A Necessary Irritant

Garth Clark reveals seven generations of artists ignored by history

What if, in the throes of his depression, Van Gogh had burned all of his paintings and history never knew “Starry Night?” 

That is sort of what is happening to ceramics, according to Garth Clark. In art history courses on Portland State campus and across the western world, the history of ceramics are missing from the curriculum as well as textbooks, journals and other records of history.

Art enthusiasts might recognize the name “Garth Clark” from his popular treatise on the state of craft, “How Envy Killed the Crafts Movement: an Autopsy in Two Parts.” The work went viral and since then, the art historian is widely recognized as an advocate for ceramics as a worthy part of art education and history. The Portland Art Museum is Clark’s last stop on his “Necessary Irritant Tour,” a world tour of talks that represents the culmination of his work.

The presentation “begins with an exorcism” in Clark’s words. A video of President Donald Trump poorly throwing pottery as a part of a surreal commercial for a defunct business from the dot com boom. Trump pulls out a pot from the kiln too early and, hot to the touch, drops the aborted pot, shattering it to pieces. “He has no skills, makes bad deals and breaks everything he touches.” Applause. Clark has a sense of humor about things. 

“Ceramics feared the movement into art as much as it lusted for it,” Clark said, exploring the history through the ceramicists that colored his life. Interestingly, the usual figures in art history are present: Jackson Pollock, Judy Chicago, Andy Warhol and many others attempted ceramics. 

Clark’s history starts where traditionalism and modernism meet and is told through seven generations to today, where the world’s most famous artists like Dan Flavin and Ai WeiWei are implicated in ceramics and its hidden history. “The crossover has been healthy indeed!” he said.

He noted that critical writing and examination of the art is very important but that “ceramics has no academy.” Though that is beginning to change, contemporary critics don’t know the history of ceramics to write about it well, “but they’ll get better” he assures the audience.

Oregon recently lost a crafts institution—the Oregon College of Art and Craft—and Clark noted this as part of a troubling trend. “It’s unlikely that we will get new ones. I think if you’re waiting for craft to return, that might be a long way away…The paradigm changes, and now, faster than ever, and artists must rethink everything about how they work.”

Clark was brought to Portland through a collaborative effort by the Northwest Art Council and University of Oregon’s Center for Art Research (CFAR). Brian Gillis, one of the event’s organizers and faculty at CFAR, described the event as “a really important movement…To see the evolution of ceramics, something with centuries of history, that was invisible, to see all of that in one short talk is powerful.” Gillis went on to describe Clark’s unique position as an art critic. “Craft has no legacy, so you have to see it where it is. It’s like a nexus point. It seems to come from the people rather than the palace.”

Clark is atypical for an art critic. Born in South Africa, he wrote his first work of criticism—a scathing rebuttal that revealed a magazine editor’s critique of the Queen of the South African Monarchy as sexist rather than legitimate—at age 10. Clark could write, but unlike his elite contemporaries, he dropped out of high school at age 17 to work and help support his family. While not as decorated as the usual critic, Clark instead gained an education through experience and relationships.

Looked down on as merely craft, ceramics were not taken seriously in the arts until very recently. Invisible to critics and historians, Clark makes this history visible.

His journey has taken him all over the world and with each step he was writing, creating and documenting. The presentation is part biography, part history, part criticism and part stand-up comedy. Throughout however, he has some serious concerns.

At the end of his history Clark left the audience with three emphatic points, holding his fingers up for each: One: “Power and money! Every top gallery has ceramic artists now…The art world is now an art market, scholarship is a vanity press and almost every artistic institution is owned by collectors.” Two: “I is a lie! I am a film director, artists are my actors. I couldn’t do anything without all of them making me seem smart.” Three: “Gratitude! An art critic is unwelcome in a lot of places. My need to write was quite annoying. My friends gave me their careers to work with and for that I am very grateful.” 

Clark closed the event by saying, “an irritant is a wonderful thing! Because an irritant is what begins the pearl in the oyster.”