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Cocobolo Design
September 23, 2011  | 
Riding in the industrial freight elevator of a commercial building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, you quickly get a sense that Cocobolo Design is not your average posh art gallery. It is clearly a creative space with photographers, artists, producers and designers taking up residence in the surrounding studios. This is exactly what Benjamin Wiener, director of the gallery located on Chrystie Street, was attracted to when he opened Cocobolo Design in 2008. “The neighborhood now has a growing number of galleries,” says Wiener, “but I appreciate that it’s quite mixed and straddles residential and retail areas while still retaining the feel of the New York from the 80’s, in which I grew up.”

In the small, living room style gallery, Cocobolo Design shows the work of ceramic artists represented by Mr. Wiener. The earthy-yet-contemporary ceramic pieces are arranged to display their functionality and boldly convey to the viewer that ceramics does not necessarily mean traditional pottery anymore. Vessels, tiles, tableware, freestanding screens and large-scale wall bas-reliefs are just a few of the edgy, modern pieces on display. In the context of contemporary design, Mr. Wiener refers to his artist’s work as, organic minimalism.

All of the pieces featured in the gallery are one of a kind, handmade works, which emphasize the possibilities of form and texture in the ceramic arts. The works of several individual artists are featured within the gallery at any one time, and for as much as they share a medium in common - the results are as unique and individual as each artist.

“I generally rotate new work in all the time while maintaining a consistent feel that takes into account very different work coexisting in the same place,” says Wiener. “On occasion, I will have an artists take over the full space for a solo show to highlight a new or varied work or to show a series of specific work elucidating an arc in the artist’s career.”

After the opening of Cocobolo Design’s latest exhibition, Designing With Ceramics: Texture and Form, New Focus On had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Mr. Wiener about the ceramic arts, the artists he represents and Cocobolo Design:

JM: What is ceramic exactly? Are ceramic pieces made of natural substances? Synthetic materials?

BW: Ceramics are made from clay, which is a naturally occurring organic mineral deposit. Usually clay must be broken down or refined before it is suitable for creating sculpture or tableware. Sometimes other natural materials are added to adjust the qualities of the clay. Only when clay is fired does it become what we call ceramics.

JM: The pieces in your gallery are so varied and unique. What sorts of techniques are used when constructing a large-scale wall piece versus a lamp or woven piece?

BW: Smaller pieces are built using coils of clay that are worked together - pinched or paddled into the appropriate shape and thickness. The surface may have texture or decorative designs added at this point. For larger works and wall pieces, they are done in a couple of different ways. Large slabs of clay are rolled or spread out and flattened by hand into a roughly uniform surface. The slabs can be joined to make large three-dimensional works or used flat and cut as tile. In either case the surface become a canvas for carving, layering elements and later glazing.

JM: Are the pieces dried or fired in a kiln?

BW: Timing is crucial in working with clay. There are several stages a work goes through; it is quite a magical transformation. After the raw clay is shaped, it must be allowed to fully air dry before firing. During the construction this drying has to be controlled - excess drying can lead to crumbling and if the clay it too soft cause it to collapse. The “construction” stage can be dependent on the particular working method, the type of clay and even the weather. Once a piece has dried completely, it will go through the bisque (first firing), which results in a hardened, but still porous material. After the glaze is applied, it is fired a second time to a higher temperature. The glaze fuses to the surface and the clay becomes vitrified with an almost completely non-porous, crystalline structure.

JM: Many people may think of ceramics in terms of bowls and vases made on a pottery wheel. Clearly, the artists you represent are creating very modern, innovative pieces. Where do you see ceramic arts right now? In the future?

BW: Ceramics is one of the most ancient art forms and of course it has functional origins. There are some inherent properties of clay and methods of working that are shared amongst all artists making handmade work. The artists I represent are part of a modern tradition, which approaches clay from a more abstract perspective with a collective focus on sculpture. The work my artists do is influenced by and contributes to the zeitgeist that includes architecture, product and furniture design. There is a handmade couture approach to current ceramics in a way I haven't seen before. In recent years there has been a trend in the design world focusing on handcrafted work; ceramics as a medium, naturally fits into this category. I think artists will take this idea even further in terms of how and where their work is used and from the collectors’ side, how it is appreciated.

JM: Who are the artists you represent? What unites them as ceramicists? What differentiates them as artists?

BW: One of the unique aspects of the clay world is the community it creates. I think artists from other media can work in a solitary way, but the nature of working in clay lends itself to collaboration and the exchange of ideas and techniques. The physical aspect of the work as well as different methods of firing often require a coordinated effort with other artists. However, the artists take ideas and techniques and employ them in such different ways. Some of the artists like Young Mi Kim, focus almost exclusively on the vessel form - it becomes almost a meditation.  Shizue Imai works in a variety of forms (vessels, reliefs, abstracted sculpture) and her work perfectly combines shape and scale with subtle, almost abstract expressionist surfaces. Peter Lane's work tends to be larger, architectural sculpture with more gestural qualities. He has many furniture designs executed in ceramic, which is an exciting direction.

JM: What is your background? How did you become involved in ceramic arts? How did Cocobolo Design come about?

BW: I grew up inspired by a family of artists (sculptors, painter and musicians). My grandparents, who were collectors of Pre-Columbian and South West American pottery, were also in the arts restoration business so I had access to different sides of the art world. I didn't become directly involved with ceramics until 1990 when I lived in Japan, studying at a university. It was there that I took a wheel class and became enamored of clay. After graduating from college, I worked in antique and contemporary art galleries and later in the interior design and modern furnishings industry. All these different strands came together when I connected with a group of artists who were making incredible work that I knew needed more exposure. I could see the connection between what they were doing and what was happening in interior design, and contemporary product and furniture design.

JM: What is the appeal of ceramic art for your clients? Who are your clients? Private or commercial?

BW: I think what initially draws people in is the tactile quality and texture of the clay as well as the functional and artistic aspect of such an ancient art form. It is familiar because of the material and it’s sometimes prosaic uses. It can be both extravagant and understated. This is something that appeals to residential clients who may be looking for one object to set the tone of a space or for commercial projects where the design objective is not only to make a statement but also to connect people with the world around them. Just like stone, metal, water or wood, I believe ceramics have an inherent quality or feeling. For many people, ceramics are something new, an art form they have possibly never considered deeply, which makes it exciting to delve into and to begin to appreciate it’s many nuances.

For more information:
Benjamin Wiener
Tel# 917.847.7846