This past Thursday I went to an all day demo by the artist Mathew McConnell at Greenwich House Pottery, which is the entire building at 16 Jones St., NYC. Greenwich House is dedicated to ceramics classes for the public.
I had always wanted to make ceramics, ever since discovering the art of wheel throwing while in college. I was a painting major and then a graphic design major when they did away with the degree in painting. At the time, I did not know that pottery as an art existed. Until, one night, very late at night, a fellow art student took me by the hand, and showed me this very secret place on campus, the pottery studio. It was in the basement of one of the building on campus. My friend showed me how to knead the clay, center it on the wheel and start bringing the clay up into a form. I was immediately intrigued by the magic of it all, and the peace I felt when engaging in this work. After that evening I would start going there on my own, and work well into the night. I was a night owl at that time, often cutting day time classes, working all nights on assignments in the studios, then showing up in class on the days the projects were due. I was totally undisciplined, and would not recommend these bad habits to any young person now attending college. I don't clearly remember if my friend gave me a key to the studio, or just showed me how to break in, or maybe the door was always open. But I started showing up on a regular basis and would play at centering clay on the wheel, and making bowls. I would work a piece to it's fullest possible expression for me at that time, take it off the wheel, bunch up the clay, knead it a bit, and start the process all over again, restarting with trying to center the clay on the wheel. I remember reading a philosophical sort of book about centering, but I really didn't know what I was doing. I just knew that I liked the way it felt while I was doing it. Why I didn't just take a pottery course as a college elective, I don't really know. Perhaps at that time I just did not want to be taught anymore. I wanted to discover. So as I lived my life after college, and went where my life journey took me, getting back to this feeling of bliss while working with clay was always in the back of my head. But pottery requires a lot of equipment and is dusty and messy. It is best to find a studio in which to work, and one really does need lessons and a teacher. I recently found all of these things I needed at Greenwich House, and more. One learns so much just from being in a studio, surrounded by others working at their craft. Raise your eyes from your own work, peek up, and you learn something new each time.
About two years before I retired, I decided to dip my toe in the water, and signed up for a class at Greenwich House, and continued to take a class a semester, except for during the summer, when the facility has a lot of classes for young children and high school students. I thought that if I could get good at this, it would be what I would do in retirement and for the rest of my life. I envisioned taking classes, but most importantly, going in everyday as if to a job, and taking advantage of the studio hours that went with the class, and exploring clay at my own pace. Interestingly enough, during the time that I took evening classes while still working during the day as a Paralegal at a big international law firm in their NYC office located very close to Times Square, I would only allow myself to take hand building classes and not the wheel throwing classes. I thought hand building would be more of a challenge. I wasn't ready to give myself the pleasure of wheel throwing, because I thought that once I started, I would never go on to anything else, and might just wind up doing the same thing over and over again. I do think that hand building taught me a lot about what I could and could not do with clay, and it would be useful, when and if I ever did go on to wheel throwing.
Life has thrown my family some curves. I retired, but did not go back to classes at Greenwich House, and my family and I are living one day at a time, and trying to find balance in our lives. Things are now good enough that I was able to dip my toe into the water again. I am on the mailing list for Greenwich House, and decided to sign up for some special all day demos by artists famous in the ceramics world. So this past Thursday, I attended a workshop by Mathew McConnell who just prior and up until the day of the demo, had a show in the Greenwich House Gallery. I had gone to see the show a few weeks ago, and loved the work I had seen. I was intrigued as to how he assembled his very sculptural pieces. I gave myself permission to engage in something that was fun to me, and registered online for the demo. Thursday morning of the demo, it was snowing, but I did not let that deter me. I put on my boots, walked to the subway, rode the F to West 4th Street, bought myself a coffee and a bagel with a smear of strawberry tofu, walked to 16 Jones Street, rang the bell, and went to the office to ask which studio in the building the demo was being held. Someone who was also attending was kind enough to show me the way. It was in the mold making studio, one in which I had never been. We walked past the ground floor glazing area and wheel room, through the kiln room which includes the great gas fired kiln they call "Moby", up some back stairs and into the studio. I was home.
