Looking at Art

The Clay’s the Thing

At the Denver Art Museum, mud is 'marvelous'.

Tord Boontje, Table Stories Dinnerware Plate, 2005, porcelain, underglaze blue. From "Blue and White: A Ceramic Journey."


Find dirt. Add water. Cook, if desired, at high temperature. For millennia cultures around the world have used this basic recipe to create ceramic objects for use in daily life (and sometimes in the afterlife). This universal practice was the genesis of a call that went out to departments across the Denver Art Museum: to survey their collections, and, with a few strategic loans, to build exhibitions around works that are made of clay—or, in the case of more contemporary art, that use it as a medium or a subject. The result is “Marvelous Mud,” a museum-wide exhibition (up through September 18) featuring seven individual shows, as well as demonstrations, workshops, and other programming. It’s designed to showcase how a most humble material is transformed into precious objects, from the Amazonian ceramics of the Marajó to scientific vessels like beakers and evaporating dishes from the Coors Porcelain Company to Mexican colonial ceramics that reflect how Asian and European styles mixed with local practices. For more recent works, where function is no longer connected to form, curators created shows grouping artists who respond to earth and fire (even sunburn, in the case of Richard Phillips) and photographers who have depicted mud in their work, among them Zeke Berman and Joel Sternfeld. And one exhibition unites artists who used the medium of clay to create giant site-specific installations responding to Daniel Libeskind’s architecture in the museum’s Hamilton Building. That one is called “Overthrown.”

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