Did Kirk Mangus Make Great Pots or Modernist Art Supplies?

THE DAILY PIC: Pots shown in a fine-art context risk becoming objets trouvés.


THE DAILY PIC (#1574): The ceramicist Kirk Mangus made these clay objects in 1987 (left) and 1998, and they and others like them are now on display at James Cohan’s Lower East Side space in New York. They look like excellent pieces of studio pottery, but I have a feeling that, for now at least, they are functioning as modernist objets trouvés. Once Mangus’s ceramics get presented in a stylish contemporary art gallery, they come to have more in common with the foundry slag that Jean Dubuffet presented as found-object sculpture than with, say, the great pottery of Lucy Rie or Paul Soldner.

Meaning always depends vastly on context, and the original meanings of ceramics like Mangus’s, which depend on their place in the history of 20th-century craft, get lost when they are presented in a setting where hardly any visitors are clued into that history. Moving crafts into the higher-status world of fine art looks like an act of celebration, and I know that’s what it was meant as at Cohan. But it risks also acting as an emptying out.

Picasso may have been genuinely crazy about African objects, but when he turned them into modern art they lost a lot of the juice they started life with. Or, in a reverse move, start using Duchamp’s Fountain in the bathroom of your neighborhood dive bar and it simply stops counting as a great work of art.

Mangus’s show made me realize that genre has every bit as big a role to play in art as the look of an object or the subject it depicts – the latter two being more or less fixed qualities, whereas genre is utterly slippery and therefore even more important and exciting.

Could it be (here’s me being generous) that the art world’s current infatuation with ceramics is actually a sophisticated experiment in genre bending, rather than a desperate move to find novel stock for an exhausted market? (Artworks copyright the Estate of Kirk Mangus, Courtesy James Cohan, New York)

For a full survey of past Daily Pics visit blakegopnik.com/archive.

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