Category Archives: Objects & art

Face jugs: Presence and the past

Face jug created 1860-1880, Private Collection. Photo by Jim Wildeman

This essay originally appeared in the Milwakee Journal Sentinel blog Art City.

In a small exhibition space at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 23 stoneware faces confront visitors with gnashing teeth, wide eyes, and a haunting question. Created by artists who were denied the freedom to read, write, or express their beliefs, it’s easy to imagine they were used as a covert way to say something, or even do something. But what?

The Chipstone Foundation offers some intriguing theories in “Face Jugs: Art and Ritual in 19th-Century South Carolina”, an exhibition that attempts to unearth the language behind objects some have dismissed as grotesque oddities.

If you’ve seen pottery face mugs and jugs and pitchers at craft fairs, consider them distant, diminished relations to the objects on display here. These are the originals, and there’s nothing kitschy about them. They came out of a South Carolina pottery community called Edgefield, where abundant sources of clay and kaolin kept manufacturers busy in the 19th century. Essentially, they are stoneware vessels with faces on them – eyes, nose, mouth, ears – produced roughly between 1860 and 1880. They are animated, rich with personality, full of emotion. They were created by slaves and, later, freed slaves.

Face Jug, 1860-1880, Collection of Carl and Marian Mullis. Photo courtesy of the owners.

This is the first time so many face mugs have been gathered into one show, and to see them side by side is an event in itself. Edgefield face jugs are considered rare — it is believed that only 200 exist — and there’s debate about why they were created. The Chipstone team has influenced that debate by digging into previous scholarly studies, conducting its own research, and consulting archaeologists. To hear the show’s curator, Claudia Mooney, describe their work is a little like listening to a mystery book being narrated aloud.

In the presence of the face jugs, it’s sobering to imagine what they have witnessed. They are among the very few slave-made artifacts in existence. Empty as they are, they carry a weight.

They were described as water jugs as early as 1893, but they’re not glazed inside and they’re small, so how could they be functional objects? Could this description be intentionally misleading to disguise their real use?

They exhibit similarities to African design, but they emerged 50 years after the importation of slaves was made illegal; how could artists so many generations removed from Africa be so familiar with African visual culture?

What does it mean that every jug has eyes and teeth made of kaolin? The material, used to make porcelain, is difficult to work with in combination with stoneware, and clearly required extra effort and skill. As Mooney puts it, these pots “weren’t just whimsies.” Why did the artists go to so much trouble?

Dark-eyed Face Jug, 1860-1880, Chipstone Foundation Collection. Photo by Jim Wildeman.

And what about the dark-eyed jug? A face jug that the Chipstone Foundation acquired earlier this year is an outlier: Its eyes are black instead of kaolin-white, and words are written on its back. What does this signify?

The Chipstone exhibit posits fascinating theories about all these questions. For instance, it points to The Wanderer, a luxury yacht retrofitted to hide slaves in its belly at a time when the slave trade was illegal. It’s known that more than 100 of The Wanderer’s unwilling passengers were sent to the Edgefield region at around the time face jugs first emerged. Most of these new slaves were from Kongo societies (not to be confused with the Congo), a culture with a tradition of sacred vessels, or nkisi, that attract and channel spiritual powers. And – in another intriguing connection – kaolin is found in African Kongo communities, where it was considered a sacred substance.

Signature on the back of the dark-eyed jug. Photo by Jim Wildeman.

The most exhilarating research moment came when a hunch and a Google search connected the dark-eyed jug to Kongo culture, explaining its eyes and strengthening the case that the jugs are descendants of nkisi created to conjure spirits who would answer needs. Since mysteries are best when you can read the ending yourself, I won’t give this one away. You’ll have to see the exhibit.

Staring out of exhibition cases, each face will challenge you and draw you in. They are hauntingly charismatic. This one looks defiant, this one looks mournful, this one looks angry, and I think I see that one winking. The fellow with the cleft chin is rather dashing. A few are shaped as pitchers. Mooney’s favorite is an “enigmatic and fascinating” one in the Chipstone collection that is the only known face jug with a tongue. “Its small size suggests that it was probably one of the earlier face jugs,” she says. “Its expression hints at its hidden symbolism. When you hold it, you feel its power.”

There’s still much to learn about the jugs, says Mooney, and the research will continue. Maybe the power she describes is in the learning. It’s impossible not to be moved by the truths these objects represent, truths both uncomfortable and stirring.

“Face Jugs: Art and Ritual in 19th-Century South Carolina,” is on view through Aug. 5 at the Milwaukee Art Museum. After that, it travels to the Columbia (S.C.) Museum of Art, the Birmingham (Ala.) Museum of Art, and the Georgia Museum of Art. The exhibit includes a piece commissioned by contemporary artist Brian Gillis, who designed a nickel-plated vessel to house and protect knowledge about the Edgefield face jugs now and in the future.

