Feels Like Home

Feels Like Home

Editor's note: A shorter version of this article appeared in the June/July issue of American Craft.

Garth Johnson has been a record-store owner, laboratory signage designer, ceramist, professor, and blogger – a decade ago, he started extremecraft.com, the blog that helped establish his quirky, genuine voice for craft. In December, he was named curator of ceramics at the Arizona State University Art Museum and ASU Ceramics Research Center. Johnson, 42, took a moment to speak with ACC’s Perry A. Price about his new role and what makes the center special.

Even before your appointment you’ve made no secret of your fondness for the Ceramic Research Center of the ASU Museum. What do you love about it?
The Ceramics Research Center is such an ideal institution when it comes to the things that I value in the field. It is this flexible institution that has a stunning permanent collection and the archives of major writers and figures. And through the ASU Museum and Peter Held, there has been constantly challenging programming that gave a platform to younger artists and provided a platform for the assessment of artists later in their careers through retrospective exhibitions. Arizona State University is an incredible institution in terms of reach, and at any one time we have several traveling exhibitions out in the world. Yet we are an amazing institution with art happening and art on view and research opportunities at the same time. And that says nothing of the collaboration with Arizona State University’s legendary ceramics program. So the confluence of all of those things makes the Ceramics Research Center unique.

What is it like to take the reins from Peter Held, who for the past 11 years shaped the center into what it is today?
I’ve been saying that I’m covered in bruises right now from pinching myself every morning, walking past the [Robert] Arnesons and the [Toshiko] Takaezus en route to my office. It’s amazing, you know: We just settled into a brand new building; I get to walk in every day and be surrounded by all of my heroes. Peter’s fingerprints are everywhere in this institution, for the depth and breadth of things that he has undertaken over the years. So I have incredibly big shoes to fill. And I think Peter and the museum have been incredibly accommodating in terms of creating a space for me to make my own mark and to put together programming that comes through my unique lens. I think that I’m an opinionated person with a very distinctive perspective, and the Ceramics Research Center is comfortable enough with its own identity that it can easily accommodate a wide variety of people putting together programming.

One of Peter’s favorite words as a writer as a scholar is “continuum.” Very recently, the major exhibition and publication ASU did was “Crafting a Continuum,” which highlighted the extensive, cross-disciplinary craft collection of the museum, so it is automatically a place that accommodates a range of perspectives. The ASU Museum has a long history with social practice and video, and the Ceramics Research Center is an easy way to provide a platform for artists who are examining the world through those lenses. And it’s my job to serve as a catalyst for those artists and to try and contextualize broader issues and trends within the field.

What is your vision for the center?
My role plays to my two greatest interests, which are the history of the studio crafts movement and the history of post-war ceramics in America, so I get to look at the collection as a whole as my lens for my own historical interests. But the institution is also forward-looking, and I feel like I’m one of the people in the country with a voracious interest in history who is also looking at the contemporary and continuing to provide opportunities for young artists.

The first exhibition that is happening on my watch is called “Recorded Matter: Ceramics in Motion,” and it consists of 10 young artists who use video in a very natural way to document what they’re doing or as an integrated part of their studio practice. It’s alternatively meditative and hilarious and transgressive and encompassing all of the things that interest me about ways that young artists are moving the ball forward.

Arizona State as a university right now is down for a reexamination of what education looks like, so the level of collaboration that is going on here is incredible. The Ceramics Research Center is just one example of a large group of institutes that are collaborative and forward-thinking in the university. It is an exciting time to land within Arizona State as they seek out new modes of expression and new collaborations between departments, and those projects are already filtering into the Ceramics Research Center.

What do you make of the current infatuation with ceramics in contemporary art, something that has historically waxed and waned?
It has absolutely waxed and waned. Some people are treating this new adoption of ceramics as an entirely new phenomenon, but MoMA and other major institutions in New York have periodically put together really interesting shows based on ceramics artists, and there have always been a handful of artists who have punctured through the self-styled, hermetic bubble of the art world. I think that you used “waxing and waning” says everything – that the infatuation I think is both transgressive and historic. I think that a major trend among artists who are getting time within the New York arts scene is celebrating the immediacy of picking up and using clay as a material.

I am generalizing very broadly that there are two types of ways that artists approach clay; one is this squishy material that responds to touch in this very delightful way. As I was learning ceramics and coming up as a maker, I had almost the exact opposite viewpoint, and I think I represent people for whom the millennia of history that ceramics embodies are automatically there. The minute that I put my hands into clay I almost feel paralyzed by the continuum of approaches to clay. Again, there is sort of a pendulum even within the ceramics community; interest and dialogue seems to swing between these two poles, but luckily I think the ceramics community can automatically reconcile these two sides. The art world is concerned with its own story about what is saleable and what delights critics within that world, and it doesn’t always bear direct relationship to what’s going on among ceramic artists. There are different relationships that are prized within the ceramics community that don’t always have bearing on what is going on in the blue-chip art world.

What do you feel is the role of ceramics in our culture?
Ceramics gets to have it all as a material. It gets to be just one of many materials that can be used in an interdisciplinary way. The thing that I like about the art world is: Thank goodness it can accommodate the wide range of voices and a wide range of approaches. Ceramics is uniquely positioned not only because of its immediacy but also because of its social component; ceramics has a functional history, it has a symbolic history, it is linked so intimately with material culture. Artists can always plug into their own tendencies and find a place within the strange continuum of possibilities with the medium. That clay is so mutable and squishy is the very thing that allows for multiple voices to all find expression and connection.  

What is left for you to conquer in your path toward ceramics domination?
I can genuinely say that even as a maker there has always been a gap between my own talent in terms of making things with my own hands and my way of thinking or writing about things. And over the course of my career, it’s been a long progression toward privileging the picking apart and writing and providing platforms for other people to find artistic expression over the making of things. When I was an undergraduate in college, there was no way that I could have seen a path toward becoming a curator in a museum. And that path has been a circuitously lived. I feel like I’m finally home, and this is totally where I want to be for a long, long time. This is the ultimate venue for me to be able to preserve the scholarship of what has excited me about previous generations and transmit that to younger generations and to connect what I value in the history of ceramics to what’s going on with younger artists in the field. If I can oversee a handing-off of the torch to generations younger than mine and help foster a body of knowledge that is genuinely transmitted to a younger generation, then that’s the thing that I want to conquer above all else.

Perry A. Price is the American Craft Council’s director of education.