Unified diversity: so Dutch

September 25, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

One thing very Dutch about contemporary Dutch ceramics, says Olaf Stevens, is their diversity.

"You see ceramics in Scandinavia or France, for instance, and you say, yes, this is typically French or Scandinavian. With Dutch ceramics it's quite diverse what people make. They are more individualists. They like to stand out from what's going on. The attitude is, I have to do something different."

There are, however, some unifying characteristics.

"It is possible to whisper, or to speak, or to shout," says Netty van den Heuvel. "Americans shout. The Dutch whisper or speak."

"There is an aspect of simplicity and soberness in decoration," says Erik Voorrips. "And a sense of working out the medium in depth."

To Wouter Dam, Dutch ceramists "want to be technically as perfect as possible."

And Stevens adds, "With the French there are rough, earthen textures. You don't find that so much in Dutch ceramics. It's subtle, fingertip work. Then there is the aspect of complete control of the material. [Dutch ceramists] want to control it and not let the clay get away. It's not random or arbitrary [work] even when it looks so."

These people should know. Stevens, van den Heuvel and Dam are among the finest contemporary ceramists working in the Netherlands today, and Voorrips is the curator traveling with "Facets of the Same Nature," the exhibition of contemporary Dutch ceramics that opened this week at the National Museum of Ceramic Art (NMCA). It is the largest show of contemporary Dutch ceramics to come to this country, and after it closes in Baltimore at the end of November it will go to the Everson Museum in Syracuse, N.Y., and possibly to other American cities.

It was organized by the Tonk Foundation, a Netherlands institution set up specifically to promote exhibitions of Dutch ceramics in foreign countries. Shirley Brown, chairman of the board of the NMCA, says Voorrips called her about a year ago to propose the show. "He said he had heard of us in New York."

"Facets" contains the work of 18 ceramists including the three who came to the Baltimore opening. They constitute, Voorrips says, probably a majority of the foremost contemporary ceramists in the Netherlands today.

"There are about 30 of the best, ones who are full-time, not amateurs." If that doesn't sound like many, the Netherlands is a small country. It has a long ceramics tradition, as anyone who has heard of Delftware will know; but that's a ceramics industry, quite different from the individual studio potter creating unique works. That development is quite recent, Voorrips says.

"Before the [Second World] war there were very few. After the war the interest of young people increased. The development of modern ceramics really came about in the 1960s. Some of the artists in this show were among the first generation -- Johan van Loon, Johnny Rolf, Jan de Rooden and Jan van der Vaart. Van der Vaart was especially influential to the younger generation as a teacher."

But the artists in this show are so individual that it's difficult if not impossible to tell who might have influenced whom or where one generation ends and another begins.

Among the older artists, van Loon's painted and textured forms recall his education as a textile designer, while van der Vaart's monochromatic geometric forms are both utilitarian and suggestive of architecture.

De Rooden's stoneware forms are modest in scale but massive and monumental in feel, while Rolf produces figurative work with serene faces influenced by her travels in Egypt and India. Lies Cosijn, another of the older generation, decorates her work with topical subjects, from women's issues to war, including recent pieces on the war in the former Yugoslavia.

Among the younger generation, born in the 1950s, van den Heuvel's porcelain pieces are composed of multiple, repeated geometric shapes. "I started in sculpture," she says, "so I start with an idea, and with a drawing. I work in porcelain because it's neutral and has a shade that gives the most space to my idea, and I build my work in a way that's not common with porcelain, because I want to see how I can do more with it. I am not interested in surface; [the work] is like bones, minerals and molecules -- you can look into it and through it."

Stevens also works in porcelain, but his vessels are decorated with sophisticated shapes in varieties of colors including gold and silver. His works have a thickness usually associated with ceramic materials other than porcelain.

"My work has evolved from sculpture to industrial design," he says, "and ceramics are along the way. They come from ideas I have for certain experiments with textures, glazes and forms. I work slowly and want to get a balance of decoration, color and form. I use porcelain because it's so white and hard and color looks so nice on it, not because it's translucent. No other material has this brightness."

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