Ceramics: A Morphing Medium

September 1, 2010
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New exhibits at the American Museum of Ceramic Art consider the past and future of industrial ceramics and design.

Lux-Delux Ultimate Coffee Cup, by David Pier.


The American Museum of Ceramic Art (AMOCA) is taking an unusual sidestep with two exhibitions that will debut in early 2011. The first, Ceramics for the New Millennium, is intended to illustrate how ceramic engineers are applying research findings in support of practical industrial needs. The exhibit commences with a brief history of the technical uses of ceramics, starting with the advent of electricity and electronics and moving to 21st century uses. Examples of undistinguished but essential ceramic objects, such as sewer pipe or sanitary fixtures, will be displayed.

The second exhibit, Ceramics: Post-Digital Design, will show how ceramic artists and designers are currently aligning their thinking with manufacturing and production. Examples of work by young designers and their processes of duplication will be explored.

Tea for Two, five-piece set in porcelain with white glaze, by Peter Saenger.

Ceramics for the New Millennium

With the assistance of Wendell Keith, president of Keith Co., and Bryan Vansell of Mission Clay Products, among others, AMOCA will amass a selection of cutting-edge technology and everyday-use products. One objective of the Ceramics for the New Millennium exhibition is to introduce the unique properties of ceramic materials to the public. The museum will use wall text and examples to explain these unique attributes, including chemical inertness, abrasion and corrosion resistance, high mechanical strength, toughness, high thermal conductivity, and low coefficient of thermal expansion.

The selection of examples will be broad and will include a variety of industrial machinery parts, such as strainers for hot metals and thread guides for textile machinery; electronic components, such as insulators, capacitors, and semiconductors that play a large part in our digital world; medical materials, such as knee sockets, elbow replacements, and dental implants; labware, such as porcelain mortar and pestles or funnels; and specialized household goods, such as knives, scissors or pens.

Also on display will be aerospace and aviation products, such as space tiles and ceramic body armor used by armed forces. Other clay products, such as pipes, sinks, roofing tile, chimney tops, and decorative architectural elements like terra cotta facades, may be incorporated as well.

Appetizer platter with spoons in slip-cast porcelain with black underglaze, by Heather Mae Erickson. (Image courtesy of Ken Yanoviak.)

Ceramics: Post-Digital Design

A dramatic shift is currently happening in ceramics that might be best illustrated by the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. Historically, Otis played a legendary role in the “Ceramic Revolution,” of the mid-1950s. At that time, the Los Angeles Art Institute (now known as Otis College of Art and Design) was led by Millard Sheets, a well-known Los Angeles area artist, designer and educator. His view of the role of an artist/designer can best be summed up in a speech he made at the legendary first national ACC conference in Asilomar, Calif., in 1957:

I believe that the great art of every period was the applied art of its own period… Now why must we in our age … duck these responsibilities, live in our ivory towers, work by ourselves? … Today the shortage is in good designers, not in lack of opportunity, as there are very few designers … who will work with industry, who will adjust themselves intelligently and thoroughly to the processes and problems of production and distribution.(1)

At the conference, a division was apparent in the craft world between those who functioned as makers of utilitarian objects and others who considered themselves to be artists (those who used craft materials as a medium of expression). Interestingly, it was Millard Sheets who initiated a ceramics program at Otis by hiring Peter Voulkos to head the department. Under Voulkos’ leadership, the tenor of ceramics made a huge shift from utilitarian or decorative to a non-utilitarian, abstract expressionist form of art. Perhaps the next “revolution” is a pendulum swing back to functionalism-but with a new twist.

In 1997, when Otis shifted its operation to Westchester, Calif., the ceramic department was discontinued. Now, 13 years later, interest has been revived and a new ceramic division is under construction as part of the product design curriculum. The development of this new ceramic area will be headed by Joan Takayama-Ogawa, a member of AMOCA’s advisory board who has volunteered to assist in curating Ceramics: Post-Digital Design.

Some of the new designers to be exhibited include Peter Saenger, David Pier and Heather Mae Erickson, all of whom are at the forefront of a trend where both industry and design play roles in studio art practice.

In addition to general support, contributions or loans of ceramic products, historic materials or photos for the Ceramics for the New Millennium exhibition are still being sought. Contact AMOCA at (909) 865-3146 or frontdesk@ceramicmuseum.org. For additional information, visit www.ceramicmuseum.org.

SIDEBAR: About AMOCA
The non-profit American Museum of Ceramic Art opened in 2004. It is one of the few museums in the U.S. devoted solely to ceramics and the only one of its kind on the West Coast. AMOCA was founded by David Armstrong, a long-time Pomona businessman, entrepreneur and ceramic aficionado. He established the museum for two reasons: his loyalty to the community of Pomona and his intense interest in ceramics, which was fostered by his well-known college instructor, Paul Soldner.

AMOCA’s mission is to educate by presenting, collecting and preserving significant world ceramic achievements from ancient times to the present. Objects made of clay are the single most enduring indicators of past cultures. Therefore, AMOCA maintains that tangible presentations of ceramic items provide a concrete way to learn about history and anthropology, that aesthetic evaluation ensures a deeper understanding of cultural values and traditions, and that technical examination enhances scientific knowledge.

AMOCA offers five exhibits per year; an educational curriculum with class tours and corresponding videos, CDs, and books; and special events such as lectures, performances, workshops, and hands-on sessions. Exhibition focus is broad; themes have included techniques, products, potters of history, solo exhibits, local-guild shows, and world ceramics. To preserve ceramic history, AMOCA has established a permanent ceramics collection that currently contains over 1000 objects.

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