On Dirt

These days the annals on dirt flop right open to writings on the informe or “formless.” That principle, as theorized by the French philosopher Georges Bataille, itself frequently recourses to mentions of mud. Mud oozes up around the big toe in Bataille’s rumination on that appendage, which enabled us as humans to stand erect in the first place. Head up to sky perhaps, but feet *and mind) forever mired. Mud is viscous and lugubrious. Smacking of excrement – of excess and expenditure – it is a base material, one of life’s raw essences. And it is home to those poor little earthworms Bataille calls upon to help his readers conceptualize the power of the informe to confer status so low as to be crushable on the spot and made formless as spit. This peculiar power is what makes the informe such a critical operative in recent art history: it undoes a narrative that privileges form, while offering nothing as an alternative. Nothing being everything in the universe rendered formless. In other words, the informe is a noun that performs as a verb. Bataille called it a mode d’emploi. And given what good use he made of mud, the informe seems an excellent rhetoric to employ in a discussion of clay as both material and impulse in contemporary art.

There is even a guide for the discussion to follow: Yves-Alain Bois’s and Rosalin E. Krauss’s Formless: A User’s Guide. Published in conjunction with their 1996 exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, this book puts Bataille’s thinking to use by identifying those moments of slippage and rupture that signify the informe at work. Take, for instance, Jackson Pollock’s “allover painting,” a term that comes to sound like a quaint euphemism once you have seen his expulsive squirts and cloudy skeins obliterate the so-called language of abstraction. Likewise desecrating the field of postwar abstraction are Lucio Fontana’s ceramic sculptures with their scatological concreteness and fetishistically fingered surfaces. Dirt on Delight includes a work by Fontana – albeit a relatively more figurative one than the Formless example, which is impressively compared to a “massive turd.” And though it’s not mentioned in the Guide, Pollock also worked briefly in clay. There is a photograph of him in the 1967 Museum of Modern Art catalogue standing over a potter’s wheel. With an apron over his shirt and tie, he looks like a butcher, his hands covered in muck. The wheel belonged to an East Hampton neighbor, one Mrs. Lawrence Larkin, who evidently helped Pollock during the summer of 1949 make several abstract ceramic sculptures. The picture of one squished and spattered examples looks pretty much how one would imagine a rough sketch of the formless in clay would look.

Since clay was only an incidental medium for Pollock, his work is not part of Dirt on Delight. However, the exhibition is teaming with objects, images, and gestures that resonate with an appreciation of the informe. Pats and piles, drips and smears, pinches and slashes, cuts and holes, squeezes and stretches. The notion of leveling also seems relevant to the exhibition’s general lack of formal distinctions. Whether at thing is kitsch, craft, amateur, folk or art does not signify. It’s all just so much earthworm castings: material to use. In terms of this show, it’s as if clay itself were a leveling medium, a disruptive fieldn of operations in which advancing and refressing are indistinguishable objectives. By the time we have entered the installation and are surrounded, it’s time to drop the Guide. (That is, it if hasn’t already been requisitioned by the authorities.) As useful as it is for making a theoretical approach to this material, it will only carry us so far in actually engaging with the works on view. The informe stops at nothing, remember. Yet, there remains so much dirt to dish. Or wedge.

The first step in working with wet clay is to wedge it. This involves kneading, slapping and squeezing out any air bubbles that might lead to explosions in the kiln later down the line. Physical and direct, wedging offers a useful demonstration for getting to the material at hand: let’s just pummel the dirt out of clay. Slapped from all sides, as opposed to squeezed through one reading or text, dirt yields up many possible meanings, associations and histories for those who would engage in working with, looking at and thinking about clay. Ever resilient, it punches back with constant hits of delight. Like sex, the physicality and sensuality of which thrum throughout this exhibition, discerning the dirty from the delightful is inextricably intertwined when it comes to a material as elemental as clay.

