Located approximately 55 miles east of Columbus, Ohio, the Zanesville Museum of Art currently features finalists from the 2nd annual juried competition for the Zanesville Prize for Contemporary Ceramics, established in 2014 by the Muskingham County Community Foundation, the Zanesville Museum of Art and the Artist Colony of Zanesville in partnership with the Potters’ Council. Images promoting the exhibition suggested that this would not be a show limited to traditional types of ceramic art such as tea sets and vases, but rather one representing the wide range of approaches today’s artists bring to the medium. I was not disappointed. The exhibition showcases a variety of materials, processes and subjects by fifty-nine artists selected from an international open call for entries.
Influenced by trends, technology and taste, the field of contemporary ceramics is ever changing. While many artists continue the tradition of more purely functional ceramics, creating seductive porcelain serving dishes and earth-toned pottery, others focus on the sculptural and conceptual potential of clay. Still others utilize prefabricated ceramic wares, such as mass-market cups and teapots, to produce art objects that subtly address the tension between inexpensive consumer goods and artistic craft.
This exhibition consists of sixty-three artworks densely installed in a single gallery space. I first encountered work by Jeannine Marchand whose quietly spectacular wall sculptures are layered with folds of sanded, white unglazed clay imitating the soft, silky movement of bunched fabric. Her Folds LI was one of several on view eschewing the use of color so often associated with glazed ceramics. I was innately drawn to these works—in part for their interesting textures, such as the rough and porous surface of Kate Roberts’ Miss Havisham’s Beauty – Vase One, a vase of flowers draped with coarse jute fibers dipped in slip. Another highlight included Christina Brinkman’s modestly scaled The Gathering. Resembling a small beehive covered in winged insects, its abstracted form heightened by the homogeneous white glaze covering its surface.
Labels throughout the installation indicated each work’s specific medium, often suggesting details of the artist’s process. For instance, Chris Dufala’s Selling Copy, an intricate but non-functioning typewriter with a steam-punk feel, was made of “earthenware, press molded and extruded, fired to cone 04 with a partial glaze application, stained with a cold patina, surfaced with a layer of liquid rubber.” Such detail, while not essential to appreciating these freestanding objects, more than once helped me to consider the work more thoroughly, enhancing my own appreciation for what the artist had attempted.
The exhibition’s understated attention to process reflects that the show’s jurors are themselves highly skilled ceramicists, attuned to what serves as an impressive or unusual use of a particular medium. The jury’s selections clearly demonstrate their willingness to reward both skill and novelty. Dufala’s piece was awarded third prize while a dipped porcelain/mixed media sculpture by Amanda Salov took second. First prize went to Paul Donnely for his simple and well-executed functional porcelain Tray. Named Best in Show, with a generous accompanying prize of $20,000, was Colby Parsons for his Peak #1, a tiered mountain-like form with an undulating ring pattern projected onto it from above. This meshing of ceramic and digital media is appropriate for a show attempting to illustrate a cross-section of contemporary ceramics, though personally, I disagree that it is the best piece in the show.
Installing an open-call exhibition such as this one can become wildly difficult because artworks vary so greatly. Displayed in democratic fashion, the Zanesville Prize exhibition does not privilege one particular type of object or subject. Yet apparent attempts to group works evoking similar qualities appear in a cluster of surreal sculptures, for example, where Ian Thomas’s large, endearing pill-shaped human figures are featured alongside Alessandro Gallo’s human-bodied, spoonbill-headed couple cuddled in bed, and a simultaneously spiky yet furry-looking sea urchin-esque creature by Zemer Peled.
More than 60 three-dimensional objects in a single gallery necessitated a dense installation, to the detriment of some work. Objects were often packed too closely together on abutting pedestals, which limited the availability of perspectives to view the artwork. Other galleries in the museum appeared similarly compressed, particularly a room installed with an overwhelming amount of historical pottery. Giving the objects room to breathe would alleviate the sense of clutter that distracts from the overall exhibition experience.
Disappointingly, the artists’ statements, though available on the Zanesville Prize website, are not included in the physical exhibition. And so only later did I learn of additional layers of meaning in the works, including that Sharan Elran’s Unlimited Edition of 6,227,020,800 referred to the number of possible unique vases that could be cast from a re-arrangeable 14-part mold designed by the artist.
The website for the prize describes the founders’ ambition that it solicit major tourism for the area. This is appropriate given Zanesville’s natural clay resources and its rich history in pottery manufacturing. So far, the unusually generous cash awards appear to attract quality work from a roster of artists broad both geographically and stylistically. I, for one, am looking forward to next year’s iteration, with hopes that the Prize will expand both as a regional event and as an opportunity for contemporary artists working in the vast and varied world of ceramics.
On view through January 2, 2016
Zanesville Museum of Art
620 Military Rd
Zanesville, OH 43701
Elizabeth Carney is assistant curator at the Akron Art Museum. View more articles by Elizabeth Carney.