Ceramist

by Robert McGowan

E. L. Cutting. Egbert Ludwig. It’s hard to imagine any parent without cruel intent naming a defenseless infant Egbert Ludwig. In adulthood, understandably, he introduced himself as El, signed his name always as El, was known only as El.

El Cutting wasn’t a great artist, but of course few are. Still, he was good enough to have made The Big Time, or somewhere near it, had he been concerned to drive himself in that direction. Many artists far less than great are found in The Big Time, and El had, if only latently, the cunning and the energy required to get there. But making that effort wasn’t a priority for him. Truth is, it would have been hard to say whether El had any priorities at all, except for his work itself, about which he was passionate and protective. Everything else fell into the mid-range, where lie both the not-all-that-important and the could-be-somewhat-important-depending.

He made horses. Big ones. Big for a ceramist anyway. Which is a word he never used — ceramist. If he had no alternative to mentioning the material he worked in he would say, ‘I work in clay,’ or ‘I do terracotta sculptures’. Except for the most puffed up clay artists, or the very defiant ones, or the oblivious ones, ceramists in the fine arts are generally disinclined to use the words ceramist or ceramics in speaking of themselves or their work, this because of the hobbyist connotations of those terms. In fact when they can’t be called simply ‘artist’ or ‘sculptor’, or something else non-medium-specific, then the phrase clay artist is probably the handle they most widely prefer to go by. Underclasses of all stripes are ever at pains to define themselves and to settle on what words they want to be known by, and ceramists, as the stepchildren of the art world, are no exception.

The ceramist’s relatively lowly status in the art world has not been a consequence particularly of the limitations of the medium; printmaking and photography after all, both warmly enfolded within the high-art family, have their limitations too. No, the operative demeaning factor is clay’s ancient, almost exclusive identification with the humble aesthetics of craft, with utilitarian production pottery, and in this era with the hobbyists, the bisque painters, the slip casters of figurines, the makers of decorative kitsch.

But El’s horses were serious business. Some of them, made and fired in sections, approached life-size. Former fancy-dressed merry-go-round steeds, is what they dreamlike were, lying dead now and in advanced stages of putrefaction in livid visceral hues and remnants of garish fairground paints. How shockingly voluptuous decay can be. And the titles of these sculptures subtly evoked the piteous circumstances of this corruption: We found Beauty, a rotting buckskin pony appearing to have been caught inescapably in a tangle of barbed wire; Sunk, the remains of a colt mired helplessly in stream-bank mud; He got free, a lost horse starved to death on a grassless plain… All of this from dark memories of El’s childhood rural experience.

By any informed and unprejudiced judgment El’s horses were powerful works of art, wholly sufficient and uncompromised. For which reason he was faintly galled, from time to time more than a little defensive despite himself, about their being always spoken of or written about as ceramics, about his being more often referred to as a ceramist than a sculptor. ‘They don’t goddamnit say Richard Serra’s a steel sculptor, do they? di Suvero an I-beam sculptor. Or Louise Nevelson a wood sculptor. They’re plain sculptors! So why am I for Chrissakes a ceramic sculptor? The motherfuckers.’ With a drink or two or three in him he’d cuss and rant, cuss and rant. ‘Motherfuckers. Motherfuckers. Motherfuckers.’ But next morning he didn’t care anymore, or thought he didn’t, or behaved as though he didn’t. The disenfranchised typically take one of three routes: they knock ceaselessly and meekly on the door of The Legitimacy Office, seeking favor from on high, or if they can get by with it they vociferously demand affirmation, or they adopt a fuck-you attitude about the whole revolting shenanigans, refusing to humiliate themselves by revealing even the faintest hint of longing to consort with the sanctified. El wasn’t meek so would never have taken the first path, but he wasn’t bombastic either so wouldn’t have taken the second. He took the third, except that his indifference was only superficial and subject to undoing, especially in circumstances involving drink and provocation.

At the opening reception for El’s third solo with his midtown gallery, where for six years his work had sold reliably despite its unvarying depiction of foul decay, but paradoxically because of the riveting pathos attending that decay, his shows there having been over the years widely and favorably reviewed, El had too much gallery wine and punched a prominent art critic in the nose. One who throughout the evening had been razzing him with the term ceramic sculptor.

A few days later a brief account of the scuffle appeared in the local arts monthly.

SCULPTOR PUNCHES CRITIC

Next issue carried the critic’s review.

CERAMIST HORSES AROUND

‘Motherfuckers.’

Robert McGowan’s fiction and essays are published in over five dozen prominent literary journals in America and abroad, have been four times nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and have been several times anthologized. He is the author of the story collections NAM: Things That Weren’t True and Other Stories (Meridian Star Press (UK), 2011) and Stories from the Art World (Thumbnail Press, 2011). McGowan’s work as an artist is in numerous collections internationally. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee, USA. Website: http://robert-mcgowan.com.

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