The ASU Art Museum’s Ceramics Research Center brings together the work of socially engaged ceramicists Erik Gronborg and Ehren Tool in Statement Piece. The exhibition is on view through November 21st, with the opening reception held the evening of Friday, September 11th. Both artists have ties to the University of California – Berkeley, and work in similar styles – using stamps and photographic decals to create a collage aesthetic in clay. Gronborg and Tool promote awareness of large-scale issues through crafting small but mighty ceramics.
Danish-born Erik Gronborg uses a slab method to build functional pottery including large plates, containers, cups, and teapots, all of which are represented in the exhibition. A seven minute video reveals his process: he rolls out a slab, uses stamps or adds clay to create a design, and hand-forms the slab into the finished vessel. He works swiftly and assuredly, and his confidence with the clay matches the bold statements expressed in his finished works. Gronborg’s vocabulary of stamps and decals creates a cynical view of quintessential America – think dollar bills, classic cars, the female nude. One mug displays a set of six vignettes with the words “Church Moon Tree Bikini America Sunset”, as if to summarize our country’s essentials. A large irregular plate from 1968 that looks roughly like a coat of arms features four identical imprints of the statue of liberty, underlined by the stamped out question “HOW MUCH AMERICA CAN THE WORLD AFFORD”. The turn in Gronborg’s work from a fascination with America to a criticality of America occurred during the Vietnam War. His work asks us to consider the meaning and morals of America through his unique style that melds pop art with functional, hand-made ceramics.
Ehren Tool’s work, while also relying on stamps and photo decals to promote awareness, does so through a single method: cups. His striking 393 is an installation of shattered cups that represents the 393 deaths of U.S. servicemen and women who died in the first year of the second Gulf War in Iraq. The pieces of each cup are displayed on individual wooden platforms arranged in perfect rows on the floor, as if each cup has its own tomb. Glazed in black, the sharp shards seem to remind us of the dangers of war, of the many people affected by each of those deaths. Tool presents another war memorial in the form of a video, The 1.5 Second War Memorial (2007). We see a loop of Tool’s cups being shot with a pellet gun, one at a time, each remaining on screen for 1.5 seconds. Every 1.5-second interval represents a combat death. Garth Johnson made the important curatorial decision to include a chart, noting how long one would have to watch the video to grasp the number of combat deaths in various conflicts. For the 3,527 combat deaths of the Iraq war, one would have to watch the video for 1.5 hours. For the 291,557 combat deaths of WWII, one would have to remain at the exhibition for more than 5 days. In a video that shows an episode from craftinamerica.org, Tool talks about his work. He admits that he doesn’t like war memorials, because “Peace is the only adequate war memorial.” He also describes his commitment to making cups, noting that they are the appropriate scale to talk about war, because they work “hand to hand”.
And this seems to be the ethos behind the exhibition. That discussing issues as massive and overwhelming as war and America’s role in it requires a small start – hand-to-hand, person-to-person. Perhaps clay, a medium that preserves the physical impact of these artist’s hands, is the most appropriate form of questioning wars in which so many individuals are lost. A single row of Tool’s wheel-thrown cups lines a wall – cups that will be given away to local veterans and others who Tool will meet and work with while in Phoenix. It is worth taking the time to view them one by one, as both the text and imagery pose questions about war. On one cup: “War . . . is as much a punishment to the punisher as to the sufferer” – a quote by Thomas Jefferson. On another: an imprinted silhouette of a machine gun with the words “ce n’est pas une religion” or “this is not a religion” – a little Magritte joke to start a conversation about war. When a cup is given away and removed from its place on the shelf, the light it was once blocking extends higher, honoring the conversation or exchange initiated by that cup. While providing some visually stunning moments and posing some tough questions, Statement Piece honors two artists who believe in the ability of functional ceramics to combat ignorance and start conversations.