Mathew McConnell's exhibit at Greenwich House consisted of Earthenware with bone charcoal and graphite. He began by showing the students at this demo his one off plaster molds for two of the pieces on exhibition in the gallery. He was going to use them to recreate, before our eyes, two of the gallery pieces, except for the finishing. His process was to spray the insides of the molds with water, brush on slip, fill the molds with clay, pop out the clay when it dried sufficiently, and assemble the pieces. During the second part of the demo he introduced us to materials with which he worked to create textured models. He then created a model for us, using foam board as a base, cutting into the foam board for some texture, adding lines with a glue gun for other texture, and gluing down various materials to layer additional textures. The last part of the demo was creating splash molds of plaster around the textured objects and around a previously constructed model that would yield a two part mold. During the entire demo Mr. McConnell talked about his life in Arkansas, his studio, his teaching, and most importantly his process. I hadn't read the flyer for the demo very carefully, and did not realize that he had a reputation for being a "provocateur," and was known for engaging in a "dialogue of appropriation, originality and authenticity."
I was a McConnell demo virgin, new to his rap about his process in creating art. McConnell explained his ideas on acquisition first hand. His process of creating art was quite new to me, and made me wonder about ethical issues. McConnell said that he does riffs on other contemporary artists' work. Even to the extent of picking out just one element. He went on to say that his appropriations were not close enough to the original artists' work, that the appropriated elements would be recognizable. The elements were a jumping off point. He stated that lots of people work with appropriations in in a pointed way, but not him. He claimed that his work evidenced a dialogue an artist has with things that influence him. His process consists of going to gallerys and taking photos, as well as surfing instagram for photos. However, he never uses work from the ceramics industry. He feels that the modern artists whose work he photographs in order to appropriate bits and pieces of their work, are the gatekeepers of art history. He seems to feel that channeling this sea of art history, in this manner, justifies his appropriations. It permits him to work in this manner that he has developed for himself. His justifications make sense in that he only uses elements of another artist's work, and he begins by making drawings, so that by the time he is ready to start his own work, the traces of the other artist's work are barely recognizable. His own drawings have transformed so much from the original concepts.
Somehow there is a feeling of discomfort in hearing this and in the somewhat defensive way he presents his artistic process. Or maybe I am just not up on my art history. I was not aware that there is seemingly a whole new art movement of appropriations in today's world. McConnell passed around a stack of some such photos from which he would work, or has worked with in the past. He explained how a whole part of the table on which he works would be covered in these photos. When he would begin to work on a new piece, or if he became stuck while working, he would consult the photos for an idea to see what he should do next, taking a bit of someone else's work here or there. Ethical or not ethical? I sensed there was a bit of discomfort in the other students in the room, and some questioned him further about his process, with a bit of a judgmental tone to their questions. I always thought that if one was creating art, it should come from inside yourself and be original. But the truth of the matter is that we all take inspiration from all around us. Artists are known for keeping pictures and clippings pasted up on the walls of their studios, and may keep files of clippings of their various interests and inspirations. We all do it, but perhaps not so blatantly or so consciously, or with such a sense of entitlement.
In the food industry, young chefs are always riffing on other people's recipes, or industry standards. For example, in my own neighborhood, Dale Talde, the chef at Talde's, an Asian Fusion restaurant, has an item on his menu called "Pretzel Pork and Chive Dumplings." What he is doing here, is taking the traditional Chinese dim sum type dumpling and taking it one step further than it has ever been taken, by adding the crispy crackling pretzel like outer layer to the typical dumpling. A bit of appropriation, considered to be a bit of genius by the food reviewers, and Talde's customers who come to his restaurant for a new food experience. One would not question this type of reinvention in this situation, so why question or judge it in McConnell's. Perhaps because his appropriations involve well known individual artists and not icons of an industry. It becomes personal, not general. Something is being taken from a another artist, not a thing. It becomes hard not to judge. McConnell justifies his acts by saying that he does not even remember the artist's name for many of the photos from which he works. It becomes another case of the old ethical question, "do the ends justify the means."
To be fair, I should let McConnell speak for himself. Here is a direct quote from the flyer for this event:
"My current investigations are based on the works of other visual artists. Often using a singular form or image as a starting point, I recreate the work with alterations to suit my own compositional needs. The resulting forms vary between what could be mistaken as a facsimile of another artist's work and an artwork with a source seemingly outside any individual reference. In the construction of these replicant objects, I sometimes find myself trying to pinpoint the exact moment at which the work becomes more mine than theirs. Sometimes this moment occurs in the mere selection of a form, and at other times it does not occur at all. By careful construction of these simulated, manipulated, exalted and subverted forms, I find, at the best of times, a means of reconciling the difference between what is an art of someone else's and what is an art of my own. --Mathew McConnell"
Viewing McConnell's work first hand, I experiences the genius of his body of work, and arguments regarding the issue of appropriation fall to the way side. Dear reader, what do you think? If you have some thoughts or input regarding appropriation, kindly add a comment to this post.