All posts in “ceramics”

Object of the Week: Ai-Apec Stirrup Spout Vessel

Among their many achievements, Mochica (also known as Moche) society is well-known for their innovations in and mastery of ceramics. Celebrated for their figurative vessels—often resembling animals, plants, deities, and even adult activities—Mochica ceramicists produced a variety of exquisite forms whose painted and sculpted surfaces reflect the vibrant life, religion, and culture of the Mochica people.

Mochica stirrup spout vessels, in particular, would take on complex and figurative scenes. Named for their resemblance to stirrups, such vessels are identifiable due to their wide body, which connects to an elegant circular hollow handle. Though unsure of exactly what was stored in these vessels (until recently it was believed that their purpose was mainly funerary), it is likely that they contained beverages like corn beer (chicha). Equal parts beautiful and versatile, stirrup spout vessels were also functional: in the high elevation deserts of Peru, the narrow spout would prevent the evaporation of the vessels’ liquid contents.

In this Ai-Apec Stirrup Spout Vessel on view in the exhibition Cosmic Beings in Mesoamerican and Andean Art, an anthropomorphic figure stands surrounded by six peaks topped with snail shells, which also share anthropomorphic features. Holding a staff, the stoic figure—Ai-Apec, the chief deity of the Mochica—dons a patterned tunic and pendant earrings in the form of feline heads, as well as a helmet with two more feline figures.

Generally, Mochica vessels are slip-painted and bichrome, with red decoration on a white or cream background. However, this Ai-Apec vessel is much darker—a type of ceramic known as blackware; the dark color is achieved through a firing process that removes oxygen from the kiln, causing iron compounds in the clay to turn black. Not only does this piece represent a mythical continuity between the Mochica and later Chavín and Chimú cultures, but it represents an artistic continuity as well—such blackware ceramics were also made by the Chavín and Chimú.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Ai-Apec Stirrup Spout Vessel, ca. AD 200-500, Mochica, blackware ceramic, 10 × 8 1/2 × 8 in., Gift in honor of Assen Nicolov, 2018.3.2

 

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Object of the Week: Xing ware-type

Sometimes I find myself struck by the contemporaneity of ancient objects, how something made hundreds or thousands of years ago can embody an aesthetic or message relevant to today. Take this Chinese Xing ware-type ewer, for example. Created during the 10th century, the porcelain vessel—with its white glaze and spontaneously placed markings—feels, to me at least, like it could have been made this past century, alongside works by artists such as Lucy Rie or Mary Heilmann.

Ceramics have no doubt made a comeback in the art world, a trend which suggests that the once rigid division between art and craft (and therefore ceramics) is no more. As art critic Roberta Smith rightly articulated in 2009, “It can’t be said enough that the art-craft divide is a bogus concept regularly obliterated by the undeniable originality of individuals who may call themselves artists, designers, or artisans.”[1]

Though today we might be less inclined to differentiate between artists and artisans, in 10th-century China there would have certainly been a distinction between makers commissioned by imperial courts and those who produced commercially. Xing ware, produced in what would today be China’s Hebei province, caught the attention of the Tang imperial court and epitomizes Tang-era porcelain: the purity of its clay was unusually low in iron and titanium oxides (contaminants) and very fine grained. Fired in the kiln at 1250 degrees Celsius or higher, this porcelain was unparalleled in its sturdiness, translucence, and pure white color.

Similar in form to late Tang dynasty ceramic ware, this ewer is especially unique due to the greenish-brown splashes of glaze on its porcelain-white body. Used as a wine bottle, this vessel bears similarities to many late Tang wares, though it was unlikely to have been produced in a Xing kiln.[2] Perhaps it is the simplicity of form and coloration that makes this work feel so modern, or, conversely, that so many contemporary ceramicists find (for good reason) inspiration in the rich ceramic traditions of China, where porcelain was perfected and produced exclusively for centuries.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

[1] Roberta Smith, “Crucible of Creativity, Stoking Earth Into Art,” New York Times, March 19, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/20/arts/design/20dirt.html.
[2] The shape and glaze of this ewer is similar to Xing porcelain, but the clay texture is not nearly as fine. For more on this work and Chinese porcelain more broadly, see Julie Emerson, Jennifer Chen, and Mimi Gardner Gates (Porcelain Stories: From China to Europe, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000), 38.
Image: Xing ware-type, 10th century, Chinese, porcelain with white glaze on white slip, green-brown stripes, 5 1/2 x 2 13/16 in., Thomas D. Stimson Memorial Collection, 51.122
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Object of the Week: Colored Vases

“An artist can only raise new questions and offer insight into social change after reflecting on the feelings of the time. I don’t see art as a highly aesthetic practice…Rather than thinking of my projects as art, they attempt to introduce a new condition, a new means of expression, or a new method of communicating. If these possibilities didn’t exist, I wouldn’t feel the need to be an artist.” –Ai Weiwei1

