Portraits and ponderings from the writing desk of Jill Foote-Hutton.

Artistic Hubris

January 2011 sees the beginning of my curatorial efforts at Red Lodge Clay Center come to fruition. The first exhibition is titled Intimations of Candor and Culpability and features the work of Pavel Amromin and Pattie Chalmers. There were a lot of hopes and aspirations in moving to Red Lodge, MT and assuming the role of Gallery Coordinator and it really is still too soon to tell if these are going to be met in full, but at this point I suspect the goals are going to shift like they always do. In the shifting of goals I believe I am finding clarity, although…

Clarity is an elusive thing, especially in a tangential mind. Ideas snap into sharp focus only to immediately cloud with other questions, dialogues and concerns.

This week I have seen more foot traffic in the gallery than I would have anticipated in January, been reading an article on the evolution of desserts in the January edition of the New Yorker, answering an elaborate questionnaire for a book Ceramics and the Human Figure Edith Garcia is editing in hopes of getting my own work or writings accepted for publication, and this Saturday morning finds me reading a friends application for a PhD program in Europe, trying to stay abreast of contemporary art by rededicating my web bookmarks to guide me to weekly news blasts.

Let’s parse this out.

The work in the Loft Gallery is not revolutionary in the field of ceramics, nor is it exploring new ground for either artist, however in putting the two together I felt there were more similarities than disparities to be found; similarities that would only be highlighted in looking at the bodies of work side-by-side. Writing a synopsis for the monthly newsletter was a challenge in presenting my intentions without sounding pedantic and so I elucidated:

“It would be most convenient to assume that the only common threads between the two bodies of work in the loft this month were palette and figure. And while the assessment would be correct, it would also be a much shorter story. These are modular memories and reflections of our world and it is far more interesting to consider the connections and similarities than to dismiss the "mash-up" as happenstance. Any rendering has inevitable notes of autobiography, but neither Amromin nor Chalmers allows the viewer to comfortably point a finger outward. If we are honest in our viewing we consider our own role(s) in the vignettes presented. At the end of the day all the roles are interchangeable. The work of Chalmers and Amromin, in the rich tradition of ceramic effigies, use candid observational rendering, hinting at the great overlap between innocence and culpability, between memories and tomorrow.”

But who reads this? The virtual community. And what great disconnect there is between the online perception of an exhibition and the actual experience in the physical space. The placement of objects in space is completely lost in viewing the online version of the exhibition. Inversely, the general public, who walk into the gallery and make it upstairs to the exhibition have no text available to guide them. Watching the reactions to the bodies of work is so interesting, but really at the end of the day only serves to reveal my hubris as a curator and artist. Visitors walk in greeted by one of Amromin’s Allegorical Figures which they promptly overlook because larger and, more in their forward moving line of sight, is Chalmers’ “That Song” a friendly female at eye level smiling at them. They smile back and stop briefly to note all the letters piling up at her feet and the attention to detail on the old 45 record player, before they are visually grabbed by the Mudman.

Without facial expression, Chalmers’ Mudman does not invoke fear, he is partnered with a Brownie and together they roast marshmallows over a glowing fire in front of the Brownie’s tent. If anything, visitors are sympathetic that the Mudman does not know how to properly roast his marshmallow, he has burnt it and it remains on fire. Delighted they look up and are greeted by a row of Amromin’s returning Boy Soldiers, all amputees and drained of color. People seem to initially read the amputated limbs as being tucked under. Few seem to snap to the actuality presented because they don’t linger here. They turn, perhaps spotting the polychromatic Boy Soldiers of “Adventure Bound” and a quizzical look comes over their face.

“These ‘pig-dogs’ are carrying guns. Why?” I feel I can hear their inner dialogue and they turn away quickly to see Chalmers’ laughing bridesmaid and just as quickly they leap over her head to Amromin’s “Puppy Love” with the central figure clutching a blanket, looking down timidly and the viewer hurries over close and the realization sets in that this puppy love is the precursor to a sinister act. The blanket-clutching pup is backed to the precipice of her world and is in real danger. I can see the word RAPE flash across the viewers mind, the eyes go up, a hand to the mouth and they quickly turn away.

And that’s it.

