Jacob Foran "Fragments" at ArtScape 2015 by Jacob Foran

A few months back during an opening reception at my former gallery space at Seattle Design Center, I met an interesting man named David Francis who threw an idea by me that has since held my curiosity.  I learned that David is an archeologist by training with an MFA and a PHD in Poetics and Critical Theory.  He is also a glass artist and enthusiast, and the former curator for the Tacoma Glass Museum.  Now, his mission is based in activating spaces in interurban and park settings in the north Seattle Area.  With much less than a hefty budget to work with, he seemed a little hesitant to ask but passionate about the idea of working with me on a small public art project.  “Which family of work?” I asked him.  “The biggest one, the submarine.”  While open minded and instantly respectful of his boldness, I still have hopes of landing my 20ft ceramic submarine in a museum someday, I still like it a lot. So while my answer to that was, hell no, not yet, I shot back with a project that’s been in my mind for about two years since beginning a body of work at California State Long Beach University while a guest artist in residence in summer 2013.

A part of my studio mind is preoccupied with the concept of fragmentation.  Another part of my brain is fascinated with how we construct and perceive time.  Yet another part of my head contains a bank full of imagery of human statuary, art history, architecture and modern art, which I have acquired and embedded in my space of memory through an ongoing pursuit of learning about the past.  Clearly it is a part of my vocabulary.  From the onset, I’ve contextualized my own work within the framework of figurative sculpture, but never public art (not that the two are mutually exclusive).  Until I saw images of the work of Jason Decaires Taylor, who has cast concrete figures and placed them at the bottom of the ocean floor to live and evolve below the surface.

Work by Jason Decaires Taylor

Work by Jason Decaires Taylor

Peter Olsen, gallery director of Yama Project, writes: “When one visits a museum to look at ancient statuary, we are often searching for what a culture meant or wanted to be remembered for.  The way that sculptors treated the figure was meant to give a key to the religious, political or aesthetic ideals of whoever could afford to pay the artist.  Jacob Foran’s recent body of work alludes to those past cultures and monuments.  The faded and stoic figures suggest something that has been lost; a vague remembrance of something with no particular dogma attached.  ‘Remnant’ is a word that he uses.  Torn from their context, these remnants become a sort of blank screen to impose ideas of meaning and purpose onto.  They raise more questions than they answer.  Their power lies in that function.” 

 A dozen of these works were exhibited with Yama Project during a solo show in Seattle last fall and one piece from the series is currently being exhibited at the Fuller Craft Museum's "Continuum of Innovation." While up to this point i have been quite fortunate to find early career opportunities and avoid the pigeonholes that surround 'ceramics' in 'artworld.'  Although my shifting of aesthetic sensibilities and broad range of conceptual territory from one body of work to the next has left most commercial galleries that I have worked with questioning my next move.  It is becoming easier now to realize that the nature of my studio practice and my gigantic impulse for making work will yield some ideas that are best suited for alternative venues outside of the traditional gallery platform.   

So this is where David comes into play.  Our interests have come together and we have launched a small scale public artwork in conjunction with the City of Shorline's ArtScape 2015.  A series of 4  "Fragments" will be up for the duration of 1 year in various locations in North Seattle. Beginning on August 6th, we will have installed the works somewhere in the 17500 Block Midvale Avenue North, between Aurora Avenue and Midvale.  If you know Aurora Ave, you understand that this project is prone to the unexpected.

In many ways, my project is a social experiment as much any public art as we know it— if it is a display of figuration, they are just as much modern artifacts with nowhere else to go.  Right now I am simply curious to see what happens over an extended period of time if we place these monument-like sculptures into a volatile, interurban space.   While the forms are durable enough to endure the wear and tear of the elements, they are fragile enough to record a history of marks such as graffiti, vandalism, or physical change made by people. It is easy for my imagination to paint the raw and clean surfaces with mold, color, and vine growth, and perhaps they will to encounter tagging and more violent moments-- breakages of appendages or disappearance.   

In the end, I plan to re-exhibit whatever is left of these objects in a museum-like context where we are able to examine the parallels between ancient and modern.  For now, they are half buried two miles from my studio in the north Seattle area waiting for time to play its part. 

To follow this project and see time lapse progression, subscribe to this blog below as well as on Facebook. Link:

Seattle Times Review, "Bridging the Real and Surreal at Abmeyer + Wood," Michael Upchurch by Jacob Foran

"The Endless Irony of it All." by Richard Notkin

"The Endless Irony of it All." by Richard Notkin

Check out the nice review of the current show at Abmeyer + Wood in the Seattle Times, written by Michael Upcurch.  Thanks for the shout out Michael!


By Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times

Stroll into Abmeyer + Wood this summer and you’ll find yourself surrounded by creatures not quite of this world.

“Bodies + Beings,” a group show curated by gallery owner Jonathan Wood, explores “the human and animal figure along with fantastical beings that bridge the gap between the real and surreal.” Featuring work by glass artist William Morris, ceramic sculptor Patti Warashina and mosaic wizard Richard Notkin, it boasts a dozen or more masterpieces, each pursuing its own maverick flight of fancy.

Adrian Arleo’s ceramic sculptures greet you as you enter. “Awareness Owl II” seems a near-naturalistic rendering of a branch-perched owl staring straight at you … until you notice the dozen or more eyes gazing from between the feathers of its torso. “Apiary Twins” is just as striking: a honeycomb-textured bust of two women conjoined back-to-back at their shoulders and at the tips of their ponytails.

Calvin Ma’s two stoneware-glaze-and-stain concoctions are whimsical automatons, both of which have little cottages (complete with chimneys and windows) for heads. One of them sits on a rather disgruntled bulldog (“Hard to Breathe”) while the other proudly rides in a little car (“For Show”).

Striking a mythological note, Jacob Foran’s “King” and “Guardian” are small ceramic busts of regal figures that are a sharp contrast in personality. “King” is meditative, melancholy and guarded in expression, while “Guardian” has a bright-eyed shaman-like energy.

Newcomer Christopher David White, who just got his MFA this year, makes a strong impression with “Going Hand in Hand,” a depiction of two oversized hands turned away from each other, yet linked by a tiny crumbling bridge. The piece is in ceramic and acrylic, yet everything about it — the dilapidated bridge, the splintery skin of the hands — suggests roughly hewed wood.

Renowned sculptor Morris, of course, is another artist whose work’s appearance belies its materials. His blown and hot-sculpted glass has a distinctively ceramic look to it, especially in “Idolo,” a turquoise-robed tribal figure, and “Kaesong Man,” a distorted mask with lips that curl in the manner of a butoh performer.

Morris’ glass materials are more evident in “Mazorca Installation,” an 8-foot-high tower of masks, skulls, animal heads, gourds and corncobs, hung on thick ropes like some animistic fertility offering.

Warashina is in fine form with “Fat Cat,” a feline figure whose attitude hovers somewhere between good cheer and bared-teeth aggression. The comic dramas of “Not You Again” (chattering bird, listening woman) and “Magic Fly Zone” (three birds in a beeline, with two reclining-cavorting females below them) are equally delightful.

Notkin — whose atom-bomb-in-ceramic-tiles mosaic, “The Gift,” is one of the sinister glories of the Portland Art Museum — supplies the show’s most powerful piece. “The Endless Irony of It All” is Art as Doomsday Clock. The tiles in its turquoise hourglass are embossed with skulls, bombs, an Abu Ghraib image, an allusion to Picasso’s “Guernica” and coins stamped “In God We Trust.”

The red-tile backdrop is a mélange of human body parts — mostly ears that may not be listening as closely to the hourglass’s warning as they should. It’s an extraordinary work.

The rest of the show ranges from the eerie to the lightweight. But for Notkin’s “Irony” alone, you don’t want to miss this.

Michael Upchurch:


Bodies and Beings: What Place Can Ceramics Have In Contemporary Art Now?

by Alex Anderson

From the didactically ornate, magical sculptures of Adrian Arleo to the pensive and powerful busts of Jacob Foran, Abmeyer+Wood gallery’s current exhibition Bodies + Beings represents a range of aesthetics that reflect the potential of ceramics today. Bringing together some of the most established names in contemporary ceramic art—including Patti Warashina and Richard Notkin—it also introduces some emerging artists working in a medium many once thought of as limited to cups and bowls.

Visitors are greeted by three stunning works by Arleo: Apiary Twins, Awareness Owl II, and Reclined Lion with Interior Woman. Reclined Lion is a small, enchanting piece depicting a lion whose face displays a certain wisdom and deep sadness—evoked by traces of blue that highlight the folds in the lion’s fur. Surrounding the lion's face is an intricate mane with a tree branch motif spotted with gold at the tip of each spiraling branch; inside the space that the mane creates sits a golden woman; perhaps indicating that this lion’s strength, knowledge—and even his melancholy—come from this female element. Reclined Lion seems to reflect Arleo’s views on gender relations but quality and concept aside, the placement of her works is questionable. A friend noted that one of Arleo’s works was placed directly next to the guest book, prompting the question “was this exhibition curated by work release inmates?"

