I have to admit, I was not looking forward to another tiring object-specific pottery exhibition with an exorbitant number of mediocre cups in a curated popularity contest. AKAR’s annual Yunomi Invitational is much-anticipated in the pottery-maker and collector cultures and looking at this year’s exhibition, I began to realize that this actually has nothing to do with tea, history, or Japan (so I’ll spare you Wikipedia’s definition of Yunomi.). This show is a fascinating survey of American contemporary ceramics.
The Yunomi Invitational is the perfect showcase for potters and their work: a yunomi must perform an incredibly basic function within basic proportion parameters, the simple form showcases the proud trademark of each artist, it’s small enough to accommodate mass participation (for the maker and the venue.), and, finally, AKAR Gallery is respected in the field, so potters are actually excited to participate in the show. In fact, inclusion in the show equates to some strange potter-culture social currency, second only to your number of Instagram followers. What this phenomenon creates is the strange and perfect vacuum for a survey of contemporary American pottery. 190 potters are participating in this year’s invitational, which has brought into focus some interesting, grim, exciting, and strange trends. For this article, we have pulled out a selection of pots that represent the different thematic and aesthetic threads, but we’ll warn you… it’s not all pretty. At the end of the article, we have chosen our own CAN Best in Show picks for the 4 potters who included the most exquisite yunomi specimens – and they are beautiful!
First, as we all know, images-on-pots is a massive trend in U.S pottery. This in itself could have dedicated article and a large portion of the yunomi show was occupied by this genre. Within the genre, there are 3 main themes: people, animals, and machines/architecture. Maybe these artists struggled financially as 2D illustrators and turned to putting their pictures on cups to make a better living (pottery is more lucrative?), or maybe they are artists with an irresistible desire for practicality. In any event, image-on-clay is extremely difficult to do well and most of the examples in the pottery world are embarrassing. In this show, there are some real gems including Wes Harvey, Kyungmin Park, Matt Metz, and a stunning cup by Beth Lo.
The application of the image also has threads including decals, inlay, and painting. Oddly, a closely related genre to image-on-pot is the atmospheric work that paints with fire and glaze phenomena. While the illustrations are representations of things, people, and nature, the glaze crystalizing on Ellen Shankin’s cup or the flashing on Tim Rowan’s cup is non-representational – it literally is nature. The vessel’s primary function in both cases is a framing device for the image.
Anther trend comes from the fundamentalist potters. I guess, though, after thousands of year’s something stops being a trend and is just… a thing that always happens… but for laying out the taxonomy of contemporary U.S. pottery based on a cup show… we’ll call it a trend. I’m talking about the wood firers, celadon-lovers, and other atmosphere-heads who have contributed some beautiful pieces. John Neely is an always-outstanding master of craft and design, and Michael Hunt and Naomi Dalglish have the single best cup in the show (pictured below), hands down.
Anti-craft pottery is underrepresented in the Yumomi Invitational. We see hints of this school in cups by Mike Helke, Heesoo Lee, Greg Van Dusseldorp, and Beth Lo, but no one goes hardcore. Dumpy pottery is a massive trend right now in the fine art and design worlds and the pottery culture loathes and ignores it because they fear self-criticism, like many other oppressed minority cultures. After hundreds of years of being ignored by the fine arts world, pottery feels vulnerable and maintains a “we don’t need you anyway” attitude. This is understandable, but not progressive.
The last strong trend in the exhibition is patterning. This is another trend firmly rooted in history but seems to be more present now than in recent decades. Eman Abdulhalim and David Bolton seem to be at the far end of the pattern-train with an incredible precision and balance of line and form.
There are a handful of other smaller repeated ideas in the exhibition that are worth noting. There is a family of fractal surface work; iconic of Doug Peltzman and Didem Mert, a handful of work focused in drippy glaze; most notably a piece by Branan Mercer, and finally, the presence if humor and direct jokes within the work; like Rob Kolhouse’s “shit” cup illustration.
I’m not sure AKAR was aware that they were curating a survey of contemporary American pottery, and this may be how it was done so well. The ambitious scale of the exhibition and breadth of work was outstanding. In general, though, 1/3 of the work was bad. This is not uncommon for pottery exhibitions and the issue can be solved simply – Don’t award an exhibition to every person who winks at you at NCECA. The pottery culture is unique because you get to fall in love with the most incredible people in the world. It becomes extremely difficult not to veil pots with maker-personas, but it needs to be done for contemporary pottery to move forward. One of the biggest downfalls in the ceramic field is failing to recognize that good people can make bad pots. The second MASSIVE fallacy in ceramics (AKAR is guilty) is that thinking a gradated background makes pots look good – it does not. It did in the 80’s. Please use white.
As promised, the CAN Best in Show picks for AKAR’s Yunomi Invitational 2016 are Shoko Teruyama, Heesoo Lee, Mike Helke and Matt Kelleher. Every cup these artists included was outstanding. AKAR’s exhibit has been pretty well picked through by pottery collectors, but there are still some gorgeous pieces available in their shop.
Do you see any additional trends in contemporary U.S. pottery that we missed?? We want to know! Please tells us in the comments below. Cheers!