In Print

The Vessel as a Conceptual Vehicle


Erik Gronborg and Howard Kottler made radical statements while working within the 1,000-year old ceramic tradition.

With the opening of Reflecting on Erik Gronborg: Selections by Jeffry Mitchell, it seemed appropriate to revisit one of the essays in Unpacking the Collection: Selections from the Museum of Contemporary Craft, which considers Gronborg within in the context of the 1,000-year-old-continuum of ceramic history. Gronborg uses the archetypes of functional ceramics as vehicles for critiquing contemporary culture, often using silk-screening, comics, china paint, and commercial glazes alongside more traditional methods. The MoCC exhibition highlights this unique voice and style.


Museum patrons move through the Gronborg exhibit during the August Member’s Preview. Photo by Matt Miller.

Erik Gronborg harnessed popular culture in his works, using the photographic effects of silkscreening, comics, china paint and commercial glazes, all applied in a deliberately non-precious and “crafty” way. Three important concerns guided Gronborg’s work. He insisted on the vessel as a valid subject for artistic investigation. He deliberately worked within the structure of a 1,000-year-old continuum of ceramic history, using T’ang Dynasty glazes, for example, on Pax Americana. Last, Gronborg created work that reflected the contemporary cultural moment in which he lived and worked. Satirizing America’s obsession with Hollywood and media personalities, the artist examined his cultural moment through absurdly scaled and vividly hued ceramic objects in forms that directly relate to the historical traditions of functional vessels. [1]


Howard Kottler, The Lecher, 1967; porcelain; 1.75 × 8 inches diameter; Gift of Arlene Schnitzer; 1998.91.33

Kottler, too, worked deliberately within the history of ceramics. This plate is an early piece from his infamous “decalcomania” series. Using commercially available ceramic decals—first on hand-thrown stoneware and later on commercially available plates—Kottler eventually removed his hand entirely from the process of object-making, while continuing to centralize the plate as the locus of his playful visual puns.

Kottler is known for his notorious comment that artists either make peasant ware or royal ware. His goal was to make the latter, focusing on the creation of work that operated in the conceptual realm. While his visual puns, executed through the collaging of ceramic decals, is reminiscent of Surrealist word games, the removal of the artist’s hand and focus on factory production is very Warholian. Kottler’s work, however, remained focused on the cultural history of the plate and its dual role as both subject and object.

Kottler taught ceramics at the University of Washington from 1964 until his death in 1989, creating one of the premier programs in the country alongside colleagues Patti Warashina and Robert Sperry.


Erik Gronborg, Bowls and Containers with Lids, stoneware with low-fire glazes and decals, 1975-1984, Collection of Ron Werner and Scott McCoy.


1. Nordess, Lee. Objects:USA (New York: The Viking Press, 1970), p112.

Excerpted from “Unpacking the Collection: Selections from the Museum of Contemporary Craft” (p. 62-63), a 2008 publication of Museum of Contemporary Craft, Portland, Oregon. “Unpacking the Collection” is available for sale in the Museum Gallery.

by Namita Gupta Wiggers, Director and Chief Curator of Museum of Contemporary Craft
Namita Gupta Wiggers is the Director and Chief Curator at Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, Oregon, where she leads the exhibition, collection, and public event programs. Her curatorial work combines her experience and training as an art historian, a museum educator, ethnographer and design researcher, teacher, writer, and studio art jeweler. Wiggers has curated dozens of exhibitions at the Museum including: Ai Weiwei: Dropping the Urn, New Embroidery: Not Your Grandma’s Doily, Touching Warms the Art, The Academy is Full of Craft, Transference: Andy Paiko and Ethan Rose, Laurie Herrick: Weaving Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, David Shaner: Land Art, Object Focus: The Book, and several exhibitions in the ongoing Generations series, including the acclaimed Generations: Betty Feves. An internationally-connected curator with a national profile, Wiggers currently serves on the Board of Trustees of the American Craft Council and is frequently called upon to serve on review panels including those for the Pew Charitable Trust, the Bush Foundation, and Oregon Art Commission. As a leader in the critical reconsideration of craft in America, Wiggers has written extensively about craft, has authored four publications for the Museum, and has lectured at colleges and universities throughout the United States and abroad. She is interested in the expansion of curatorial practice as a means of dissolving traditional hierarchies surrounding art, craft, design, and museum experiences.

— Posted on 08/28 at 04:18 PM

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