Big Apple Clay / Is There a New York School of Ceramics

By John Perreault
American Ceramics, Vol. 14, No. 2

I began by heading over to Williamsburg, but my destination was not the art, post-yuppie, post-graduate Williamsburg of the popular press. I had to walk over to Driggs and catch the B61 bus. The bus passed under the Williamsburg Bridge and, with an old drunk and an elderly lady with too many shopping bags, I eventually reached the South Side, that is, the south side of the Williamsburg Bridge. We had already zoomed past that part of Williamsburg where A Tree Grows in Brooklyn grew. A few years ago, I had already made a studio visit to one of the warehouse monsters on Steven Montgomery's street, but nowhere on any doorbell or sign was his name in evidence. Standing in a doorway out of the wind in full shot of blue sky my cell phone worked, but there was no response. I didn't even know what floor he was on. This particular cavernous street is very neo-Noir, technicolor-terror, post-industrial dread. Very film set. Fortunately the elevator guy appeared. He knew I was expected, took me up and, at the proper floor, pointed me in the right direction. I had to find my way down a dark hallway piled on both sides with books in Hebrew, possibly Bibles. Beyond the warehouse is prime Hassidim territory and somewhere on this floor there must have been a printing plant. Following the instructions to turn left at the carpenter-who was busily at work on cabinetry of some sort-I knocked on Montgomery's unmarked door. I had passed big paintings wrapped in plastic so I guessed I was in the right place.
 
Montgomery lives in the city but makes his way here to work. At that moment, an assistant was helping him lay out rolled clay for press-molding, one of the techniques he uses, along with throwing and slab construction, to make the components of his sculptures. Works were being packed or unpacked; I don't remember which. The layperson has no idea about how much art is about packing and unpacking, shipping and receiving, invoicing and collecting.
 
Montgomery, who first received some attention as a painter, says he has always worked in a variety of media. When he went to art school it was the fashion to encourage students to work in as many different media as possible. So why clay? It has the flexibility to allow him to make what he wants to make and nothing more: "I don't give a damn about ceramics. That categorization has little relevance to my work."
 
Does Marilyn Levine and her "leatherware" have anything to do with ceramics? Ceramics has claimed her. Isn't there a small but attractive tradition of trompe l'oeil in ceramics? There certainly is. Montgomery says that "New York sort of forces you into stylistic specialization."
 
Montgomery straddles the worlds of clay and of sculpture. A more felicitous, judicious and accurate way of putting it is to proclaim loudly and clearly that artworks and their creators can fit into two categories simultaneously. An overlap between the clay world and the art world happened once in Los Angeles and then in the Bay Area and now it is happening in New York. And Montgomery's work? He grew up in Detroit and that background certainly influenced his sculptural embodiments of industrial decay. The pieces, unlike Levine's luggage or other trompe l'oeil in various media, are not replicas or simulacra, but fictitious assemblages inspired by the industrial landscape he lives in. Only because we, not unlike the artist himself, are not necessarily fully cognizant of machine structures do we take these artworks for replicas. I looked at his work, at least initially, the way I look at the strange machine parts spread out on the ground in grizzly swap-meets in god-forsaken parts of our now almost totally cyberized nation. Although they are larger, Montgomery's sculptures could also be idols on the altars of a forgotten religion. And, I need not say, car parts and plumbing parts are not that far away from body parts.
 
Did 9/11 change Montgomery? He spent three weeks just making detailed drawings of feathers "for comfort" and emerged thinking that he had to look at his work in terms of impermanence and fragility as "a world condition rather than a personal fear." Of course, whether he knew it or not, his work had always been about that. But 9/11 has added a new meaning since some of the pieces look like chunks of debris that might have been taken from the World Trade Center wreckage.

Would he ever leave New York? "It is not uncommon to have a love/hate relationship to New York, but it really is an extraordinary place to make art," says
Montgomery. He has a favorite place to chill out, one of those dream beaches somewhere in Mexico, but he usually can't wait to return: "Periodically I need to clear my head in environments that are the antithesis of what I see here."