++ Mooney’s “Under the Wings” blog post about the face jugs: click here
++ MAM web page about the exhibit: click here

Curator Claudia Mooney’s favorite, ca. 1862, Chipstone Foundation Collection. Photo by Jim Wildeman.

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Functional enables sublime: Karen Karnes’ ceramics

Five decades after she threw her first pot, Karnes' designs had evolved into biomorphic shapes like this one. Flower Container, 1997, glazed stoneware, wood-fired. (Photo by Anthony Cuñha)

This essay originally appeared on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel blog Art City.

An arts-and-craftsy neighbor probably brought one to a neighborhood potluck at some point: the stoneware casserole dish, handsomely proportioned and glazed, handles on the sides for oven mitts and a twisted ribbon of clay for grabbing the lid. Maybe you never noticed at the time, but that casserole was a sublime meeting of design, ceramics engineering, and function.

It also helped afford its creator, Karen Karnes, enough of an income that she could set aside function once in a while, and just think about the sublime.

After visiting “A Chosen Path: The Ceramic Art of Karen Karnes,” on view at the Racine Art Museum, I’d like to personally thank all those arts-and-craftsy neighbors for supporting Ms. Karnes. In the 50-odd years since that casserole was picked up by a design store, Karnes has been turning out objects that stretch her studio-pottery roots in intriguing and beautiful directions.

Karnes created this glazed stoneware teapot, sugar bowl and creamer (1953–1954) during her time at Black Mountain College.

Knowing that Karnes was A Name in the studio art movement, I expected a certain honest, earthy look that I always enjoy. I was both satisfied and surprised by the collection in this show: stoneware and earthenware objects that ranged from literal to interpretive, disciplined to biomorphic – or that integrated both apparent contradictions.

Forms with the warmth, utility and familiarity of studio pottery are certainly here – a teapot, a candle holder, the casserole. They share the spotlight with provocative, abstracted shapes. I loved Karnes’ boulders, which amazed me for their technical skill but only after engaging me on a sensory level, much as I would stop at the sight of a particular pebble on the beach. (The display cases might not always encourage you, but be sure to get a 360-degree look at these.)

Flower holders sprout multiple spouts, vessels take on fabulous cantilevered wings, bowls grow spliced feet. Glazes that look subtle at first are deceivingly complex.

Winged Vessel, 1989. Glazed stoneware, wood-fired. Photo by Anthony Cuñha

Karnes has been at this since the 1950s. She has adapted to and integrated technologies, materials and aesthetic principles that have evolved many times over, and she has crossed paths with nonconformist stars that ceramics geeks know all about. She’s a treasure.

The earliest piece in the RAM show is from 1950, six decades are represented, and she’s still at work. It’s a delight to see one artist’s creative evolution laid out in a three-dimensional timeline that, for me, also had much to say about the last 50 years we’ve lived in. “I was fortunate to be in on the beginning of the ceramics movement,” Karnes has said. We’re fortunate, too.

“A Chosen Path,” organized by the Arizona State University Art Museum Ceramics Research Center, is the first major retrospective of her work. It will be on view at the Racine Art Museum through May 27.

:: Learn more about the Racine Art Museum here.

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News musings

Let's Go Get 'Em!, Aleksandra Mir

I stopped in the New Museum to see what a bunch of smart, interesting minds would have to say about newspapers, but in the time I spent there I didn’t get too far past the observation expressed later that night at a gathering I attended: “Anyone who’s ever read a newspaper knows how silly they are, we don’t need an exhibit to tell us that.”

By “silly,” this observer (who happens to read a daily newspaper religiously) was really saying: Anyone who expects newspapers to be something other than what they are is fooling themselves. They are what they are. Seen through that lens, this exhibit was full of high expectations met with reactions you’ve heard before at the water cooler.

Compare the phenomenon of a daily newspaper to museum-quality questions, and it’s just too easy to be critical. Is it really news that newspapers focus on the interests of local readers and devote less attention to those who live elsewhere? That their interpretation of events don’t always hold up over time? That the stories in a given day are never complete? And that, sometimes, they are a cheap alternative to throw rugs? As someone who spent decades in the trenches of those questions and more, I didn’t find these observations particularly timely or fresh.

“The Last Newspaper” takes up three-plus floors of the New Museum (which, if you haven’t visited in a while, moved into new lodgings on the Bowery almost threeyears ago). It’s pretty ambitious stuff. I spent most of the time I had available checking out works from 27 artists that spanned a period from 1967 to 2010. But the project also puts five partner organizations (StoryCorps is one of them) to work conducting on-site discussions, compiling a weekly newspaper, and encouraging participation. Video, digital, audio and three-dimensional interpretations — they’re all here. Even the obligatory dresses made from newspapers. The dresses, by Thomas Hirschhorn, had me longing for Tim Gunn. (“Thomas. Talk to me.”)

