8 Women Artists Using Ceramics to Subvert Art Traditions

Lydia Wilford, Artsy, May 24, 2023

The field of ceramics is evolving. In recent years, the medium has garnered new mainstream interest and acclaim. Meanwhile, women artists are seeing long-overdue engagement with their work. As their medium evolves, female artists, both emerging and established, are exploring the versatility of clay.


Here, we focus on eight artists who criticize the hierarchies that delegate female ceramicists and their work to the periphery. Ceramics have been regularly sidelined in the history of contemporary art. In 1941, critic Clement Greenberg introduced his concept of “the decorative,” which carried negative associations with femininity and craftwork—the opposite of the ideal modernist aesthetic. And, as Louise Bourgeois noted in 1979, “When you work in the school of abstraction, you have to avoid…the decorative.” Today, female artists are working to bridge the barrier between the nonfunctional sculptural object and the functional craft object. Their vessels are often warped, asymmetrical, and uncanny—even, sometimes, creating imitations of the mundane.


The hyper-tactile vessels made by these women rail against aesthetic perfection, debating the traditional role of women in the art world as mere objects of visual admiration. Paralleling emerging trends toward figuration in contemporary painting, artists place a faux-naïf style in dialogue with the grotesque to depict the female form. The grotesque, as outlined by art historian Frances Connelly in “The Grotesque in Western Art and Culture” (2012), can “spring from its maker’s free imagination, unfettered by rules of design or canons of beauty.” Clay, a craft material on the outskirts of fine art, is an apt medium for artists intending to transgress boundaries.


Recent exhibitions have drawn attention to this trend for craft figuration and the imperfect in contemporary ceramics. Last year, “Strange Clay” at the Hayward Gallery highlighted the medium’s growing plasticity, while the current exhibition “Funk You Too!” at the Museum of Art and Design (MAD) in New York traces the growing trend for what curator Angelik Vizcarrondo-Laboy calls the “aesthetic of optimism.”


Today, the beguiling medium of oddball ceramics offers a starting point for those looking for something more than the perfunctory vessel.


Brie Ruais

B.1982, Southern California. Lives and works in New York.


Brie Ruais’s work expands the notion of corporeally oriented ceramics. ‘‘The sculptures tap into the body’s knowledge as opposed to the mind. I let the body and clay lead,” Ruais said in the press release for “Some Things I Know About Being In A Body”, her 2021 solo show at Albertz Benda. This tenet is expressed best in Intertwining Bodies, Roots, Hair (130lbs times three) (2022), which was featured in the Hayward Gallery’s exhibition “Strange Clay.”


The tactile imprints which form the limbs of Ruais’s sculpture deliberately recall the artist’s movements while mining for materials in a clay quarry, recorded in the triumphal video art piece Diggin in, Digging Out (2021). Engaging, embedding, and emerging from the wet, raw earth, the artist then repeats these excavation marks in the studio, impressing her exact body weight into foraged clay. The marks of the artist’s clawing hands are then fired and painted, as in Spreading Outward from Center, Blue Eye (2022). These intensely expressionistic, wall-mounted pieces portray the future and cross-medium potentiality of clay work.