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Pot Heads

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This is a town with a serious ceramics legacy, shaped by Ken Ferguson and his circle of students and colleagues. Ferguson, who was 76 when he died in 2004, was one of the most influential and well-known ceramic artists in the world. He taught at the Kansas City Art Institute for more than 30 years, and now his students are some of the most respected ceramic artists in the world — among them Richard Notkin, Kurt Weiser, Akio Takamori, Chris Staley, Cary Esser, Andrea Gill and John Balistreri.

The status of the art form and a general public appreciation for it seem to ebb and flow in the zeitgeist — what have Michael Lucero and Ann Agee been up to? Lucero and Agee, drastically different artists, both use their ceramics to examine cultures, politics, the body, and the histories of art and artistry. Their work always demonstrates that the conceptual questions typically addressed in painting, photography or installation work can and should be addressed in ceramics as well. Agee, Lucero and artists like them never bow to the ghettoization of ceramic work. But we haven't heard much about them lately.

Regardless of trends, Kansas City's Red Star Studios continues to broaden the work that Ferguson started at the Art Institute. Since 1998, Red Star has offered excellent ceramics classes, sponsored lectures on ceramics history, and provided studio members with a place to exhibit their work.

Red Star's annual exhibition, Rising Stars, showcases the work of studio members and three artists-in-residence: Rachel Euting of Kansas City, Andrew Gilliat of Virginia and Ginny Sims of Arkansas. Their works are some of the most interesting in the exhibition.

With their hand-built texture and the natural way they nest together, Euting's vessels have a sculptural presence — they seem both delicately functional and decorative. (Her works also include vases and tumblers.) Dark, luminous glazes cover Gilliatt's soda-fired stoneware and a row of shot cups on a ceramic stand. His work, like Euting's, is playful and well-crafted. Sims presents the most sculptural work of the three artists-in-residence: a series of small, simple earthenware houses in childlike shapes. Her use of slightly vintage-looking decals gives the work a quirky, unexpected air — yet the decals also look familiar and commercial, keeping the work from venturing into more conceptual territory.

The exhibition embraces the usual functional ceramic suspects such as footed bowls and vessels. The work is accomplished, but, sadly, too much of it is forgettable when grouped like this. There is a lot to look at, and, without careful editing — which can be hard to do in a members' exhibition — it can blend together.

Tara Dawley, one of the standouts, renders her functional pieces in eccentric shapes. The tiny shot cups are vividly colored inside, but the outside has a dull, brownish-gray matte glaze into which she has etched vertically running text. It's either too hard to read or nonsensical, but it gives the pieces beautifully intricate, visually satisfying surfaces.

Similarly, Andrea Yates' porcelain hearts — if they're not anatomically correct, they're visually accurate — are the most conceptually provocative pieces in the group. Deep red or pure white, Yates' hearts are visceral and stimulating. (The least satisfying is the last one, which she has bound with a corset.) This year at Red Star, Yates has done the most to take her ceramic work outside pure function and into a conceptual realm.

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