Nov 10

Critical Ceramics Hibernates


Critical Ceramics is going into virtual hibernation. When it started, years before the invention of the word “blog,” Critical Ceramics was the only thing of it’s kind. In today’s online world, there are many offerings of similar scope.

I’d like to thank all of the readers and contributors from over the years. You all made the efforts well worth while.

The Critical Ceramics archive is available here: http://www.criticalceramics.org/oldsite/


Forrest Snyder

Editor and Founder

Mar 10

Images as Rhetoric: The Familiar Unknown

Any depiction, literary or visual, may be thought of as dichotomous. A system consisting of the depiction and the depicted. In a standard depiction, these two parts have a direct relationship. A photo of a car and the word “car” are both representations of a car. Of course, this relationship need not be literal.  A car can  be described as a rust bucket. There is no literal, direct, meaning — neither a bucket filled with rust nor a rusty bucket. Both are commonly understood to mean a car.  In literary terms, such relationships, these plays on words, are known as tropes.

Twentieth Century Philosopher Kenneth Burke identified four main tropes, or plays on words, used to define literary objects: metaphor, synecdoche, metonymy and irony. Metaphor, of course, defines an object through a comparison to another object. Synecdoche uses an element of the object to describe the whole — or the whole to describe a part, such as “wheels” meaning a “car.” In the case of metonymy, an attribute or characteristic of the object is used to identify the whole, calling a business man a “suit,” for instance. Finally, irony describes an object with something that can generate two contradictory meanings.  This type of play is not exclusive to literary depictions. So it is that visual tropes resonate in Contemporary Ceramics: The Familiar Unknown (Blue Star Contemporary Art Center, San Antonio, Texas, December 3, 2009 – February 13, 2010), the work of four artists, Anne Drew Potter, Rebecca Hutchinson, Susan Breiner, and Rebekah Bogard.

Big Baby, Anne Drew Potter, 2009

"Big Baby" by Anne Drew Potter, 2009, Ceramic and Cloth

The Familiar Unknown’s most provocative image is that by Anne Drew Potter. Her piece Big Baby is a work with multiple and complex narratives. This work comprises of two figures. The dominant figure is a deformed image of a baby glazed in shiny vibrant yellow. Potter drastically foreshortened the figure’s arms and legs, and articulates an obese, protruding belly; resulting in a figure that has the proportions of stuffed turkey carcass. Opposite this figure is a smaller, ivory colored baby. Made from stuffed cloth it has far less detail. It is tumbled on its side. This figure is a foil for the yellow tot. He sits there, arms wide, an open mouth grin on his face; given the context, the primary figure reads as having a sadistic grimace. Potter’s choice of yellow to color the larger figure generates many associations, Ming Dynasty imperial ceramic porcelains, the color of jaundice, a figurative reference to cowardice, a derogatory word for Asians. The viewer’s comparison a contrasting of these allusions is tantamount to a visual metaphor. The genius of Big Baby is its discordant nature. The human mind wants to build connection, see patterns, but the allusions Potter generates clash like bumper cars.

Sile Bloom, Rebecca Hutchinson, 2009, Mixed Media

"Sile Bloom" by Rebecca Hutchinson, 2009, Clay and mixed media.

Rebecca Hutchinson’s installation, Sile Bloom,  is distinctly non-illusionary.  She painstakingly constructs her large site specific installations by dipping hand made paper into porcelain slip and then folds, rolls and weaves the paper with sticks and twigs into large hollow forms. They are too large and monochromatic to be illusions. They are metonymic images. Sile Bloom does not mimic the appearance of its subject as much as it appropriates the physics. While they do not have a shared appearance, the forms share physical qualities. They do not look like, but they are like. They are engineered for some kind of function — seducing a humming bird or protecting a body. At the same time, Hutchinson’s work alludes to the physical forces found in nature, sun, wind, and gravity. To bring this to the fore, Hutchinson uncannily repeats a chaotic geometry. It is this geometry of fluctuating between chaos and intent that Hutchinson captures. Her works defined by each idiosyncratic fold or roll of paper or drip of slip. Like nature, the works are ethereal; with time, decomposing first into slip and paper pulp and eventually into dirt, the foundational element for another artwork.

