Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Kelly Connole at Carleton College
Kelly Connole is a ceramic artist and professor at Carleton College.
It’s not an easy sell, a ceramics exhibit so overtly focused on sexuality. But that’s what Kelly Connole has done at the Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis as curator of its latest exhibit, Sexual Politics: Gender, Sexuality, and Queerness in Contemporary Ceramics. Connole, a sculptor and professor at Carleton College in Northfield, hopes the exhibit, which highlights six artists of varying approaches and experience, captures a moment in time; to freeze frame what messages of gender, sexuality, and queerness look like in ceramic work today.
Although the exhibit’s purpose isn’t to challenge visitors’ beliefs, Connole believes that could be a side effect. “These six artists are incredible examples of people who have found a way to use their own life experience, their own voice to think about human relationships, whether those are gay or straight,” Connole says. “I would hope that viewers would feel inspired to make work that is true to their own selves.” Opens March 13.
Left: Christina West, Guarded, 2014, glazed ceramic, pigmented Hydrocal, paint, epoxy. Photo credit: Eddie Ing. Right: Ron Geibel, Strike (detail), 2015, porcelain, luster.
Below, excerpts from a conversation with Kelly Connole.
Erin Kincheloe: What led you to this subject in the first place?
Kelly Connole: I'm on the exhibition committee at Northern Clay Center, and a few years ago, when we were just having a brainstorming session, I made a casual comment that it's been nearly 40 years since Judy Chicago's seminal Dinner Party was created. I thought, Huh, it's kind of interesting to think about, how has the work of women changed in the ceramic world in the last 40 years? From there we got to a conversation about, "Well, we've not ever seen a show of queer work in ceramics." Over the course of a couple more meetings, we figured out that would be an interesting thing to take on.
What we came to was wanting to highlight six artists who are working with themes of gender and sexuality, and many of them queerness, in contemporary ceramics. We wanted a good representation of different approaches, so you'll find in the show there's sculptural work, pottery, really loud and out-front sort of work, and then also more subtle variations on the theme.
EK: Why was that diversity of practice important to you?
KC: The Clay Center is really about trying to show all the different facets of ceramics. I think we wanted to carry that theme, that part of the mission, into this exhibition as well. To show there are artists who are working with themes of gender and sexuality in so many different ways.
For example, there's an artist named Mark Burns in this show. He has been making work that I think you would identify as queer-oriented ceramic work for many, many years. It was such a coup to get him in the exhibition because he's sort of the grandfather of this sort of work, as I see it. So to contrast someone like Mark, who came of age and came out in the '70s, you pair his work with someone like Ron Geibel, who is just fresh out of school. His experience as a gay man is completely different than Mark's experience as a gay man, just because of what's happened in the last 40 years. The world has changed so dramatically. So I think that was more why we wanted to have these varying different ages, to say that the experience has changed, the world has changed.
Part of the reason it seems like an interesting thing to take on in Minnesota is that Minnesota has been such a hotbed, in the last few years, in dealing with questions around gay rights. When we went from having an amendment to try to put in the Constitution of the state that there would be no same-sex marriage, and then to have that voted down, and then the following year to have same-sex marriage pass, I think many of us feel like we have whiplash. That was so fast. It seems like it would be an interesting time to think about those issues in terms of ceramics as well.
EK: Most people don't consider ceramics a critical medium.
KC: Particularly in Minnesota, where the history of ceramics has been very much focused on the functional object. That's a really wonderful history, I don't mean to discredit that at all, but if you look at ceramics in California, say, with the funk movement in the '60s and '70s, has been a wonderful medium for a more critical voice.
EK: What is it that ceramics can accomplish that 2-D work cannot?
KC: One of the really powerful aspects of three-dimensional objects is that as a viewer, you share your space with that object, so it's not something that hangs on the wall—though I don't mean to discredit 2-D work, it's incredibly powerful as well. Some of the work that's going to be in the show is quite large, so it challenges the viewer to interact with it in terms of personal space, whether that's a violation of personal space or an invitation to join. One of the works in the show will be a bowling alley, and I think having something that's of scale, that references other aspects of life changes your experience, as opposed to just looking at a photograph or a print or a drawing.
EK: What do you hope people walk away with after seeing this show?
KC: I think there's a risk for artists, if you make work about themes of queerness, that your audience becomes very limited and that there is kind of a dismissal of, "Oh, that's gay work," like as a heterosexual person that's not work I have to pay attention to. All of these artists exhibit quite regularly in shows around other themes, because their work can fit in lots of different kinds of venues, and I think that bringing these artists all together is in hopes of taking just a moment to look at that passage of time. Someone like Cathy King and Mark Burns, who've been making work for quite a long time, to look at how do they continue to address these themes? And how do new artists, who've grown up in a different America, how do they address these themes? I hope that the audience walks away with some appreciation of that evolution.
I think these six artists are incredible examples of people who have found a way to use their own life experience, their own voice to think about human relationships, whether those are gay or straight. I would hope that the viewers would feel inspired to make work that is true to their own selves, whether that's through pottery or sculpture.