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In Your Face
Confrontational Ceramics: The Artist as Social Critic
By Judith Schwartz
A & C Black
University of Pennsylvania Press
A little girl toting a machine gun, a man on all fours in a rolling circus cage with knives embedded in his back and the head of a man with a gas pump nozzle stuffed in his mouth -these are just a few of the "in your face" images among the provocative works by more than 200 artists from 30 countries assembled by Judith Schwartz in this overview of a seemingly growing and immensely varied area of ceramic sculpture. Schwartz, an associate professor in the art department at New York University who has been engaged by such works since her dissertation, has grouped the sculptures, rather elastically, by theme-war and politics, the social and human condition, gender issues, the environment, and popular and material culture. Among the artists are such well-known figures as Viktor Schreckengost, Robert Arneson, Akio Takamori and Howard Kottler (a mentor to Schwartz), but many lesser-known and newer talents appear as well. The approaches range from satire, such as Ian Anderson's Cleaner than War, 2005, to grotesque, as in Richard Lipscher's Warfare Mask #3, 1981.
Aside from Schwartz's introduction and brief discussions of each theme, the texts belong to the makers, with each piece accompanied by the artist's explanation of the feelings and beliefs prompting the work. A moving example is Tony Hepburn's about his work Bed, 2005, one of a series made since is wife died of cancer in 2003. "The fact is, I had no choice; I had to make this work. On a bed made with morphine bottle legs, a rugged clay vessel 'protects' a fragile porcelain vessel. I think the metaphor is obvious."
To give a sense of the scope of the subject matter, we go from this painfully personal work to what would seem to be an up-to-the-minute comment on the catastrophic financial situation facing millions of Americans today, Cheryl Tall's Debt Monster from Household Series, 2001, a terra-cotta dwelling with a grotesque head and arms emerging from the roof and squeezing it. "In a tempestuous time when we need to find sanctuary in our homes," the artist writes, "we can find only destitution, danger and unease."
The book accompanied an exhibition at the Westchester Arts Council's Arts Exchange in White Plains, New York, one of 68 exhibitions and a symposium spearheaded by Schwartz that were staged throughout Westchester County last fall under the rubric "All Fired Up."