San Francisco

“Work in Clay by Six Artists”

San Francisco Art Institute

In any environment, artistic, literary or scientific, the general level of its insights, intuitions and awareness—its total sensibility, is altered and shaped by a few key minds who open the pathways from the past and present, to the future. This exhibition could well be thought of as an homage to Peter Voulkos, since it was his direct attack (together with John Mason), that smashed, several years ago, the longstanding ossified craft approach to the use of fired and glazed clay forms. Voulkos opened the use of this medium to the chain reaction of current ideas in contemporary American art, shaping also the possibility of this exhibition. Note that five of the participating artists were directly and indirectly his students, the exception being Manuel Neri, a mature and talented sculptor in his own right.

Any consideration of the work exhibited should be for its value as art within an existing framework, rather than for any novelty as ceramics. To do less than that would be to return it to its original narrow parochial status. Viewed in this light Ann Stockton’s delicate and sensitive decorated plates and vases remain decorative, and at the same time, repeat an earlier phase of Voulkos’ vision before he broke through to a more sculptural use of the medium. Ron Nagle, formerly a jeweler, brings a jeweler’s vision and scale to his small decorative cups, but he also uses a popular art framework in his “tombstones.” Notwithstanding their external references and symbols they are without the deep touch that is needed to remove his work from the realm of decoration into that of art. Manuel Neri, as usual, brings his own unique touch and vision into play with his weird drooping and squeezed loops of brightly colored entrail-forms.

Ricardo Gomez, James Melchert and Stephen de Staebler bring a strong sculptural feeling to their work. Gomez makes austere and severe constructions of simple forms. Melchert’s largest piece, a rugged and massive fired clay form was originally intended to be displayed vertically and would probably have come off better in that position rather than the floor platform on which it was finally displayed. Probably the most potent piece in the exhibition is Melchert’s four-foot long horizontal pot.

The process of forcing this medium into new paths and utilizing it in as unacademic a manner as possible is one that has been common to all contemporary art for the past half century and is no longer a particular virtue: a good enough reason for Peter Voulkos, having done this, to push on to wider horizons in sculpture.

John Coplans