Synthetic Stems and Synthetic Reality

"Synthetic Stems" and "Synthetic Reality" by Susan Beiner, 2009, Ceramic and Mixed Media

"Synthetic Reality" detail, 2009, Susan Beiner

"Synthetic Reality" detail by Susan Beiner, 2009, Ceramic and Mixed Media

Perhaps the most common of tropes in visual expression is a synecdoche. They often manifest themselves as visual keys — a stylized knife and fork representing a restaurant on a map, for example. The image thus mutates into a symbol and is read more then viewed. This dynamic permeates Susan Beiner’s two contributions to The Familiar Unknown, Synthetic Reality and Synthetic Stems. Both depict a menagerie of flowers and leaves. The first, Synthetic Reality, is a luscious cascade of watery greens, pinks and blues punctuated by fields of opaque matt turquoise. Synthetic Stems is comprised of clusters of orbs stacked into long rods and flower forms set on semi orb bases.  Like symbols providing meaning on a map, her works are stylized. The bulbs are simple, the stems no more than elongated clay shafts punctuated with orbs. The most fanciful elements are large stuffed vinyl pink and yellow flowers, looking nothing like flowers, but are read as such, nonetheless.

Beiner reinforces synecdoche by making it clear that her installation is made of connected sections, parts of a larger whole. In both works, collections of smaller works are arranged together. This allows for her works to be condensed or expanded as need. Throughout, black lines and puddles lace and pool. This metaphor is overwrought, the black indelible pollution. Unfortunately, her hackneyed and heavy-handed approach seems out of character, failing to resonate with the indulgent baroque formal quality of her work.

Love and Leisure Series, 2009, Rebekah Bogard

"Distract Me", "Your Heart's Desire", "A New Romance" (Love and Leisure Series) by Rebekah Bogard, 2009, Ceramic

Love and Leisure Series, 2009, Rebekah Bogard

"Distract Me", "Your Heart's Desire", "A New Romance" (Love and Leisure Series) detail by Rebekah Bogard, 2009, Ceramic

Irony stands at the core of Rebekah Bogard’s Love and Leisure Series installation. Three figurative groupings comprise the work. All three are set on brightly hue flattened orbs. One shows a fawn like creature licking its Aubrey Beardsley proportioned tail-penis. Another depicts a winged slug bending over and eating. The third pairs two doe like forms set to begin copulating. Intermingled among these pieces are stacked orbs that look like painted snowmen. Furthermore, Bogard litters the Love and Leisure Series with pink and purple butterflies. The effect is unsettling — a surreal hybrid world of Hasbro and Hustler.

With recognized irony, Rebekah Bogard appropriates visual queues commonly used to promote both children’s toys and pornography. Like all good irony, it’s unsettling how many of the abstractions are shared between these two assumedly opposites, both turning our world plastic. Although their common visual language eliminates the annoyances of our natural world, the ends are completely different. Thus, Bogard shows us a caustic and subversive irony.

Like words, a visual vocabulary gains meaning through implication and allusion. Sometimes those meanings result from illustration — a painting of a tree. Others gain meaning through comparison, while others give us the whole by emphasizing a part; still others represent two entities by having one as a symbol of an essential quality of the other. Finally, images can even represent two contradictory things at once. Like any phenomena assigned meaning, all tropes exist because of the human mind, its logic, emotion, and vast unplumbed depths. Ultimately, this is the appeal of The Familiar Unknown.


Tony Merino has published internationally and gives lectures on ceramic art, criticism and critical theory.

All Photographs by Emily R. Barker

Blue Star Art Center
116 Blue Star
San Antonio, TX 78204

Sep 09

Agenda, Content Driven Ceramics

Agenda, Content Driven Ceramics
April 7 – 11, 2009
University of Arizona
Medical Campus
550 E. Van Buren Street
Phoenix, AZ

One way of catagorizing visual content may be by its means of cultural dissemination. It can be public, personal or private. Public images are those where the image and the subject are public. A personal image, the symbols may be idiosyncratic but its subject is public. A private image is one where both the image and the subject are personal. Agenda, Content Driven Ceramics, a three person exhibition concurrent with the NCECA conference, reflected this dynamic.

