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Pomona: Soldner's Ceramic Legacy Lives on at Scripps, Amoca
by christopher michno
Mar 2011

Salt-fired Pedestal Piece
Paul Soldner
Photo: courtesy From the Collection of The American Museum of Ceramic Art

Now in its sixty-seventh year, the Scripps Ceramic Annual, which opened on January 22 and runs through April 3, was organized this year by guest curator Tim Berg, a ceramic artist and Assistant Professor of Art at Pitzer College in Claremont. Berg considers the mood of the work in "Making Fun," the title of this year's Annual, reflective of a generation of ceramic artists who see their work in the context of the larger art world. The show is oriented to the conceptual; much of it is narrative, and it clearly shows the influence of other contemporary art practices, while at the same time being very decidedly ceramic. Indeed, "Making Fun" seems to question the hard, fast delineations between disciplines. Berg remarks that while "much of this work acknowledges and takes advantage of ceramic history and ceramic content, it is also exploring other wider and more diverse areas of content."

Berg touches on one side of a critical dialogue that has beset ceramics for a very long time: the distinction between utility and art. Tony Marsh, the noted ceramic artist and longtime CSU Long Beach faculty member who curated the 2005 Annual, suggests that the lengthy history of ceramic art, which begins at the dawn of civilization, contributes to the quandary, along with the nature of the materials. Pottery, which is in many ways different from ceramic sculpture, but which shares many of the same materials and processes, confuses the conversation because it is mass-produced and made from humble materials. Presenting a tone that was unwieldy, monumental, even mythic, the ceramic sculpture that Marsh included in the 2005 Annual--like the work in the current Ceramic Annual--challenged expectations of what ceramic art could be.

The theme of this year's Annual, "Making Fun" emphasizes the theme of play, melding openness, creativity, and humor through ceramic art. But as curator Berg describes, its artists also utilize "other media whenever they feel it is necessary to exploit their concept." An example of this approach is the work of Barnaby Barford, whose film, Damaged Goods, a stop motion animation created with ceramic figurines, combines filmmaking and ceramic art to explore themes of wealth, class, and forbidden love. Mathew McConnell also explores hybridized forms in Brighter than Real, a mix of ceramic sculpture and installation, combining such diverse materials as slip-cast ceramic, polyester fiber, fluorescent lights, gold leaf, steel, MDF, and plaster with paper pulp. Janice Jakielski incorporates silk, porcelain, and various other materials into her objects that fit somewhere between ceramic and conceptual sculpture.

Throwing the Ceramic Annual and the discussion of progress in ceramics into high relief is the legacy of Paul Soldner, who recently passed away on January 3, 2011, at the age of 89. The first student of Peter Voulkos, Soldner started teaching ceramics at Scripps in 1956, and curated the Annual for thirty-two years from 1959 through 1991. According to Mary MacNaughton, the Director of the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps College, prior to Soldner's tenure, the Annual was a large survey which included one or two works from each artist in a range of media. "When Soldner arrived, he focused on ceramics," MacNaughton says. He included "fewer artists, but more work by each artist." And he gave it an international scope. Each year Soldner invited ten individuals prominent in the field of ceramics to nominate a standout artist. Soon after Soldner retired, Williamson Gallery began to rotate the curatorship annually, but the focus--an in-depth look at a small group of artists--remained.

Marsh considers Soldner's most significant artistic contribution, the invention of American raku, to be a truly remarkable innovation, both technically and aesthetically, especially when considered in the context of five thousand years of ceramic history. Perhaps equally significant was Soldner's commitment as an educator and as someone who advanced American ceramics. According to MacNaughton, Soldner was very generous with ideas: "If he had a new method of firing, he would teach it." In addition to lecturing and providing hands-on experience with ceramic techniques, Soldner provided the infrastructure that was necessary to build ceramics programs, by designing and manufacturing wheels, mixers, and kilns. Notes Marsh: "Soldner made possible the equipment that was necessary for high fire ceramics on the West Coast when there was no equipment to be easily had. In that respect alone he helped move the field forward."

In November of this year, the American Museum of Ceramic Art, or AMOCA, which is located in the Pomona Arts Colony, will open a large survey exhibit, "Searching for Peace, Post-WWII Innovations in Clay," which will include work from Paul Soldner. The exhibit is part of the Getty FoundationŐs Pacific Standard Time, a collaborative effort between the Getty Foundation and museums and cultural organizations across Southern California to relate the story of Southern California Post War art. According to AMOCA director Christy Johnson, the Museum that currently resides in a 3,500 square foot facility, will be moving into a 51,000 square foot facility, which will include 19,000 square feet of exhibition space. The opening of the new facility will correspond with the opening of "Searching for Peace." The Museum currently owns several Soldner pieces and is working on organizing a major exhibition of Soldner's work.

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