Their minds are made up and further inspection of the exhibit only confirms their thoughts. One body of work is fun, spirited, familiar and the other is duplicitous, drawing them in with purported cuteness only to prove very, very dark. They do not seem to see the frailty of human nature I hoped they would see. They do not seem to ask themselves why these two bodies of work were presented as a whole. It was my own hubris that allowed me to think seeing the work would be enough to generate the questions. An important statement in the mission of Red Lodge Clay Center is, “…to share with our resident artists and the general public the importance of art in our everyday lives.” The residents are already true believers for the most part; it’s the general public that I am most concerned with communicating my intent. Here hubris raises its head again, masked as hope and wrapped in good intentions.

The gallery has to put into action the plans we’ve discussed to bridge the online gap, but we also have to provide a bridge for the public that comes into our space. On the Red Lodge Clay Center website we are going to create a pop-up with images of the exhibition in the actual space and include a curatorial statement with the images. It still won’t be the same as being there, but it is a beginning. Ideally, I would like to be able to have wall text in the gallery with artists’ statements and a curatorial statement, but the cost is not warranted by the limited amount of foot traffic. Still this information has to be presented, but these are just surface issues. The bigger concern is the hope to impact an individual mind and begin a landslide that starts a paradigm shift for one person, leading to a bigger impact on society. The anecdotal butterfly flaps its wings.

This issue of hubris is nothing new and consistently rampant in the human condition, even when the best of intention are laids out. We are the center of our universe after all. Take my friend who is applying to an exclusive PhD program in Norway. His proposal states his intentions to use ceramics as an "experimental research platform, appropriating from numerous disciplines and a wide range of nontraditional materials, processes and ideas." His objects and installations explore relationships between objects in unrecognized contexts in the hopes of creating confusion that encourages maker and viewer to become familiar with assessing and managing information which may seem to accost them initially.

The application in its entirety is eloquent and targets his academic audience very well, but I find it so interesting that the central intention of his proposition is to, “…set up a deliberate, beneficial misunderstanding in the work in order to lead both myself and the viewer towards new ways of seeing the world…” Here again we have the ego of the arts, supposing we have some insight to share.

I believe in the sincerity of the quest, if only because I know myself to be sincere when I put forward such hopes. The aforementioned work moves me in its visual poetry and reading about it brings a deeper respect for the creative efforts and results. Yet, this application process and the language necessary for my friend to make the next leap in his career, to find some solid footing in the precarious ground that is art, set my mind on the outside looking in and I wonder, “How can we expect the viewer, the general public, to see what we see when we have traveled so far down a path where we split hairs to an infinite degree?” I begin to doubt we see as clearly as the general public does anymore, if only because we fail to account for responses outside of our own experience. Not because we don’t want to, but because we are unable to any longer. The great separation between one voice and one ear is nearly insurmountable.

And yet, WE, try.

Bill Lasarow, Editor of Visual Art Source, wrote in his Weekly Newsletter of current events: the shooting in Arizona, Sarah Palin’s response, President Obama’s response. He laments the disconnect and misinterpretation in our contemporary world. He then praises the President for his speech, wherein all the fallen in Arizona are called with seemingly disparate biographies. What is the conclusion, how does Lasarow create a parallel in the arts?

“What the President did with the random biographies of the shooting victims, who themselves have entered into the national mythos at random, was illuminate that inevitable connective tissue. I think we all gathered that his was a metaphor of national reconciliation, a call for civility. That this is the über-theme of the Obama presidency is not a point that need be elaborated on or critiqued here. What struck me is that without realizing it my private knowledge has been that the nature of art draws even the most diverse creative people into shared orbits all the time. Not in spite of but by virtue of the very pursuit of distinction there arises common purpose. The patchwork is rough, but so is that of America itself.

The tragedy of Tucson provided the unexpected occasion for collective self-examination. The President's narrative has clarified the process. If it is important that Americans challenge each others' ideas without, as he suggested, doubting adversaries' love of country, it is essential that we honestly criticize the creative production and strategies of artists while never forgetting to honor the largesse of the aesthetic enterprise.”

Lasarow seems to assert the art world paradigm is an exemplar for the rest of society; at least he allows for criticism of it, but his assertions left me acutely aware of artistic conceit masked in self-congratulatory good will. And again, I was reminded of how insular the “aesthetic enterprise” can be.

If I sound accusatory, it is intentional.