“First of all,” observed Rudolf Staffel, “working with clay (as anyone who’s ever touched clay knows), is a primordial experience that is very, very comfortable. I think every infant has manipulated something that was soft and gushy and pleasant to touch.” Staffel’s medium of choice was porcelain, the whiteness of which does not mask the small of the substance of his words. The infantile pleasure of playing with poop is one of life’s many early delights, and one sure to mature into neurosis and perversions if not checked by, say, a healthy interest in working with clay. Psychoanalysts may find much to read into all of the sculptural pieces of shit and fecal matter that dot this exhibition. Freud himself would have stopped for a beard-stroking pause over Robert Arneson’s John Figure: a sculptural toilet all embedded with bodily fragments. Made of stoneware and glazed filthy white, the work, in which a coiling turd figures, completely de-sublimates Freud’s contention that the whish to be clean is inseparable from the desire to be dirty.

Sex may not be the first thing that comes to mind when one things of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, first shown in 1917. A porcelain urinal now enthroned in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia and other museums of art, modernism’s most infamous work of clay sculpture seems the very antithesis of the early, handmade ethos of Dirt on Delight. Except that Duchamp’s cool readymade is never the pure conceptual object it’s generally portended to be. Just look at the artist’s pseudonymous signature “R. Mutt,” scrawled like bathroom graffiti over the face of the shapely vessel, with its feisty little protrusion, to see how dirty-minded a thing it is. To say nothing of the artist’s sense of humor; don’t be hasty to dismiss Duchamp’s role in shaping the work on view. The Dirt on Delight checklist is riddled with titles that pay tribute, however inadvertently, to the master of visual puns, whose great legacy includes plenty of yuks for art. The erotic small sculpture of Kathy Butterly and Ron Nagle, respectively titled Like Butter and Hunter’s Tab, for instance. Clay may even be conducive to piling on the laughs (or smirks) that can kill less resilient works but which are one of the vital signs of the grotesque in art.

When it comes to clay, surprisingly dirtier than shit are figurines. This class of small-scale sculpture has suffered insult ever since one of the founding figures of art history, Joachim Winckelmann, wondered why on earth Europeans had gone to such trouble to discover for themselves China’s secret for making porcelain when it was for the most part used only to produce “idiotic puppets.” Writing during the heyday of royal porcelain production, he considered the taste for figurines by Secres, Meissen, Nymphenberg – the very patronage of which carried the taint of Porzellankrankeit or “porcelain-disease,” a mania that ruined many an aristocrat’s coffer – to be plebian nevertheless. Winckelmann’s own Neoclassical ideals, popularized by the worthy pottery of Wedgewood, were based on Greek sculpture, which he falsely believed to have been pure white. He thus failed to see the artistry (or delight) in polychrome sculptures of peewee courtiers, miniature monkey musicians and tiny troupes of commedia dell’arte actors. Nor would he probably have been amused by Ann Agee’s contemporary twist on this tradition. Elegant figurines, handmade in multiple, are displayed on a table, like the products of some Rococo cottage industry. Forming a random tableau, they present us with an Arcadia in which butchering a pig is as wholesome and essential as burning a bra.

Prejudices that persist against the figurine grant paradoxical power to those who dare its terms. Aspects of which are expressed by virtually every one of the artists in this exhibition. In turn, their works suggest some similarly dirty works for sculpture: curio, souvenir, tchotchkes and “little Gramma wares.” The last is how Ron Nagle once referred to the work of Ken Price. Said with all due respect and humor, of course, given that Price’s sculptures – their fetishistic finishes and forms – have granted generations of artists since permission to develop their own work along such lines. The dazzling colors and illustrative technique of Nagle’s sculptures comes directly from the hobbyist’s kit and craft of china-painting on prefab porcelain dishes and little statues. Is there anything more proverbially grandmotherly than that? To tally up the score: diminutive scale, decorative surface, exquisite detail, unabashed sentiment and artisanal craft, these are the terms of the figurine. And if they sound familiar, it’s because feminism has made them a generative means for addressing issues of contemporary life through art for decades. Issues of identity and craft, consumption and class, domesticity and labor, sex and beauty lie at the core of Dirt on Delight, and exhibition as feminist in its political tendencies as figurines are feminine in culture – pretty dirty stuff.

Feminism takes dirt in stride. Think of some of the movement’s iconic works: Mierle Laderman Ukeles washing the steps of the Wadsworth Atheneum; Mary Kelly pressing her son’s soiled diaper into a Post-Partum Document; Anna Mendieta laying down naked in the earth to create an ephemeral Silhueta in the landscape. Plus what a field day artists had with the cliché of the female body as vessel, pulling things out and sticking things into holes that were theirs only to mess with. That said, Joyce Kozloff is one of the few leading figures to have made clay a primary material for her work: patterned tiles installed as carpets of color map myriad decorative arts traditions. And there are plenty of dishes in The Dinner Party that Judy Chicago threw for women throughout history. In both cases, however, clay is more a surface for painting than a material for sculpting.