“At different times I’ve worked in different mediums. For me, the variation is not an artistic judgment, but a necessary choice. It’s just as normal to eat with chopsticks, as it is to eat with forks or hands. Different circumstances call for different tools. I try to express ideas with the most appropriate available materials and forms.” –Ai Weiwei2

“Making choices is how the artist comes to understand himself. These choices are correlated to one’s spiritual predicament, and the goal is a return to the self, the pursuit of spiritual values, and the summoning of spirits. These choices are inherently philosophical.” –Ai Weiwei3

Ai Weiwei is super active in the world of contemporary art, posting to his Instagram, posing as a drowned Syrian refugeedecorating Berlin’s Konzerthaus with 14,000 life jackets. Not all of the commentary about him is positive, and I’m sure that’s as he would like it. He’s stated in the past that he desires uneasiness; that he deliberately moves away from the self-indulgent comfort of creating things to use his skills or to get praise. He wants to think critically and to act on his convictions. He wants to unsettle and to motivate. Definitely from his own perspective, he is a conceptual artist, a political activist, and an advocate for self-discovery.

Ai’s art still depends—in a really essential way—on its visual impact. The striking visuals he’s able to concoct are the rhetoric he uses to promote his provocative agenda. He may not think of art as a “highly aesthetic practice,” but the work speaks for itself. Just think of his Sunflower Seeds. The work is less than compelling as a printed phrase: “One hundred million hand-sculpted, hand-painted porcelain beads, made to look like sunflower seeds.” As a realized artwork, it captivated people.

Ai thinks about the forms as a means to an end—his end is pointing others to self-consciousness, sparking in us a challenge to accepted systems of belief, provoking critical responses and inspiring action—but they’re still necessary means. They are his way of communicating. He can’t even be sure that his art will communicate what he wants it to do. All he can be sure of is that viewers will experience the physical artwork. Many of us who look at his works will come away with different conclusions; such is the open-endedness of art, politically-driven or otherwise. All we have is the thing, so I say, let’s look closely at it.

SAM’s one work by Ai Weiwei, Colored Vases, is on view at the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park. It delivers what it promises. Nine ceramic vases are arranged in a pattern much like a bowling pin setup—there are three rows, with four vases in the back row, three in the middle row, and two in the front row—only the headpin is missing. The artist has applied a base coat of industrial paint in a bold hue—such as yellow, pink, lime green, or plum—to each vase. A second color in high contrast to the base layer covers the lips and shoulder of the vase, then drips down the body. Some vases have long drips like the tendrils of a plant, while others are shorter, like polychrome stalactites. The paint drips are irregular, and they seem natural.

Contrast is especially important to this work: there’s contrast between the traditional form of the ceramic vases and the bright and contemporary paint colors applied to them; contrast between the two colors on one vase, and contrast in the range of colors among the whole group; contrast between the normally grainy texture of a ceramic pot and the flatness of industrial paint. There’s probably contrast, too, between what Ai Weiwei thought of and what you take away.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Sources:

“Reconsidering Reality: An Interview with Ai Weiwei.” In Ai Weiwei: According to What? Edited by Deborah E. Horowitz. Prestel Verlag: Munich, London and New York, 2012. Published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name, organized by the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, in association with the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and displayed at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., October 7, 2012-February 24, 2013; the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, Indiana, April 5-July 28, 2013; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Ontario, August 31-October 27, 2013; Pérez Art Museum Miami, Miami, Florida, November 28, 2013-March 16, 2014; and Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York, April 18-August 10, 2014.

“Making Choices.” Translated by Philip Tinari, from The Grey Book, November, 1997. Reproduced in Ai Weiwei. Phaidon Press: New York, 2009.


i. According to What, 38
ii. According to What, 39
iii. Ai Weiwei, “Making Choices,” 128

Image: Colored Vases, 2010, Ai Weiwei (Chinese, born 1957), ceramic with industrial paint, approx. 17 x 22 in. each. Seattle Art Museum, Purchased with funds from the Estate of Robert M. Shields, 2013.33, Photo: Nathaniel Willson.
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Artist Yee Sookyung on embracing the imperfect

Beauty is often associated with symmetry; Order, even lines, and pleasing color palettes are all indicative qualities of something that aims to catch the eye. The earliest Western theory of beauty can be found in the works of Greek philosophers from the pre-Socratic period, such as Pythagoras. The Pythagorean school saw a strong connection between mathematics and beauty. Notably, they believed that objects proportioned to meet the golden ratio (two objects are in the golden ratio if their ratio is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities) were more attractive. Many greats including Da Vinci and Dali have incorporated the number in their works. Artist Yee Sookyung—currently showing work in the exhibition Paradox of Place: Contemporary Korean Art at the Asian Art Museum—does not.

