imagine, for instance, developing (though much trial and error) a lengthy method of low-firing so as to be able to bisque fire solid bags of clay and then opting to hallow out tonnes of clay to millimetres thick instead… before still firing in that same low-heat process anyway.
While much of Beth’s work has fairly immediately discernable messages (hello sweetly-entwined-homoerotic-goats-with-engorged-phalluses, what do you think about marriage equality?) what was fascinating was hearing about how her practice developed and how much of it stemmed from her own sexual insecurities. (I challenge anyone to look at the copulating rabbits in ‘A Necessary Delusion’ and not see it differently knowing it is a self-portrait of her and her then-husband). Jam-packed with both information and confession the talk ended with most of the audience on the edge of their seats, the words ‘do you want to be friends?’ on the tips of their tongues.
Alexandra Engelfriet’s talk also provided great insight into her fixation with self-immersion in clay. Interested in exploring the reversal of the assumption that one must master the clay, she looks instead to surrender to it while still impacting upon it. In practice this seems to involve a lot of writhing around and aggressive knee movements (definitely worse for your knees than squash this one). The scale of the work created through this process is immense; she uses many tonnes of clay and will sometimes work into that clay for several years to create the desired manipulation of the medium into all manner of furrows and crevasses.
Working in this way is both so personal to the medium and so removed from the audience that it was interesting to hear her discuss her struggle to document her process in a manner that would facilitate audience. Now utilising eye-opening film footage (the Go-Pro was made for this purpose) I also liked one of her early ideas to use ink and long reams of cloth to chart the movements of her body in the sand (these reams could then be easily displayed in gallery spaces).
Of course, with such a wealth of direct and information communication between artist and audience, it was probably not surprisingly that there was a whole panel discussion devoted to whether such exchange was really necessary at all. The two main themes emerging out of the panel seemed to be that (a) academia is a vampiric force sucking the slip from ceramic consideration and (b) that artists statements are defunct and should be tipped out with the leftover glaze.
While I empathise with the former sentiment (I am actually writing this in preference to, and avoidance of, my art history essay for I know already what a boring and long-winded affair it will be), it seemed unfair to so dump on academe without any right of reply given (academics are known to travel for free food).
Similarly, while condemnation of artist statements drew raucous applause from the audience, it was a shame the panel didn’t explore further why such statements are problematic. Two commonly cited issues are either that (a) the artist didn’t write it (so, speculation) or (b) the artist did write it but unfortunately can’t write (so, drivel). Neither of these issues, however, renders the artist statement superfluous in entirety.
As a rule, arguments for irrelevance of artist statements rest on the idea that the work should speak for itself. This seems inoffensive but – especially with abstract or conceptual art - may exclude the hordes who lack the necessary grounding in art appreciation but who could with more information appreciate the work displayed. The artist statement thus bridges the informational divide and negates that all too common reaction of ‘I just don’t get it’.
Or at least, a good artist statement does.
The fact that I am still thrumming through the issues discussed a week later does, however, suggest that the panel was of reasonable merit. What for it not to provoke such pondering?