Perhaps it was the machismo of clay that used to keep women at bay. One artist in the show recalls encouraging words, heard as a student during the 1970s, from a professor teaching her class how to throw: he said it was good for the bustline! As a student during the 1980s. Kathy Butterly did not see herself working with clay until she saw Viola Frey demonstrate that a woman could. And though Frey’s über figurine sculptures engage with issues of feminism, she did not actively identify herself with the movement. Nor, generally speaking, have more recent generations wanted to ally themselves with a movement that would seem to situate them in the past or a politics that could limit (or put a stain on) a reading of their work.

And yet, feminism is the context that came up again and again in conversation with artists during studio visits for Dirt on Delight. Or simply through the objects themselves, for instance, Jessica Jackson Hutchin’s kitchen table bedecked and festooned with papier-mâché and ceramic dishes puts family life and art playfully out there (it was originally shown alongside a video of her baby daughter, grooving in her car seat on a road trip). Or consider Jeffry Mitchell’s ersatz versions of traditional porcelain pieces all pumped up with emblems of gay identity. Chalk it up to a postfeminist era, when male and female artists alike deploy strategies first pioneered by women during the radical 1970s. It’s high time feminists called in their debts.

Not all that glitters is gold, as any prospector will tell. You have to sift a lot of mud to hit pay dirt. Even then it might just be fool’s gold, or pyrite, as is the case with Sterling Ruby’s sinisterly sexual Pyrite Fourchette. Similarly, Nicole Cherubini’s G-Pot with Rocks is a spectacularly raw-looking vessel festooned in fake jewelry and chains. Indeed, there is a lot of mixing of it up between the crudeness of clay and the exquisiteness of jewels in Dirt on Delight. Readers of the informe might find in this imagery a near literal expression of Bataille’s principle of “sumptuary expenditure.” Mud being excrement, jewels being money, both are pure waste; and depending on what one is into, ecstatic transactions in loss. However if extreme transgression is not your bag, there are other, no less sumptuary takes on sparkles in and on the mud. One that Eartha Kitt, the chanteuse singer of “Santa Baby” (and who just died last Christmas) took as her creed. “I’m a dirt person,” she said, “I trust the dirt. I don’t trust diamonds and gold.”

Since medieval times, sumptuary laws have been used to regulate consumption and keep folks in their place. In Renaissance Venice, sporting gold or silver threads was forbidden to those outside the aristocracy whose social status was signified as much by their freedom to wear what even those who could afford it could not. In terms of dirt, it’s not so much a question of what is forbidden as what is allowed. Working in clay, artists can build for themselves the treasures, relics, and triumphs that signify power, privilege and wealth. Look at all the iridescent and golden effects, the dazzling colors and rich tones on display in Dirt on Delight. See the royal retinue of chalices, vases and other ornamental plate. And look closely. Jane Irish’s vases, for instance may at first appear to be homespun versions of Secres porcelain-robber baron booty for the bohemian set. Until the decorative painting discloses a homeless person’s cart, a hotel maid scrubbing a toilet, and other less than charming scenes of contemporary life.

Not always so politically overt, dirt is packed with demonstrations of clay’s incipient power to usurp, or at least mess with establishments. The exhibition itself might be seen to represent a major triumph for contemporary artists, who work irrespectively of the old ruling classifications between find and decorative arts, high and low, artist and folk artist. The work of Eugene Von Bruenchenhein seems relatively obscure; yet this visionary artist is one of the great progenerative figures in Paul Swenbeck’s personal pantheon. It was with their actual proximity in mind that Swenbeck created a whole new series of his figurative mandrake-root sculptures for this installation. Meanwhile, at the bitter root of Von Bruenchenhein’s art was the contention that he and his wife were descended from royalty, so he turned their house into a grotto, stuffed with crowns and other trappings of a lost civilization including the requisite jungle growth, all made of clay.