Richard Notkin - Tile Installation

Richard Notkin - Tile Installation

Richard Notkin exhibited tiles impressed with images. Some of the tiles have highly specific images Picasso’s Guernica, images from Abu Ghraib and Michelangelo’s David and Pieta. Others are more general; skulls, feet, barbed wire, a die, a field of sperm, heart tissue and a bombed out building. Laid out against the wall a second subject emerges – that of image saturation. Thus, this work becomes a statement which is powerfully nihilistic. Presented on uniform tiles, the images read as flash cards. Those powerful or those pedestrian are just two of a thousand images that we absorb every day. Unfortunately, the most profane, obscene or sacred often become lost in the white noise.

Richard Notkin - Tile Close Up

Richard Notkin - Tile Close Up

A number of Notkin’s pieces reference specific narratives of contemporary culture: Pablo Picasso’s Guernica and images of Abu Ghraib prison, for instance. The Guernica tile depicts a Cubist horse screeching at a light bulb. The image from Abu Ghraib depicts a hooded man standing on a crate with wires attached to his finger tips. Both tiles depicted images from the most widely disseminated images of their time. Time has obliterated much of the Guernica narrative – devolving from a pivotal historic event to a footnote. In pairing, Notkin asks the viewer to consider the fate of the Abu Grahid images similarly; in the not too distant future, his narrative could be nothing more than a hooded man standing on a box.

Marko Fields - Venus Gaia

Marko Fields - Venus Gaia

Like Notkin, the work of Marko Fields often depicts political outrage. The pillow in Prince Darwin Loves the Hot Pillow Princess decorated with Dow, Chevron and Exxon logos shows two frogs copulating. One of the frogs is mutated. It has a conjoined torso of a second frog growing out of its back. Fields’ other works are far more cryptic. Gaila’s New Friend and Venus Gaia are nearly indecipherable. In both, every centimeter of surface is saturated with decoration. This horror vacui conjures primitivism as integral to the narrative. Returning to more familiar ground, Fields’ chemical protest is also the subject of DDTeapot, an antique spray bottle fitted with a pistol handle and the text “SUPER BUG KILLER: Long-Lasting & Fully-Penetrating! Kills Critters You Can’t Even See!” While Notkin’s imagery has specific cultural reference, when Fields work uses corporate emblems the stories are personal.

Marko Fields - DDT Pot

Marko Fields - DDT Pot

Mika Negishi-Laidlaw - 'All in One'

Mika Negishi-Laidlaw -

The public narrative content of Notkin and Fields contrast strongly with Mika Negishi-Laidlaw’s distinctly private images. Her intimate visual haikus encompass personal sensuality, sexuality and reproduction. Circle of Life, a circle of eight forms, renders a common denominator brilliantly. The belly, buttocks and thighs of a hunching pregnant woman also resemble a heart. This equation of gestating womb to vital organ works emotionally. Text, rendered in Asian characters adds another layer of narrative; starting with a single band and ending with the object covered by characters lost of any semantic meaning. The infinity of allusions generated from such simple forms and decorative devices is stunning. Her ability to portray much meaning through simple devices is confirmed in All in One, a serial work of 23 slip cast cups. In these forms, Negishi-Laidlaw merges a vulva and buttocks in a double helix shape. In all, Negishi-Laidlaw has distilled human sensuality into a touchstone.

Mika Negishi-Laidlaw - Lullaby

Mika Negishi-Laidlaw - Lullaby

On the simplest level, be it public, personal or private, content is the transfer of meaning from one person to another. Everything said is also heard. The measure of how anything that proposes to transfer content is the reaction it excites. In very different ways, Notkin, Fields and Negishi-Laidlaw provoke strong and profound reactions from the viewer.


Tony Merino has published internationally and gives lectures on ceramic art, criticism and critical theory.

Aug 09

Social Networking!

Critical Ceramics has added social networking features to the site so that readers may share posts with their friends and bookmark them for themselves. You can now link posts directly to Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, StumbleUpon and more!

Aug 09

Changes to Critical Ceramics

After 10 years, dozens and dozens of articles, interviews, and reviews, Critical Ceramics is undergoing some changes. Critical Ceramics will be transitioning over to a WordPress driven site during the upcoming weeks. Please excuse the pot holes!

In the meantime, if you’d like to access the old site, you may find it here. The basic information should remain unchanged; however, some links and graphics may be broken.