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John Mason
Ken Price
Peter Voulkos
John Mason, Ken Price, Peter Voulkos
September 5-October 3, 1998
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At Frank Lloyd Gallery, a well-chosen group of major works and minor masterpieces by John Mason, Ken Price, and Peter Voulkos treats viewers to a legendary slice of art history. Even better, the 12 ceramic sculptures and vessels that make up this satisfying show still resonate today, confirming that although expectations about art constantly change, terrific works endure.

It isn't difficult to imagine the shocking, revolutionary impact the objects by these three members of the movement known as Otis Clay had when they were first shown in the 1950s and 60s. Almost single-handedly, Voulkos transformed ceramics from a utilitarian craft dedicated to the construction of handheld objects to a large-format art form whose ambitions and achievements equaled those of painting and sculpture. Mason and Price swiftly followed suit, confounding distinctions between the fine arts and the decorative arts by making uncategorizable works that appeared, simultaneously, to be both and neither.

The show's centerpiece is a pair of stoneware doors that were made in 1962 and served as the main entrance to the home of the late actor and art collector Sterling Holloway. At once decorative and functional, Mason's two-sided work has the presence of a three-dimensional painting that welcomes visitors by inviting them to walk though its picture-plane.

The doors' exterior consists of 48 sections, each about 1 foot square, whose organic architecture forms a richly textured relief that catches and reflects sunlight as it casts an ever-changing dance of shadows.

Suffused with a more primal type of vitality, Mason's "Untitled Vertical Sculpture" from 1960 has the presence of a pillar made of the living vertebrae of some powerful prehistoric creature. Likewise, the largest of Price's four pieces, a stout, dazzlingly glazed dome, combines the solidity of a fireplug with the menace of an overcrowded beehive. Through a small opening in its pockmarked surface appears a handful of wormy, serpentine forms that recall a nest of writhing snakes.

But for raw, daunting vigor, neither Price's sexy sculptures nor Mason's solid structures can match Voulkos' meaty works. Three tabletop pieces from the early 1960s compress so much physical punch into their compact formats that it's hard to believe that none measures more than 20 inches on a side.

A vaguely rectangular plate looks as if it had crashed to Earth like a meteorite, or was forged from twisted scraps of shrapnel. It has the forcefulness of much larger Abstract Expressionist paintings, but is free of the pretentious solemnity that quickly attached itself to that style.

An aggressively sexual vase seems more at home among cannonballs than blossoming flowers. And the third, untitled work, whose surface has the texture of a crude burlap sack, slumps casually on a shelf—as if lying in wait for the next unsuspecting viewer who prefers the utility of conventional crafts to the risky unpredictability of art.

From "Vessels of Change for a Once Solely Utilitarian Craft," by David Pagel. Los Angeles Times, Art Review, Friday, September 11, 1998.

It's common practice to distinguish the fine arts from design-related fields. Designers solve problems put forward by a client; fine artists invent their own. The designer's work is utilitarian and functional; the artist's is not. The designer's work must coordinate with the larger scheme of a living space; the fine art object is autonomous. Naturally, distinctions of this sort simply beg to be disputed, and a significant group of artists in Los Angeles have been doing just that. Jorge Pardo's work often looks a lot like furniture design; Jim Isermann produces handmade rugs, quilts, and textiles; Dave Muller mimics the work of graphic designers—yet all show their work in a fine art context. Their art has many historical precedents, but one that often gets overlooked is the experimentation with ceramics that took place in the mid nineteen fifties at Otis Art Institute.

Plates, pots, vases, and vessels of all sorts are the utilitarian raison d'être for ceramic art. Within this range of forms, the medium was shaped by the sort of domestic tastes that put those vessels to work, and in America in the nineteen fifties those tastes favored objects that were of humble aspirations and subtle execution. Upon this scene, the group known as Otis Clay arrived like a hand grenade lobbed into grandmother's china closet. Its members began producing muscular work whose ferocious sensuality challenged the expectation that ceramic wares should, like a good servant, know their place. To be told well, their story really requires the resources of a museum, but even a gallery exhibition of just three key figures—Peter Voulkos, John Mason, and Ken Price, is enough to set one's eyes and mind abuzz.

Voulkos's stoneware and porcelain Plate (1963) is composed of several flat sheets of clay roughly kneaded together. If it resembles a conventional plate at all, it's only because of the way the edges curl up, like a dry leaf, and because of the way some outcropping spurs could be used as handles. Serviceability, in other words, is treated as an aesthetic issue, not a literal one, with the object's functional attributes compared to a state of nature. It's easy to see how Voulkos was influenced by the Abstract Expressionist painters he had met earlier in his career, but that connection should not be overrated. Equally influential was the writing of Soetsu Yanagi, the seminal Japanese craft philosopher, whom the ceramicist had also met. Voulkos's work owes as much to the Asian values of guilelessness, simplicity, and material integrity as it does to the id-driven probings of expressionism.

Pottery meets sculpture in these objects, but pottery is not converted into sculpture. Instead, a dialectic is undertaken between terms from two fields: volume and mass, decoration and expression, pragmatism and aesthetics. Like Voulkos, Mason also invested clay with a certain "primitive" energy, but it's best to put that word in quotation marks because in his case primitivism reads more like a design motif than s shot of testosterone. His Untitled Doors (1962) are tiled with thick blocks of clay that create an ersatz rock formation. The "faux" quality may look a little naïve to modern sensibilities, but as an example of one era's tastes, it practically glows with energy.

For his part, Price appears to be completely aware of style as a language he can manipulate in his art, as is evident in an untitled piece from 1959. Basically a large, slouching cone, this object puts up a rough-hewn appearance which is only that—an appearance. Behind the imperfect form and crusty yellow-green glaze, viewers can detect a calculating mind and its calibrating effects: A small cavity opens onto the interior of the form, which looks as if it's filled with wormy shapes that create a slightly sickening but also subtly manipulative impression.

In many ways, it is Price's mannerism more than Voulkos's primal energy that characterizes this era, because he makes evident the conventions that these works ruptured, and without which they couldn't have meant so much. It's worth remembering that at some point in their careers all three artists were functional potters, well versed in such conventions. When their efforts cleared a new path for ceramics, that path led to work that could embrace the decorative nature of art because it addressed the social nature of decoration.

From "John Mason, Ken Price, Peter Voulkos," by
Carmen Iannaccone. Art Issues, November/December, 1998.