This exhibition is at The Clay Studio and yes, I work at The Clay Studio. Please refer to my “Conflict of Interest Statement” (published in August 2009), a short summary of which could read; I don’t get paid for this and I do what I want.
The Laws of Magnetic Attraction
I chose to review the work of Nathan Prouty because I like it very much. I find it refreshing and surprising. Refreshing, because I don’t often see small sculptures that almost seem to sing with urgency, color, and balance. Surprising, because I feel like the work should be repulsive and tacky to me but it somehow skirts my gag complex with a very fine line that attracts me instead. The colors nearly bring to mind the 80s, there is an almost-cartoonish quality to the shapes, things are pretty organic–almost sexualish. There is glitter and shiny stuff. The work is polished and finished to a degree that I’m not usually drawn to.
What I like most about the pieces is that I could have complete control over them. I could pick them up and they would fit into the palm of my hand and then this little piece of magnetic absurdness would be gleefully mine to carry around like a beautiful lizard. Though this thought appeals to me, it also repulses me.
I am now wondering if this attraction-repulsion has anything to do with the fact that the artist did, indeed, construct his sculptures with magnets as an ingenious way of disassembling/reassembling them for packing. . .
I am now also wondering if I find the sculptures of Nate Prouty so refreshing and surprising because my own knowledge of ceramic art is so lacking. I blame myself and the art world and the art school that I attended for this. I have overlooked ceramics in my own art education but I believe the reason I have overlooked it lies in the compunction of most artists and art professionals to label any work conceived in clay as a “craft” or somehow some lower form of art. The ICA recently made a rather important statement concerning this conundrum with Dirt on Delight and I already spewed some words in favor of that exhibition and this dilemma on theartblog.
Therefore, for my own edification and hopefully even yours– the main body of this essay will be concerned with research. Once I glean which artists Mr. Prouty draws his inspiration from I will then draw my final conclusions on his body of work. For all of you who have a vastly superior education in ceramics then I– you can simply skip to the end of the article.
Is What I Feel Really Love? (Or: Six Degrees of George Ohr)
My first clue is the artist Kathy Butterly whose work I encountered upon viewing Dirt on Delight. Her work is very similar to Mr. Prouty’s in stature, shape, and surface decoration–many of the sculptures appear to be finished with something other then a traditional ceramic glaze or at least glazed in a way as if to appear that they were something other then glazed. What many of her works have that is missing in Nate’s work is a tendency to want to look like a vase, cup, or some other traditional ceramic form.
A feature in Ceramics Today on Butterly states that “Some of her slip-cast and softly folded, twisted and assembled forms are vaguely reminiscent of American master potter George Ohr.” George Ohr, according to Wikipedia “is know by his affectionate nickname, the “Mad Potter of Biloxi” in recognition of his innovative experimentation with modern clay forms in the late 1890s. Some consider him the father of the American Abstract-Expressionism movement.”
Here, it is surprising to learn that a potter could be considered the father of American Abstract-Expressionism but our trail goes a little cold when speaking of the body of the oeuvre in question. Nate’s forms are removed from any idea of a pot. They are more reminiscent of things like counter-tops, hotel lobbies and the austere high-gloss finish on a new car. We must pick up the trail somewhere else– with a clue left to us in the press written by The Clay Studio where we read “Beautifully finished and highly refined, his work references the early fetish finish movement of Southern California in the late 1960′s and early 1970′s. . .”
It appears we must travel west–or to the David Zwirmer Gallery in New York City to see “Primary Atmospheres: Works from California 1960-1970″ (This audio slide show with Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker is particulary informative.)–but we must also travel into the realm of art that is not ceramics. Yet, a connection to this movement can be made through ceramic artist Ken Price who was shown at the Ferus Gallery alongside John McCracken and Robert Irwin.
Ken Price was a student of Peter Voulkos–who is known for his Abstract Expressionist ceramic sculptures which crossed the traditional divide between ceramic craft and fine art–and from there we can attach Mr. Price to Ron Nagle, a member of the Abstract Expressionist Ceramic group whose work also bears some resemblance to Mr. Prouty’s.
Research has lead me to like “Piles and Countertops” even more. Though a similarity between Nate’s work and other well-known artists certainly exists this comparison doesn’t leave Mr. Prouty’s work looking like a dim reflection of his betters. It has become apparent that Nathan Prouty has an original vocabulary of forms that do not depend on the medium he works in. His sculptures, though often begun with a pinch-pot formation, do not speak to “craft forms” such as cups, vases, bowls, or plates. He has created a wonderful body of work that abounds with associations so numerous it is difficult to expound on them all. The work is at once familiar and surprising.
A better explanation of Nate’s work might lie in an exploration of the images on his tumblr, where nostalgic sci-fi imagery mashes with whatever else and whatever else–perhaps if you take all these experiences and images and try to turn them into one small and concentrated abstract bomb you would get the work of Nathan Prouty.