Feats of Clay

by Susan Warmbrunn

Feats of Clay

The first ceramic sculpture to arrive for the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery’s new exhibit showed up packed in a custom-made crate, corralled with two-by-fours that ran flush against the artwork’s thick body. Standing a little over five feet high, John Mason’s Cross Form is almost as wide as it is tall and tips the scales at 1,640 pounds. In its crate, it looked like a bull crammed into a chute, ready to burst out.

Some of the pieces in Clay’s Tectonic Shift: John Mason, Ken Price, and Peter Voulkos, 1956-1968, through April 8 at the Williamson Gallery, are massive and extremely heavy. Cross Form had to be moved with a pallet jack and set in place with a two-ton gantry, a mechanical lift with a chain hoist more commonly used in a shipyard than an art gallery. Staging this exhibit demanded a combination of curatorial expertise, logistical prowess, and dockworker know-how.

Part of the Getty-orchestrated Pacific Standard Time kaleidoscope of shows, the exhibit focuses on ceramic artists Mason, Price, and Voulkos during a period when the three sent seismic shockwaves through the art world.

“We decided to look at the work of the three artists who turned away from the vessel and dedicated themselves to sculpture,” said Mary Davis MacNaughton ’70, director of the Williamson Gallery and associate professor of art history at Scripps College. “These three crossed the expected boundaries in studio ceramics of scale and mass and color. Voulkos and Mason worked on a large scale; Price worked small, but he created a powerful fusion of form and color. They gave younger artists permission to go beyond the perceived notions about what is possible in clay.”

At a time when many potters were making earthtone tableware, these artists challenged the rules, confuting the notion that ceramic work should only be a certain size, a certain color, and useful for supper. Mason used the floor as an easel to make walls and doors of clay. Voulkos pulled, piled, scraped, slapped, and harassed clay into abstract shapes. If he made a pot, he put it on rockers and riddled it with holes, creating a vessel perfectly unsuitable for soup. Price used “bright, brilliant saturated colors, evocative of what pop artists were doing,” said MacNaughton, who co-curated this show with Collections Manager Kirk Delman and Frank Lloyd of the Frank Lloyd Gallery in Santa Monica.

All three artists worked together in the ’50s. Voulkos was hired to head the ceramics department at the Otis College of Art and Design (then the Los Angeles County Art Institute) by Millard Sheets, the former chair of the Scripps’ art department who became the director of Otis in 1954. Paul Soldner, the innovator and artist who taught ceramics at Scripps for more than three decades, became Voulkos’s first student at Otis. Both Mason and Price ended up working in Voulkos’s studio at the school. As Voulkos and his students began making more experimental, expressionist works instead of shapely, symmetrical stoneware, he and Sheets developed irreconcilable creative differences. Voulkos left Otis in 1959 and shared a studio with Mason in L.A., where they built a cavernous kiln to fire their outsized work. Mason went on to teach at Pomona College in the 1960s.

MacNaughton has described some of Voulkos’s work as mirroring the mountainous landscape of his native Montana, all rough-hewn ravines and unsettled uplift. In the show’s catalog, MacNaughton writes: “Voulkos ramped up the scale and weight of his work to give it a powerful physicality that had not been seen in clay sculpture. Like Jackson Pollock, Voulkos understood that changing the scale meant changing the conversation.”

By changing the conversation, these artists “introduced a new vocabulary in the studio pottery tradition and ceramic art and art history,” Delman said. They also ensured that mounting an exhibit of their work would pose challenges as mammoth — and delicate — as some of the pieces in the show.

Flipping through the show’s catalog, Delman pointed to sculptures, like Mason’s Vertical Sculpture, Blonde and Voulkos’s Sitting Bull, which stand at least five feet tall, crafted out of burly clay. Photos can’t convey the full impact of this art, Delman said. They demand to be seen in person.

“The scale and mass really change when you’re standing in front of them,” he said.

Sizewise, Price’s works are on the other end of the spectrum. Although his color-saturated orbs might not weigh much, they’re worth a ton and easy to break. Price valued presentation and often built his own pedestals, said Delman, who studied sculpture at the Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University) and is an accomplished woodworker. Price posed another challenge for the gallery staff: how to best present fragile fine art in the neighborhood of the San Andreas Fault.

Delman and T Robert, a ceramic artist and installer at the gallery, built the pedestals for the show. For Price’s smaller pieces, they constructed tall stands with wide bases to discourage people from getting too close. They ordered 20 bags filled with 50 pounds of lead shot to stabilize the columns. The pedestals for the sumo-sized pieces were reinforced with steel plates. The gallery also has security measures in place throughout the exhibition.

The intricate installation came after years of intense planning. With support from the Getty Foundation, the gallery staff began plotting and piecing together this show in 2008. Asked about all the strategy and coordination that went into this show, Delman smiled and said, “That’s what galleries do.”

Most of the borrowed artwork arrived by mid- December. Some pieces traveled thousands of miles from museums such as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and, nearby, from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Rounding up the desired pieces from far-flung lenders demands both diplomatic and pragmatic skills. An art conservator examines each piece to make sure it can travel safely. Some lenders require a courier — a kind of art bodyguard — to travel with valuable work. Crates are often custom-built, sometimes costing thousands of dollars to construct. Condition reports are written up to ensure the artwork comes home in the same state it left in — much like a rental car agreement for a very valuable vehicle.

As part of the agreement for borrowing Mason’s Cross Form, which was outside at the Laumeier Sculpture Park in St. Louis for years, the gallery staff offered to conserve it, enlisting the help of those involved in Scripps’ unique art conservation program. Professional art conservator Donna Williams is overseeing the project, working with Wendy Lindsey ’11, a former Wilson intern at the gallery. Delman said they would start cleaning the 1,640-pound piece with homemade Q-tips dipped in deionized water, which sounds a little like giving a Brahman bull a sponge bath with cotton swabs.

Ultimately, seeing all the pieces gathered in the gallery reveals much about the artists who made them. Mason and Voulkos worked big, Price worked bright, and all three lived that way as well — throwing themselves into their art, making the most of the time they had, scraping as many hours out of the day as possible. They worked with relish, spontaneity, and sometimes abandon.

“‘Passion’ is an overused word these days, but they really did have this intensity,” MacNaughton said. “There was nothing tentative about them.”