I'm in the middle of writing a paper that I'm presenting at the NCECA ceramics conference in March about performance art in the ceramics world. There's a lot more than you'd think--particularly if you expand the parameters a little bit. Probably the most famous is a piece called Changes that James Melchert did back in 1972 where he had ten people dunk their head in slip and contemplate the world for an hour while the slip dried and cracked. That's all well and good, but there is a lot of work that involves deviance, humor, and even blowing shit up.
I had the most delightful conversation today with Victor Spinski, who I've always known for his trompe l'oeil ceramics work. Spinkski is a consummate craftsman. He knows his materials, knows his processes, knows his decals and knows his china paint. He's not afraid to pour hundreds of hours into a piece, because he knows his efforts will pay off. For some reason, I've always gravitated to Spinski's work a little more than artists like Richard Shaw and Marilyn Levine, who are also amazing.
Actually, today I figured out why I'm so attracted to Spinski's work. It's because there's a mischevious, mischevious soul behind it. When Spinski met Clayton Bailey in the '70s, a new height was set for the lunacy bar. More on that in a moment.
One of the great things about Spinksi's work is that it didn't live in a vacuum. He told me a story about a piece that he had done... a trompe l'oeil ceramic cardboard box filled with highly detailed ceramic garbage. A Wall Street exec bought the piece from a gallery for a bunch of money and kept it on his desk. The brother must have shared a cleaning lady with Joseph Beuys, because he got to work one day, and the cleaning lady had thrown it out. This led him to roll up his french cuffs and dumpster dive to retrieve his beloved art. Supposedly, the dude's boss (and in Spinski's telling, bosses' boss) walked by the dumpster and gave him a highly disapproving look.
An even better story is the story of his garbage can. Supposedly, back in the '70s, a collector bought a trompe l'oeil garbage can from a sold out show, then requested that Spinski make some changes to the piece. Spinski agreed, but as he drove the piece from Manhattan back to his studio in Delaware, he started to chafe at the request. He had some issues with his local sanitation company, so he did what any sane person would do. He decided to put the piece out with that night's trash.
Spinski hid out with a camera behind a bush and waited for the garbage truck to arrive. When it finally did, a sanitation worker (who had obviously had a pretty rough night of partying) picked up the piece and tried to get the lid off. When he couldn't get the lid off, he started whacking it against the corner of the garbage truck until the whole thing shattered, which sobered him up real quick. Spinski got some classic photos of the whole thing, and the story ended like many of the stories I heard from him... with Victor making a quick exit before somebody beat the shit out of him.
There was another story about the cafeteria at the college where Spinski taught. The food was typical, awful cafeteria food of the period, which got Spinski thinking about pranks he could pull on the cafeteria. He had some students "borrow" some diner-style coffee cups from the cafeteria, then he made up some ceramic lipstick print decals, which he then permanently fired onto the cups. The next day, Spinski and some students snuck the cups back into the cafeteria and onto the conveyor belt for the dishes. Apparently, the poor students who were trying to scrub the lipstick prints off of the cups caused a major disruption (and no small amount of delight on the part of the artist/pranksters).
One final prank that I'll mention involved a lecture that Spinski did with Clayton Bailey. The dastardly duo were presenting a lecture in a posh auditorium in Michigan on alternative fuels for kilns. Bailey has an um.... history of making up extravagant scientific theories and presentations, including one about "horse clay", a self-firing mixture of horse manure and clay that could be shaped, then simply lit on fire. The manure supposedly fired out and brought the clay up to a temperature sufficient to mature it. The horse clay was, of course, horseshit, but very entertaining horseshit.
Before their lecture, Bailey and Spinski mixed some clay with limburger cheese, rolled it into the shape of dog turds and let it mature in a nice, warm boiler room in the auditorium. They built a simple kiln out of bricks, then wired up some black powder (Spinski had worked with ordinance in the military) at the bottom. They then placed the ripe "turds" in the kiln, and Bailey proceeded to give a lecture about the pyroplastic properties of dog poop, warning that they could be dangerously unstable. With the flick of a switch, there was a huge explosion, and smelly fake dog shit rained down on the audience. Spinski and Bailey quickly covered themselves in fake blood, then wheeled Bailey out on a Gurney before somebody beat the shit out of them. They showed up bandaged and sporting some makeup black eyes at the party later that night, accepting the kind condolences of the others in attendance.
Does it seem to anybody else that the craft world is missing something today? All you whippersnappers with your unfired clay installations and video performance pieces need to kick it up a notch.
See you at NCECA in March!