Monday, November 29, 2010

Ceramics with an Attitude

By Judit Trunkos

McMaster Gallery at USC is proud to present Garth Johnson’s ceramic exhibition, “An Exhibition of Altered Vessels,” through November 24.  The show features the artist’s new works of reused and repainted ceramics.  Johnson’s art is a strong, narrative critique of popular culture, which he applies to objects one least expects, including tea pots and dinner plates.

Johnson was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, and spent his formative years in a sparsely-populated area, where he learned to entertain himself.  He finished a BFA in Ceramics in 1997 and soon started working with the Pottery Liberation Front (PLF).  The PLF is an artistic movement with the goal of challenging art world attitudes toward clay, and more importantly, the attitudes of ceramic artists toward art.  Johnson completed an MFA at Alfred University in New York and currently teachers at College of the Redwoods in Eureka, California.

Johnson’s website, Extreme Craft, is a “compendium of art masquerading as craft, craft masquerading as art, and craft raising its middle finger.”  (Not exactly the stereotypical ceramicist mantra!)  Johnson is the co-host of the DVD "Reconstruct" and author of the book 1,000 Ideas for Creative Reuse, which documents creative reuse-material projects.

Johnson uses plates—both commercial blanks and collector's plates—as foils for his computer-generated ceramic decals and china paint.  A pop-culture junkie, his plates serve as a vehicle for commentary on contemporary society.

His reuse teapot piece entitled “Made in China #2” is a classic representation of the Johnson style.  This elegant teapot is now a vessel of industrial criticism.  Small yellow hue factory smokestacks release an overwhelming, ornate cloud of pollution, which is the piece’s central design.   It takes several moments for the mind’s eye to determine the narrative of this ceramic delicacy:  what the art lover might perceive as pretty is, in fact, a polemic against pollution.

Johnson’s multi-message disc piece, “4 Plates,” is a collection of four former collector’s plates with several distinct narratives.  “Rugged Individuals” and “Snake Oil” both present a strong criticism of male-female human interaction—even if the subjects are anthropomorphic cats and dogs.  With the two other plates, “Retropollution” and “Practice,” Johnson especially pokes fun at the very idea of the layman collector plate.  With the former, the classic convertible becomes a symbol of industrial waste.  With the latter, a Norman Rockwell piano scene with would-be Dick & Jane flapper singers, Johnson finds an opportunity to comment on the vapid lyrics of popular song from any age.

Johnson explains his work, “I began china painting blank plates and using computer laser decals, combining them to bear larger images in tandem.  These works fell comfortably in the cracks between ceramics, painting, printmaking, and computers, boundaries that I find interesting.”

Indeed, modern art is as much about innovation as it is about commentary.  Johnson’s ceramics demonstrate the ongoing artistic dynamic to be freshly creative yet classically intellectual. He melds Rockwellian skills and images with serious social criticism that is embedded—or perhaps etched—in every niche of popular culture.

To discover Johnson’s narrative ceramics, visit USC’s McMaster Gallery.

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