Dirt is ground and artists have always covered a vast amount of terrain using clay. Indeed, today’s challenge to think globally is one that artists working in clay have acquiesced to for centuries. The authority of East Asian ceramics – its techniques, traditions and aesthetics – is practically a subtext for Dirt on Delight. This narrative could be dished in detail through individual artists and their learned predilections for Ming, Tang, Momoyama, mingei, celadon, blue and white, crazing, blanc des chines and countless other wares and desired effects that originate outside of the European tradition. It could also be summed up in the many references made by various artists to Chinese scholars’ rocks throughout the exhibition. Adrian Saxe’s raku renditions resemble highly aestheticized piles of shit and push the Japanese principles of wabi-sabi and shibui – of beauty in humble, natural forms and slightly bitter taste – to an extreme. But Asia is just one hemisphere of the clay globe, which lets artists travel virtually every place on earth, and throughout time. Unlike oil paint, for instance, clay’s ubiquity seems to make it the stuff of cultural transcendence. So Betty Woodman’s Winged Figure (Kimonio) draws a fluid line from the drapery of Japanese textiles to Brancusi. A line Arlene Shechet makes a thread of her in her sculptures, win which many spouted vessels sitting atop Constructivist bases, merge afterimages of the modernist studio with the many-armed gestures of Hindu deities. Why choose one’s gods at the exclusion of other when clay admits all?

The question of taste leads to food. Tell someone “Eat dirt” and best stand back. Unless you are in some “geophagic” part of the world, like certain regions of China, Zimbabwe, and North Carolina, where there’s no insult in eating the local clay, just good nutrition. (A recent dirt-themed dinner held at San Francisco’s New Langton Arts featured a terroir tasting.) Building strong bodies is one of dirt’s mythic properties – Adam and the Golem were both men made of mud. Though the classic metaphor of the “human vessel,” turns stale in contrast to all the “flesh pots” on view. From Beverly Semme’s lumpen pinch pots, cloaked-to-choked in robes of color, to Arlene Shechet’s ashen-toned abstract ceramic lungs, Dirt on Delight is teaming with animate form and visceral clay bodies. Like flesh, clay is largely water. Until it’s cooked in the kiln, the ceramicist’s oven. It’s there that the alchemy of turning dirt into such delights as this exhibition holds ultimately transpires.

And so does this essay, which took off from the notion of wedging, draw to its conclusion with firing. Imagine the smoke curling up from the incense burning in Von Breunchenhein’s “sensors.” The oil in Saxe’s Aladdinesque lamp is lit. Beatrice Wood’s goblets glow with the radiance of their own iridescent magnificence. And the nostalgie de la boue hangs heavy in the air: it’s complicated funk, this “nostalgia for the mud.” And like the informe, it’s another term from the French useful fro thinking about dirt. To speak of nostalgia of any kind invokes a sentimental longing for something that probably never really existed in the first place. Van Gogh went peasant, Gauguin native, in search of romantically simple lives and imagined communion with the earth. To be wistful for mud, however, seems ill advised, even silly. And yet, nostalgie de la boue is not so easily dismissed, given all that it connotes. “That which is crude, unworthy, degrading”: the dictionary definition leaves it at that. But let’s not leave out the lingering allure of the primitive, the authentic, the native, the natural, the simple, the handmade: the very non-civilized conditions that Freud himself said every civilization longs for in its discontent. (Bohemia was built from this boue). However incorrectly they have been deconstructed and disabused within postmodern culture, the critical power of these conditions remains intact.

At least where clay is concerned, as the artists in this exhibition show, not through any sentimental longing, but by smartly crafting their work to represent those conditions – both dirty and delightful – that seem increasingly absent or remote from contemporary life. Especially in this moment, as we all face an economy that has been thrown down the crapper buy corporate interests that seem to have run the world into a state of ruin. Dirt has long been the bane and boon of a consumer culture built on entire industries devoted to personal hygiene and cleanliness, industries that simultaneously turn a blind eye to the environment, polluting it to the point of climatic meltdown. Dirt is the antithesis of the virtual and synthetic. It takes but a speck to destroy a disk, a chip, a hard drive – to damage beyond repair the highly polished surface of a Jeff Koons bunny or a Donald Judd Stack. And yet, it is in light of the overproduction of things we don’t need, coupled with the avoidance and denial of the stuff that’s just there, that artists‘ use of clay comes to seem not only prescient but also instructive. Dirt is always an option.