Kim Dickey Exhibition

I have always been intrigued by the category of fine art ceramics, as it seems to occupy a middle ground between utility, craft, and art. While Dickey’s pieces lean towards art, the methods by which her works are produced are indicative of the multi millennia-old craft of producing utilitarian earthenware by hand. To me, the most interesting aspect of ceramics lies not in the pieces themselves, but in the history and evolution of production in Clay. Although I did not find All is Leaf to contain the depth of meaning or intellectual power present in some of the other exhibitions I have visited this semester, I have come to appreciate Dickey’s art for its invocation of a historical craft deeply intertwined with Human history. What follows is a rather lengthy discussion of the evolution of ceramics, a slight divergence which is pertinent to this discussion due to the craft’s utilitarian origins, and man’s dependence on them for survival; a somewhat uncommon trait in the fine arts.

Once a staple of ancient civilization, mud was used for myriad purposes. From primitive mud-brick houses, to the clay pots and urns made by craftsmen for the fulfillment of functional rolls, such as the long-term storage and shipment of perishable items, Human civilization could be said to have been built on, and with mud and clay. Although fired clay trinkets, jewelry, toys, and pipes were also produced contemporaneously to their functional counterparts, historically it was storage that ultimately drove ceramic production. With the development of glazing techniques, some ceramic craftsmen began to move away from their purely utilitarian roots, and their products began to take on symbolic, as well as ceremonial functions. Ceramics fulfilled both functional and symbolic roles for quite some time before the advent of advanced metallurgy processes rendered earthenware containers somewhat obsolete, although ceramic storage vessels continued to be manufactured into the 20th century. As metal gradually replaced ceramics in many functional realms, the craft turned towards ornament as a way to differentiate from metal-ware and appeal to those wealthy enough to afford the intricate pieces. The paradox here is that even exquisitely decorated plates, bowls, cups and vases still served (or could serve) as functional pieces. In other words, they were not produced exclusively as art. I would posit that a key moment in the formation of the idea that ceramics need not fill any functional roll, and could instead exist solely as an “objet d’art”, occurred when someone decided to hang a plate on their wall, just to look at. This ongoing cultural dialogue between man and clay has culminated in fine-art ceramics, a trivial end to something we used to depend on for survival. (Although high-tech ceramic composites continue to fill functional rolls in niche industries, this is a discussion on the cultural and artistic roll of ceramics, rather than on technological implications, an interesting topic in its own right).

In the current age of industrial automation and mass production / marketing, in which functional ceramic objects are ubiquitous and manufactured en masse with only a tiny portion of the market still occupied by hand-produced goods, Kim Dickey stands amongst a comparatively small group of others as a link to Humanity’s ongoing, hands-on relationship with clay. The ornate and complex pieces of All is Leaf instantiate the repetitive, labor intensive processes by which ceramics have been produced throughout Human history: Thousands of individual, hand-made leaves, glazed green and overlain on orthogonal forms whose layout emulates that of a finely manicured garden, initiate a placid and romantic atmosphere, not unlike an actual garden, in which the long traditions of Human craftsmanship and environmental interaction are called to attention. Dickey accomplishes this meaning through a variety of techniques, most of which can be directly related to processes of producing ceramics by hand, and thus her work is highly dependant on process as a means of informing both the shape of the piece as well as the messages it conveys. I believe this form of production to not only be true to the material (Clay), but also to the craft traditions that have served to form it in the past. By letting both tradition and material inform her work, Dickey pays homage to the hundreds of generations of ceramic craftsmen whose work either directly or indirectly influenced the shape, form, size, texture, color, arrangement, and patterning of the pieces that make up All is Leaf. Dickey’s work at the rule Gallery, when taken in light of the previous passage, can be considered the culmination of thousands of years of ceramic craft, artistry, and production.Furthermore, it is highly representative of the tradition, craft and artistry involved in all handmade ceramics.

3 Responses

  1. This is nicely written, but I would liked to have more about Kim Dickey and less of a dry “history” lesson. I’d also argue that metal didn’t replace ceramics, but glass and eventually plastics did. Of what you wrote about Kim Dickey was enjoyable and is why I would like to have seen a bit more. I found that of what you wrote about it, it’s pretty vague and I’m not sure if you understand her methods of production. Enjoyable read otherwise and she does do some great work.

    • I thought this essay was extremely informative. Your approach on explaining Dickey’s work through both functional and sculptural creations was interesting to read. It was well written and enjoyable to read. I thought it was interesting that she applies her medium to a diverse range of work. Emphasizing on both ceremonial and modern technique. Nice job Jack.

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