Colorspace — a joint project of Hideo Mabuchi and Judy Pfaff — has been supported by an X-Grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Project blog at https://colorspace.blog.
Judy didn’t want any conventional gallery pedestals in our show. I thought this presented an interesting challenge but felt a nagging resentment about what it seemed to imply. I make objects; I like to think of each one as a coherent expression. They’re meant to be focally experienced and pedestals support that. Is my kind of small work out of place in her world? It had been clear from the outset that we’d face conundrums of scale, working together with ceramics. Most kilns would more naturally fit inside Judy’s creations than vice versa.
Judy and I both assemble as we make. I’ll typically center a lump of clay, throw a gaggle of parts with no schema, then try to join them into a vessel form that feels whole. For most ceramists, form comes first and surface — especially color — develops in a subsequent stage of glazing/firing. We make a material form and then color-finish it. Judy makes colorful forms by assembling colored materials. Ceramic process, with its disembodiment of color made cryptic by the utter dissimilitude of raw and fired glaze, could hardly be less natural for such an artist. She was horrified when we unloaded the first batch of glazed clay objects we made together in her studio.
When you first take your work out of a kiln there’s generally a prompt flash of loving or hating it — “it” being the coloring and related surface qualities that emerged on a clay form you felt was promising enough to finish-fire. I suppose this is a natural consequence of the weeks of mounting expectation as you form, dry, bisque, glaze, and fire — unloading being a pivotal moment in which your creative labor feels redeemed or debased. Yet, you can’t really see your work for what it is in that first charged encounter. You mainly see how it’s not what you expected. You need to live with it hanging around the studio, see it from different angles in different light, and give your initial elation or disappointment some time to fade out of the way. I have a small batch of pots in my yard that I think of as being in purgatory — when they first came out of the kiln, I couldn’t decide whether I liked them or not, and with some of them I’m still unsure years later.
Judy once told me that for the viewer, great art needs to deliver an immediate gut punch. On one of my later visits to work in her studio, I was pleasantly surprised to spot some ceramic pieces from that very first batch incorporated into installations she was assembling for a museum show. She confessed that she might have come to like them. Judy doesn’t have that kiln-unloading moment of reckoning in her usual creative process, assembling forms gradually out of what-you-see-is-what-you-get materials, and I’ve come to appreciate that that process of assembly can easily stretch out over months. I imagine her pulling one of those first ceramic pieces out of the trash one day — the way she might pull any other curious thing out of the trash — and tentatively setting it in one of the torched foam landscapes she’s been making, camouflaging it among seashells, dried plants, and thrift store tableware. I heard her comment several times that she feels successful with such assemblages when the viewer can’t really tell what they’re looking at. The stab of a gut punch dissolved into the queasiness of feeling like you’ve forgotten how to parse the world into sensible objects, that there are no things but assemblages.
In retrospect, I can appreciate now that what Judy needed to find her way into ceramics was to see the glazed work coming out of the kiln not as objects she had made, but rather as materials she was going to make with. To know that unloading a kiln can be just a waypoint. I have often felt, and heard others say, that as ceramists we sometimes don’t want to stop engaging creatively with our work when it emerges from the kiln. We want a chance to respond to the gut punch of seeing our forms wearing their fired surfaces for the first time. Quite late in the run-up to our show, I sat down with Judy to try to understand more deeply what it was that she didn’t like about conventional gallery pedestals. She feels that perching something on a white rectilinear pedestal — giving in to the urge to “mat” an object and set it off from any sort of visual interference — is always a missed opportunity. Why not let your artefact relate, why not embed it in a network of things that resonate, amplify, meld, or obfuscate? I tried to do a bit of this at the last minute for our show, but it was a halting start. I could appreciate that there was a coherent sculptural principle but couldn’t really find my way in.
I do feel that a thing in its essence calls out, is more valence and interface than entity. It gathers up far-flung threads of the natural world and lived experience. I’m used to leaving each viewer to respond freely to an object I exhibit, but perhaps I can think about de-pedestaling as a practice of sharing the threads that a work gathers for me. I’ve written and spoken extensively about this aspect of aesthetic response, which is one of my favorite classroom topics, but maybe the challenge on offer is to replace the words by agglomerations of things. After deinstalling our show, writing this little reflection, I feel a stirring conviction that this challenge can lead me somewhere new.
During our show, visitors arriving and taking their first look around the space would almost always ask if they were seeing work that Judy and I had made together. I wasn’t sure how to answer that because in a conventional sense the answer would be no — there were not any pieces that Judy and I had both substantially worked on — but at the same time nothing in the space would have been the way it was if we hadn’t poured so much focus and energy into trying to work together. Really this past year has been more about encounter than collaboration. We wrote in our original funding proposal that our project would be based on “the genial will to work together across drastic incongruities in perceptual focus and creative habit.” That will has played a far stronger and more adaptable role than any commitment to make a concrete thing. We don’t have any collaborative art pieces to point to, but we have something far more consequential. Judy put her finger on it in a recent text message — we’ve evolved, driven by our synergies and frictions. To meet in Colorspace we’ve had to break out of our comfort zones.