In 1988, when the artist Tony Marais took up a full-time teaching position at California State University, Long Beach, he was determined to broaden the appeal of ceramics, his medium of choice. He spread the word that if an artist was curious about working with clay, he would be happy to teach him how. Soon painters and sculptors accepted his offer of free studio space and the use of the school’s coveted ovens. In the summer, Marsh hosted up to 50 performers, all sharing tips – or, as the saying goes, “stealing from each other” – in a spirit of discovery.
Many of them, including Roger herman, Ruby Neri, Jennifer Rochlin and Sylvie Auvray, to name a few, have become some of the most exciting ceramicists working today and have helped cement SoCal as the epicenter of the increasingly demanded medium. Cherif Farrag, an emerging talent, was in residence at Long Beach while they were experimenting there and recalls, “My neck was tilted back all day looking at giants.”
Although ceramics have a long (albeit at times fragile) association with modern and contemporary art, from the prolific practice of Picasso to that based in New York Arlene shechetmastery of today, the medium is deeply linked to the Golden State. Several artists interviewed attribute it to influential art schools in the state, which have the real estate to house gas ovens capable of firing large-scale works; the dry climate also plays a role. But cultural history may be the dominant factor: over half a century ago, Viola Frey, Peter Voulkos, and Robert Arneson defied convention by working with clay and encouraged their students to explore the material. ancient and humble with the same imagination they would make out of metal or metal. Painting. “The entire state has worked hard since the 1960s to redefine what can be made of clay,” says Marsh.
For years, Herman adds, while ceramics were considered a mere “craft,” the outside world paid little attention to them. “Artists are always freer when there is no real market around,” he says, “and they can create without Big Brother looking at you. Herman, the longtime head of painting at UCLA (now retired) had little interest in ceramic making until a student offered to teach him how to throw a pot. Now he calls it “guilty pleasure”.
The current crop is an adventurous batch that thrives not only on the physicality of clay, but its inherent element of surprise as well.
Julia Haft-Candell explores what she calls the “tension between the known and the unknown”, sometimes glazing, baking and reglazing a piece 10 times to achieve the surface exactly to her liking. “I purposely use glazes with a bit of volatility, which aren’t completely predictable, because I want there to be things that I don’t have control over,” she says.
Farrag also compares the oven to “someone else” having a share in the outcome. He always has a pot in his studio, as many artists maintain a daily practice of drawing, but his inventions are wildly imaginative, with whimsical creatures and a jumble of salient details. “They go through the goofy-meter,” he says.
While some ceramists riff on vessels, others push the formal limits of clay. Neri, daughter of famous Bay Area sculptor Manuel Néri, is moving towards pure sculpture. On Zoom, she reveals a work in progress: a reclining woman, her breasts and legs pointed towards the sky. “My work is pretty sexual and sort of pop and very blonde,” she says. Painter with a background in graffiti, Neri is considered the first artist to use an airbrush and a paint gun for “drawing” with glaze. Her pieces often glow in pinks and yellows. “I think yellow is that hysterical color, almost like pure feminism.”
Aside from their very individual practices, Californian ceramists are also distinguished by their keen sense of community. Those who have their own ovens share, and Haft-Candell has opened a school in his workshop. “Right now I’m pulling Roger’s coins even though he doesn’t know I am,” Farrag says. “There is something family about all of this that is really heartfelt and sweet.”