Los Angeles

“Clay Works In Progress”

ICA - Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

If I’d just blown in from out of town, I couldn’t think of a more foreboding set of exhibition conditions: the show is curated by the director’s spouse; it’s another noncommittal groupy begging the issue of who’s a good artist in favor of another tepid “theme”; it’s accompanied by more vapid argot like “due to the numerous potentialities [sic] inherent in the creative process and the experimental nature of the works in this show, some of the pieces were resolved in terms other than those proposed in the original concept of the exhibition” (translation: we had to make some changes); and it deals with—my God—“the impact of time in the field of ceramics” (impact?). Pity, therefore, the outsider who gets the “fact sheet” and decides to kiss off “Clay Works in Progress.” It’s the best show the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art has done. With the exception of Hal Glicksman’s “Assemblage” show, a weird, Granny’s-attic trip back to the halcyon days of Herms and Berman, and clogged up with every more-is-better artist doomed to the John Doe File—in short, a terrific, unprofound aberration—LAICA’s exhibition program hasn’t set the art world on fire. But now they’ve done it—used the noncommercial purpose, the cementy spaciousness of premises (which reaches out, in the summer, to the Antonioni-like desertion of that overbuilt and underpopulated metropolis o’ the future, Century City), and the peculiarly Southern California link between a wing of one craft, ceramics, and art qua art, to put on a show of curatorial insight and nifty staging.

The pièce de résistance is Larry Shep’s big pie, a fat oval slip poured/spread out on the floor; as the exhibition continues, the thing shrinks, cracking like the hot side of Mercury. Is that it? Sure, that’s it, and with deft placement, and a crisp format to begin with, that’s enough. Tom McMillin’s “rammed earth piece” comes close to Shep’s: a trapezoidal solid of variously composed layers of earth, glued as it were with adobe clay. Its ongoing erosion is supposed to say something about “pollution and destruction of life around the continental shelf” eventually affecting “all life on earth”—a sentiment most likely sincerely felt, but scarcely effective propaganda in this form. It’s much better as a piece of sculpture which inadvertently says the big diggings for the Foothill Freeway are beautiful if you look at ’em right. George Geyer’s work is the pleasant middle run of the show’s overall tenor:

The “kiln shelf piece” (20' long and 18' high) is about a static material juxtaposed with a wet clay body that will change when contacting air. The use of a plastic covering slows down the drying process from two to approximately six weeks. This allows us to gradually experience the changes taking place. The clay, as it dries, shrinks away from the kiln shelves producing stress and cracking. The “water tank pieces” exhibit the subtle changes clay goes through as water effects it over a period of time. The clay particalizes and slakes quickly in the first couple of days . . .

And so on. The other two artists, Tom Colgrove and Roger Sweet make, respectively, sheets of glass buttressed by damp, piled clay which gradually collapses, allowing the glass to open, and steel-banded plaster box molds which allow the contained slip to leak at different rates and, subsequently, form dry, peeling “puddles” on the floor.

You can’t help notice, however, that all this didacticism, so instructionally innocent of post-Minimal pretensions, just happens to look a lot like Laddie Dill, Keith Sonnier, John Mason, and, if anyone, Robert Smithson. Is the “behavior of clay” demo just a cover for another spate of derivative Process sculpture, or are copies of The New Avant-Garde getting slipped in with teachers’ copies of Craft Horizons? A little of both, I think, and I wish they’d not be so ashamed of the former. What the hell’s wrong with an out-front “Smithson taught us that the raw stuff could be good-looking sculpture, so we went out and made some more”? “Clay Works” is good enough to stand as “Five Sculptors,” period. It’s even solid notice that LAICA is now the sole serious noncommercial museum-quality contemporary art operation in the whole damned basin. If it’s environmental activism we want, that battle’s out there with the ’dozers, and maybe that’s where the counteroffensive art ought to be too.

Peter Plagens