Rather than create pieces that follow this long-held belief, she takes existing pieces of art as well as broken shards, bits, and pieces of work made by traditional Korean master ceramicists (what she calls “ceramic trash”) and turns them into gold—literally.

“My concern is not about the history of Korean ceramics, but it is to play with the fragments which exist now, and this is different from the ceramics masters who produce all of the ceramics adhering to traditional methodology,” Yee said. “Korean traditional ceramic masters break almost 70% of the product that don’t reach up to the standards of masterpieces. So I put the broken bits and pieces of ceramic trash together, one by one, as if putting together a jigsaw puzzle. I covered them with 24k gold leaf, and I wanted to emphasize the crack. In Korean, the word for crack is also the same for gold.”

She describes the process of the pieces coming together in a rather romantic, predetermined way:

“A broken ceramic piece finds another piece, and they rely on each other,” Yee said.

The result is ultimately sculptural, anthropomorphic, and universally beautiful.

Watch the artist describe this process, the act of combining histories, and the many layered metaphors buried in her large-scale work. Experience Thousand and all of its perfect imperfections in Paradox of Place at the Asian Art Museum.

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SAMart: A focus on ceramics

Through much of Greek art history—from the abstract grave or cult carvings of the Cyclades to the generalized portraits of the Hellenistic period—the Greeks often depicted women as ideals of beauty and grace. For both men and women, in fact, Greek beliefs held that external appearance was the manifestation of internal character. As a result, the artistry lavished on appearance and personal adornment rivals that given to public monuments.

This small ceramic figure was created in a world where Greek culture was dominant, and on the move. Following the path of Alexander the Great’s conquests across Europe and West Asia, Greek art and culture spread across the Mediterranean world. Ceramic sculptures already had a long history in these areas, but arguably reached an apex in the Greek region of Boeotia during this period. Produced in multiples in workshops, their compact size and relative inexpense allowed them to be exported to major Hellenistic markets. Tanagra figurines—these finely modeled figures of seated, standing and dancing women—exemplified the Greek ideals of femininity, celebrating the perfection inherent to beauty.

Seated tanagra figurine, 4th–3rd century B.C., Greek, Boeotia, Hellenistic period (ca. 323-31 B.C.), terracotta, pigment, 6 1/2 x 3 5/8 x 4 1/2 in., Norman and Amelia Davis Classical Collection, 66.101. Currently on view in the Ancient Mediterranean and Islamic art gallery, fourth floor, SAM downtown.

 

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SAMart: Brendan Tang’s “Manga Ormolu”

The new incarnation of Here and Now, the museum’s new acquisition space, focuses on recently acquired contemporary ceramics. The works now on view reveal their desire of bridging the past and present. These hybridized vessels express their synthesizing of visual histories from Eastern and Western cultures.

Focusing on the intermingling of stylistic traditions, Brendan Tang’s Manga Ormolu blends cultural references. Here, a dynamic robotic form seems to discard the skin of its prior form as a Chinese Ming dynasty vessel. The artist has said, “this narrative is personal: the hybridization of cultures mirrors my identity as an ethnically-mixed Asian Canadian. My family history is one of successive generations shedding the markers of ethnic identity in order to succeed in an adopted country—within a few generations this cultural filtration has spanned China, India, Trinidad, Ireland and Canada.”

Manga Ormolu version 5.0-h, 2010, Brendan Lee Satish Tang, Canadian, born in Ireland, 1975, ceramics, mixed media, 16 1/4 x 11 x 7 1/2 in., Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 2011.27, © Brendan Lee Satish Tang. Now on view in Here and Now, new acquisition gallery, third floor, SAM downtown.
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SAMart: Rescued Treasure

Sometime in the 16th century, a ship was carefully loaded with tens of thousands of Vietnamese ceramics and set sail across the South China Sea. It never reached its destination—off Cham Island, near the port of Hoi An, the ship and its cargo sank. This plate was salvaged from the wreck in the course of an open-water excavation in 1997-99. The excavation yielded wares as varied as celadons, polychrome enamels, and blue and white. All of the artifacts from the shipwreck date to the late 15th and early 16th centuries, when Vietnamese ceramic production and export had reached its peak in terms of numbers and aesthetic appeal. The formal beauty and sophisticated ornamentation of the so-called “Hoi An hoard” reveals the high level of artistic achievement reached by Vietnamese potters at that time.

Plate with floral spray, late 15th-early 16th century, Vietnamese, blue and white ceramic, 9 in. diameter, Gift of Mary and Cheney Cowles, 2000.133. Currently on view in LUMINOUS: The Art of Asia, special exhibition galleries, fourth floor, SAM downtown.

This is one of the five Hoi An works included in the museum’s current special exhibition, LUMINOUS: The Art of Asia.

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