 It's not a good start, and next, you land upon the diminutive faunal forms of Erika Sanada. The works are, to me, less compelling in their size and subject—more miniature decorative models rendered in clay than sculptural works of art engaging with broader questions. A number of them seemed to appeal to the "terminally cute" charm of adorable animals.


 Jacob Foran, King. Courtesy Abmeyer+Wood

Fortunately, around the corner, the show improves. Here sit the striking works of Jacob Foran, adjacent to the hyper-realistic, politically charged Heart Teapot Petrol Hostage from Richard Notkin’s Yixing series, exploring human conflict through the unlikely shape of the teapot. Foran’s figures are technically well executed, for example in his thoughtful choice of surfaces—using glazes, paints, and gold leaf. This initial interest is preserved by the distant, yet focused gaze held by both figures. The busts have a captivating, yet aloof presence; the sense of supercilious detachment and the divergently vibrant headwear of the two pieces almost makes them seem as though they are simply playing their respective titular roles of King and Guardian, inviting the viewer to question the characters they may have chosen to embody or project in their own lives. 

 Meanwhile Notkin’s evocative sculptural pouring vessel depicts the form of a human heart with valves in the shape of oil drums or gas nozzles that also serve as the spout and handle of the teapot. Ceramic chains are sculpted around the form to indicate our systematic demand for, reliance upon, and conflicts surrounding fuel. It's a very singular piece, but the connection between Foran’s and Notkin’s works was not clear to me, and they suffer as a result of this lack of curatorial precision, despite being fine examples of the expressivity of ceramic sculpture. While there were other works that displayed technical prowess or quality in concept, Bodies and Beings could have easily focused only on the display of Arleo, Notkin, and Foran’s works, which anchored the show conceptually and aesthetically.

Drawbacks aside, though, this range of works, and its accompanying range of quality, is a rare demonstration of what clay can become—anything—but it also shows how unaccustomed curators can be to working with displays of this kind. There is clearly some work to still be done on how to get audiences to engage with this medium and its fusty reputation.

I asked Jonathan Wood, one of the gallery owners, what inspired this specific theme and he told me that he is committed to “championing ceramics and exhibiting this ‘craft’ alongside media that has traditionally been considered fine art—in essence blurring the lines of that silly fine art vs. craft debate that seems so antiquated today.” This intent in approaching the exhibition touches on a larger conversation about the place of ceramics in contemporary art. However, by focusing exclusively on figurative sculpture—which as an artistic taxonomy has never been denied the title of fine art—the exhibition seems to have evaded the issue altogether. With that in mind, the question still remains: why is ceramic art still so often ignored by the contemporary art world?

M. Anna Fariello’s essay, "Regarding the History of Objects," suggests the schism between fine art and craft resulted from shifts in thought during the Renaissance defining these categories with the development of art and art theory. This system still troubles ceramics, as many works in clay continue to have minimal visibility in museums and galleries.

Jacob Foran responded to this issue “…the truth is, the ceramics community is a small one compared to others. So, I don’t think that it is ignored altogether, it just maybe does not have the momentum or take up the same amount of bandwidth in the big scheme of things. I don’t know if it is ignored. In fact, I think it is celebrated when it happens.”

With a long process fraught with potential for failure with each firing, any piece that survives the kiln is an achievement in itself. Why then, do artists chose to work in clay when it is technically difficult, still broadly underrepresented, on top of which, it is an historically unappreciated art form? Foran shared his thoughts on this too: "I’m not sure if I could access the things in my work quite the same way with other materials. With clay, once you commit to making a thing, you immediately slow down your intuition. You can’t just raise a magic wand and make the thing appear in front of you. It can be temperamental and it is sensitive in a way. Ultimately, like any artist, I make things that I need to see the most." 

Bodies and Beings evidences the reality that clay—an inherently conceptual material of the earth—can become and connect to sculpture or "fine" art. Though this exhibition may have struggled in one sense, the gallery’s choice to highlight ceramics and attempt contextualize them now is opportune, and a sign of progress. On the back of major exhibitions of late, such as Ken Price's retrospective and major exhibitions, and 2009's touring Dirt on Delight: Impulses That Form Clay, ceramics are gaining visibility in the art world. They are also earning currency in the art market, with a generation of artists like Jessica Jackson Hutchins and Sterling Ruby who fluidly use ceramics within their wider practices—and are getting recognized in big commercial galleries and art fairs. This will hopefully stimulate more galleries and patrons to move beyond the confines of tradition and engage the public in greater depth with this incredibly varied medium.

 —Alex Anderson