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(ceramic) sculpture? (long)

updated sat 22 jun 02


Snail Scott on fri 21 jun 02

At 10:02 AM 6/19/02 EDT, you wrote:
>i am looking for thoughts on the separation that seems to exist
>between sculpture/sculptors in clay and other materials, i.e. metal, wood,

For me, I believe I gravitate toward clay as
a medium because of its infinite mutability.
It has no essential form of its own. Other
materials such as wood and steel have a form
from the outset, which much be accomodated or
modified: wood as logs or milled lumber, steel
as sheet, tube, rod, angle stock, etc. Stone
has a less 'modular' nature, but one still
starts with the block size as an immutable
given. And stone, like wood, is largely a
subtractive medium. The artist must be
substanitally committed to the composition
at the start of work, and stick with it. Clay
allows for both additive and subtractive
processes, unrestricted by the form of the
material itself. It is also a very direct
medium, and the hands-on, tactile nature of
clay processes are satisfying at a quite
visceral level. (This is probably a major
reason why I left architecture for art.)

I also do work in bronze, but I consider
the reasons for this to be more similar than
different. In casting bronze, one doesn't
start with ingots as the unit of material.
One starts with whatever material is suitable
to make the pattern: metal, wood, stone,
wax, or...clay. For my own work, I generally
choose the malleable materials; either wax,
plasticine or water-based clay. After the
creation of the pattern, I make the mold,
pour and dress the wax, invest and burn out
the wax, pour the metal, cut, grind, weld,
and chase the metal, and apply patina. All
of these later phases are quite time-
comsuming, but are secondary to the actual
making of the pattern. They're as much a
part of the art as applying glaze to a pot
and firing it, though. In this respect,
clay and bronze are quite similar. They are
transformative processes, taking a mutable,
nearly ephemeral material and creating
from it a new phase which is fixed in form
and permanent. Both media combine direct
and unmediated hand contact in a responsive,
material with the durability found elsewhere
mainly in recalcitrant, hard materials which
impose their own initial assumptions about

Bronze, of course, has a long-standing status
as a 'real' fine-art medium, dating back
thousands of years and given the stamp of
approval by artists from the traditional to
the contemporary. Clay has also been used
for sculpture since antiquity, but generally
for works of lesser stature, or as the sketch
medium for later transposition of the form
into other media. The primary use of clay has
more typically been as a craft medium, for
pottery and ornament. It is a less expensive
material than bronze, and this has always
been reflected by the greater stature accorded
to bronze. I am constantly annoyed that a
single, unique work of mine in clay is
consistently worth less than a similar piece
rendered in bronze - a lot less. Even if the
bronze piece was produced as an edition of
a dozen, I can still nearly add a zero to
the price, compared with the work in clay.

(This isn't true for everyone, though. Indian
artists often get substantially higher prices
for their claywork than for similar work in
bronze. For their buyers, clay has a identity
which is tied in to the value of the work as
a cultural artifact, while bronze lacks that
association. Because of this, the relative
value of the two media is reversed.)

Sculpture, like much of the art market at
all levels, is driven by the buyers. While
medium-sized paintings may fetch modest
prices, a comparable work of sculpture by an
artist of similar reputation will typically
cost more. It's a sweeping generality to say
this, of course, but most sculpture takes
longer to make than most painting, and thus
must be priced higher if the artist is not to
go back to flipping burgers to pay the rent.
And for every buyer who had confidence in
their own taste, there are many more who want
some assurance of the 'value' of their
purchase, and with every increase in the
price, the more certainty they want. Some
buyers also have less interest in art than
in impressing their friends. How often have
you heard someone say, not: "I bought a piece
of sculpture", but "I bought a bronze", as
though the material were the essential aspect
of the piece.

Clay retains is lower-status origins as a
medium for art. On the other hand, recent
trends in art have given a tremendous boost to
sculpture in clay. One is the still-growing
interest in 'fine craft' works. This category
of work is a bit flexible, but is dominated
by artists whose work takes its roots from
traditional craft materials (like clay) but
render them in way which owes more to the
practices of contemporary art than utility.
Another trend is that of of contemporary
art itself, which has for many years now
given strong credibility to works created in
non-standard materials: rags, chewing gum,
junkyard scrap, commercial objects, and more.
Ceramic art gains from this new willingness
to embrace a variety of art materials.

Ironically, clay also suffers from other
aspects of contemporary art theory. In
particular, the use of unconventional media
in current art is nearly always accompanied
by a conscious awareness of the content carried
by the choice of materials, and what these
choices bring to the finished work of art.
Most artists working in clay tend to approach
their material as the 'given' in their work,
and the resulting artwork often does not
utilize the nature of the clay itself as an
integral aspect of the work, but only as a
vehicle for form and surface. Look around at
the artists working in clay whose work gets
national exposure in the non-clay-specific art
magazines. It's not the ones whose use of clay
is technically admirable, or the ones whose
work is sensitive to craft traditions. It's the
ones whose work reflects its use of clay in a
conceptual sense. The standards of current art
fashion are not the only valid ones, but if
that's the market you are shooting for - to be
taken as a 'sculptor', not as a 'clay artist',
then those standards must be acknowledged. You
can choose to accept them or not, but that
choice will affect where and how you sell your

Clay sculpture is accepted as 'sculpture' in the
larger art world to the degree that it follows
the practices of that world. For the work that
does not: welcome to the Clay Ghetto. It's a
cozier place to be, nowadays, with all those
'fine craft' buyers, and the occasional 'fine
art' buyer peering over the wall or even
getting lost in the neighborhood and making a
purchase. It's still a different world, though.
Pick the world of your choice: it is a choice.