Re-imagined news pages — photos repeated, text rerarranged, whole pages redrawn, superimposed with images and text — were everywhere. Font geek that I am, I loved seeing the elements of a newspaper page deconstructed and reconstructed, whether reverently or ir-. Wolfgang Tillmans incorporated documents, brochures, postcards and printouts on tabletops to evoke the messy, ongoing work of piecing together events and trying to make sense of it all. I was inexplicably enthralled by a video interview with the obituary editor of the New York Times (imagine a perfectly nice guy applying a chilling “sliding scale of importance” to the deceased).

But it was the works that juxtaposed personal, visceral reactions with the printed page that appealed to me. Judith Bernstein’s collages from 1968 and 1967, which play off clippings about civil rights and the Vietnam war, felt much more present to me. The smudged lines, urgent hand-written words and objects so clearly worn by human use give them a voice I welcomed. The “Vanilla Nightmares” series, Adrian Piper’s drawings-on-front-pages  from the 1980s, had the same effect on me: human forms and human emotions responding to the detached accounts on the page. It’s a comment on race that doesn’t try to be clever.

Are You Running With Me Jesus?, Judith Bernstein, 1967

It’s never a bad thing to apply critical (and creative) thinking to the media, especially the under-danger-of-extinction mainstream media. And it can be bracing to watch artists respond to the news itself. But the thinking here didn’t move me forward in any particularly helpful way. Surely, newspapers — or the idea of them — are worth more than retrospective criticism?

Looking over my notes from that visit, I see I scratched down more thoughts about the second-floor exhibition, “Free,” which looked at the Internet as a public art space. It had me stretching my mind to reconcile that big morph we’re all experience as we wade from the old news streams into the new (well, some of us are still wading). The truths that can come out of randomness, the disappearing line between the observer an the observed, the dissolving filter between occurrence and interpretation — now there’s something newsworthy. I think the New Museum buried the lead.

“The Last Newspaper” is open through Jan. 9. This blog post also appears on Art City, the visual arts blog at JSOnline.

:: About the New Museum:

:: About this exhibit:

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Lakefront, part 2

Oops, in my previous post I forgot Betsy Youngquist’s spectacular objects! Booth 128. Check out the eyeballs.

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Favorites from Lakefront Festival of the Arts

Went to the Lakefront Festival of the Arts yesterday with my friends Carrie and Mary Louise. The weather was glorious — finally, an unequivocal summer day — and grand to run into so many old friends there. My appetite is bigger than my wallet at these events, so I am fond of collecting artists’ cards for future possibilities. Here are the ones I collected. You’ll see I have a particular weakness ceramics. If you’re going today, stop by and check them out! Or go to their websites. (Don’t forget that there are booths inside the museum’s Quadracci Pavilion, some of my favorites were there.)

Eshelman Pottery.

We thought this work would be perfect for a post-modern decor. I love the clean, crisp look of it. The casserole pictured here comes in white, too, which was my favorite. And check out the fabulous trays.

Booth 137.

Winthrop Byers Stoneware

Stoneware can be very casual and great for everyday use, which this is (oven= and dishwasher-safe, etc.). But I think this work is also modern-looking. Love the glazes. The bowls, for their size, were very reasonably priced. I bought one as a wedding gift but don’t tell!

His booth is inside the museum (show your wristband to get in)

Patrick Dragon

I liked the vessels in the series shown here. Beautiful, intricate designs on the outside, gorgeous things happening with the glaze on the inside. The most affordable ones were awfully tempting: much less intricate designs, fewer colors, but the simplicity appealed to me very much. Wish I had chatted with him about how he get the surface to look this way.

Booth 104

Rick Hintze

One of his vases was my runner-up for a wedding gift. I went for utility over decoration, with some regret. His pots have interesting shapes and surface patterns, and the colors hit my personal sweet spot. I couldn’t find images of my favorites, which were vases glazed in blood-red. The pot shown here has a lid and would make a nice gift.

Booth 89

George Lowe

I’ve seen this guy around the craft-fair circuit for a long time and when I’ve purchased one of these sweet oval vases as a gift, it’s been a hit (easy to fit on a narrow shelf or mantel). I’d call his work cabin-friendly, with a kind of rustic look. I love his colors and glazes. And it’s pretty affordable, too.

Booth 125

Paintings and drawings by Sarah Giannobile

She was showing some paintings for $175 that wouldn’t need framing, and I wanted one! Not in the budget, though, so I had a $7 glass of wine at Cafe Calatrava, instead.

Booth 36 (also inside the museum)

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