Gender, Queerness, Sexuality, and Contemporary Ceramics

Gender, Queerness, Sexuality, and Contemporary Ceramics

Sexual Politics, installation view

Sexual Politics, installation view. Photo: Peter Lee, Courtesy of Northern Clay Center

How can ceramics unite us in what it means to be human, or serve to document the complexity of gender and sexuality in our contemporary culture? That’s the subject of “Sexual Politics: Gender, Sexuality, and Queerness in Contemporary Ceramics,” an exhibition that opened last month at the Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis, curated by Carleton College ceramics professor and sculptor Kelly Connole.

Featuring the work of six artists at various stages of their careers, the exhibition is informed by a broad mix of personal experience, queer and feminist theory, and also social movements, contemporary events, and issues ranging from the Sexual Revolution and Women’s Liberation to the 1969 Stonewall Riots and the Culture Wars of the 1980s and 90s.

In her introduction to the show, Connole notes, “It is often said that a polite dinner guest avoids the potentially controversial topics of politics, sex, and religion. Thankfully, these six artists shirk politeness and pull us into intimate conversations through powerful visual cues.”

The exhibition does this with plenty of nods to exposed flesh and intimate acts, often with a sense of playfulness or humor. Jeremy Brooks’s Peeler (a slang word for a stripper) features a half-naked man emerging, beatifically, from a banana. The many jovial portraits included in Kathy King’s Oh Please provide commentary on – and celebration of – ambiguity in non-normative sexual orientation and gender identity.

“A lot of the work is quite joyful,” says Dustin Yager, a Minneapolis-based artist featured in the exhibition who also heads up education and artist service programs at Northern Clay Center. “That’s an important part of the show – to be able to say there’s a lot of joy in work about sexuality that maybe 50 years ago there wasn’t, or that existed but perhaps only underground.”

Yager doesn’t, however, shy away from exploring how his work can address or recognize ongoing issues affecting gay communities, such as trans violence, racism, and body awareness. And with Untitled (Trash Can) he plumbs the (deeply personal) depths of his own dating history; it is, ostensibly, an approximately 3-foot tall porcelain wastebasket that includes a hand-drawn portrait of himself and an ex-boyfriend. A full-length mirror accompanies the receptacle, along with a wall-mounted roll of paper. Next to the paper, he includes a marker and a note encouraging visitors to write a letter to a past, present, or future partner, and then throw the note away in the porcelain trash can (or leave the letter, for others to throw away).

Yager plans to collect these responses, which he refers to as “love letters,” at the end of the show, and to continue to experiment with how he can incorporate meaningful audience participation into other work. With a focus on material culture and how our possessions serve to signify our most intimate personal values, he wants to create work that prompts viewers to ask, “What kind of person would have this in their house?” Or even, “Why could I – or couldn’t I – ever serve my mother-in-law food out of this bowl?”

“Sexual Politics: Gender, Sexuality, and Queerness in Contemporary Ceramics” runs until April 26 at the Northern Clay Center. Kathy King will present an artist talk and teach a free workshop on April 25.