Watched Pots

B efore the telling of names, dates and other facts, before the presentation of insights and analyses, before the giving of credit where credit is due, curators of art exhibits should strive to do what Martina Droth, Glenn Adamson and Simon Olding have done: elicit an in-your-head or under-your-breath wow, an awe at first sight that opens you up right from the start.

Their show, displaying as of two weeks ago at the Yale Center for British Art, is “Things of Beauty Growing”: British Studio Pottery, and it’s a start of its own: the first dedicated ceramics exhibit the YCBA’s ever had. On the second floor, it begins with eight interpretations of the moon jar, a charming, historically Korean form named for the celestial object it visually and emotionally echoes. Having no established studio pottery traditions of their own, early British potters had to take their inspiration from other places and traditions, eventually adopting the moon jar as an icon.

But it’s not a sacred one; British potters today, at least, feel free to play with it. Of the eight examples at the YCBA, the first, the simply titled Moon Jar by Adam Buick, is simultaneously classic and contemporary—white, clean and carefully rounded with a clear ambition for geometrical perfection. It’s a worthy object but also a lone counterpoint to the flair and flamboyance of its neighbors, one of whom is like a harlequin’s heart with brushed and dripped veins and a gilded aorta. Farther over, two jars closely resembling actual moons appear to have blown their tops, oozing waxy periwinkle lava from their wounds.

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It’s just the beginning, but it foreshadows the stimulating variety that marks much of the rest of the exhibit. Co-curator Adamson writes in the companion book that the show is meant to comprise “a canon of forms” found in British studio pottery, not a “comprehensive history” or a “canon of makers.” Though many eras are represented and many major British potters make the cut—Bernard Leach, Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, to name a few—they’re folded into sections named and organized, indeed, by form: Vase, Bowl, Set (matching tableware), Vessel, Pot, Monument.

These rather elegant section names are on occasion more peculiar than they at first appear. Vessel, for example, was chosen to describe a collection of pieces mostly made during, or by artists who emerged during, the 1960s and ’70s—an era when some makers embraced that more elevated term in an attempt to delineate their work from common pottery. Naturally given the timing, this area of the exhibit includes modernists as well as “more radical” approaches incorporating “[optical] and pop art, textile patterns, even the geology from which clay ultimately derives,” a placard notes.

Swirled in soft lines of green, pink, espresso, cream, Rie’s “bottles with flaring lips” plump widely above the foot, curve back into a long slender stem, then wobble flatly outward like a pancake suspended mid-toss. Nearby, a trio of items by Coper sport organic stone textures, exactingly shaped in ways that recall, for this viewer anyway, the bombs dropped by planes during the World, Korean and Vietnam Wars. Creating a bit of a brain teaser, Elizabeth Fritsch’s Quantum Pocket II is tall, wide and thin. Leaning slightly back, it seems like it shouldn’t be able to stand the way it nevertheless does. Ribboned with black, Carol McNicoll’s zany Yellow Coffee Set embraces dysfunctional forms—sharp triangular mugs, an ill-fitting kettle cap, rough seams—against the inherently functional frame of serving a beverage.

Tension between form and function is a concern in many creative endeavors, but it seems especially central to ceramics. Of the sections named above, only one—Monument, where some of the exhibit’s most viscerally spectacular pieces reside—fails to entail a domestic function, and even many of the more experimental, statement-driven or simply exaggerated pieces on display could offer some sort of utility if called upon to do so. (A large modernist pitcher in the Monument section, colored like a cartoon watermelon and shaped like a handheld vacuum, comes to mind.) As a functional entity, a pot’s job is to hold things. As a formal one, its job is to hold your interest.

Halima Cassel’s Virtues of Unity—36 “hand-carved clay bodies” comprising the exhibit’s final installation—do the latter. Unique in design and color but not in style, creating a sense of both individuality and connectedness, each piece is made of clay sourced from a different location around the world—“from France to Cuba, the United States to Pakistan, New Zealand to Britain.” Arranged in dueling spectra, from brown to white and peach to burgundy, Cassel says they’re a metaphor for “the shared commonality of the human race… regardless of cultural background, religion or skin color.”

Like many of the items in “Things of Beauty Growing”, to view them is, in one sense or another, to see the world.

“Things of Beauty Growing”: British Studio Pottery
Yale Center for British Art – 1080 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm through 12/3
(203) 432-2800
www.britishart.yale.edu/exhibitions/…

Written by Dan Mims. Images provided courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art. Photos 2 and 7 by Richard Caspole.

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories, helped very much by a small team of dedicated contributors.

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