Still--I allow, as a maker, an educator and a curator, I am not free from the charge. I just can’t help but remember every, average Art Appreciation student I had over the course of seven years. The thing that turns them away. The thing that makes them feel belittled or afraid or offended or challenged is the image. We, makers/educators/curators, set down imagery and objects and stand behind a tall wall where we can shield ourselves from the responsibility of building a bridge. How often do we ask the communities we purport to desire reaching out to, exactly what they want and where they are? We expect them to take the full mantle of research and inquisition and discovery on themselves as we, full of good intention, create visual metaphors, parallels, poems where there is nothing recognizable to them. It is tantamount to saying, “If I just speak long enough and loud enough to people versed in a foreign tongue they will eventually understand my language.”

In writing my application for the publishing opportunity, I realized an answer to a question I have been turning over in the studio as I continue to make vessel-based objects. I never could reconcile why I persisted in making vessels, and platters for that matter, when traditional function is of little concern for me. I realized I am intentionally making forms that find themselves at the center of domestic gatherings where they have the opportunity to deliver a narrative subversively on a daily basis. My motivation is as optimistic, yet egocentric as ever, “If I just sit here and whisper, over and over and over again, someone will hear. I will impact a change.”

It is in the pages of the New Yorker where I found a kernel of inspiration and a guiding light. In an article by Adam Gopnik titled “Sweet Revolution: The power of the pastry chef”. He shares a journey through the evolution of dessert as he travels through Europe. It is when he arrives at elBulli and meets Ferran and Albert Adria that he really grabbed my attention, with my mind swirling as it has been on this issue of blind optimism rampant in art. At elBulli they have combined science and “…culinary curiosity [creating] a real revolution in cooking…”

Gopnik lapses into creating parallels with the art world. His words resonated for me. He describes Albert as Braque, “…a stolid man with a poetic imagination,” and Ferran, “…is very much a Picasso, a grand maitre who knows it. Like every first-rate artist, he has the kind of immense egomania that is oddly impersonal: his greatness is so uncontroversial to him that it is an act of generosity to try to limit it in words and dates. There is a certain kind of artistic egotism that is enveloping rather than narrowing: less ‘All I care about is my work’ than ‘If you only cared about my work as much as I do, you would be as routinely elated as I am.’”


The two, Albert and Ferran, are deconstructing flavors. They present abstractions to stretch the field and to stretch their audience’s palette. Sound familiar? Below is the potential epiphany I read and found applicable to my query,

“…the true point of the deconstructed dessert was to create a kind of analytic Cubism of the pastry plate. It wasn’t that Black Forest cake was broken down into bits but that, if you’re possessed by the urge to break things down into bits, it’s more obvious that you’re doing it when you do it to a Black Forest cake. The Cubists used guitars and tables, ordinary still-life objects, for the same reason: you knew what a guitar or a table looked like, and so could see when it didn’t look that way. Once the fracture was achieved and accepted, you could move on to your mythology. ‘If we make a curry ice cream, and you put mushrooms there, and eel—STRANGE!’ he [Ferran] said. ‘But if you put chicken stock, and coconut, then it’s curry.’”

Remember this message is not so different from what I reported Theaster Gates replied to the Wisconsin Museum when they asked him to be a bridge to the black community. He told the museum he was happy to be a bridge, but they had to offer the black community some objects, imagery and lore they could see themselves in. We have to provide our audiences with mirrors to anchor them, to engage them and to remind ourselves:

If our intentions are to uplift and reach out, we can’t forget who we are reaching to and work to be really good listeners. Otherwise I’m afraid, we; I’m afraid I will only be shouting into an abyss with words that have ceased to be relevant to audience who has left the building and doesn’t care about my intentions anymore than I demonstrated care about them.

The hopeful kernel is the belief and the courage it takes to toss out new ideas and complicated systems. The courage to throw together Pattie Chalmers and Pavel Amromin with the hope to learn from the pairing. The inherent optimism required to set up objects in relationships you know are going to frustrate your audience is something of a personal miracle. In discussing my concerns with my friend who is applying for the PhD he made the following point: there is a crucial difference between someone who is sharing a concept with a larger audience as they are discovering it and someone who presents an idea as absolute fact and depreciates those who don't accept or hold it as common knowledge.