Ceramic art exhibition is charming but lacks focus


A ceramics show that ranges from the elegance of a Chinese export porcelain urn to the cheerfully bold colors of Gaudy Dutch and Gaudy Welsh, from a garden seat to a watch holder, from a pair of beautiful Chamberlain Worcester sauce tureens to charming Staffordshire creamers in the form of cows, is a show with something to suit just about every taste. And that's both the strength and the weakness of "18th and 19th Century Utilitarian Porcelain and Pottery" at the National Museum of Ceramic Art.

The show's name alone implies the breadth of this exhibit of some 100 pieces. It could have concentrated on one period; instead the dates on these pieces encompass 1690 and 1910. Given such a huge block of time, the show could have been limited to one country, or to one maker; instead it roams the world. It could have concentrated on one form, or perhaps a few forms to avoid boredom; instead it gives us everything from pepper pots to roof tiles.

Such an approach doesn't shed much light on anything, and the installation, labeling and checklist aren't particularly helpful, either. In the museum's one big, handsome gallery we have, for instance, Chinese export in several locations, Staffordshire in several more, Gaudy Welsh and Gaudy Dutch across from instead of next door to one another.

Confusion is compounded when there is no explanatory essay; when the checklist is organized by lender (which doesn't help the visitor at all) rather than by, say, form or date or anything useful; when checklist and labels, despite their brevity, here and there manage to raise questions anyway.

We are told, for instance, that a Moonlight lustre plate (from about 1810) is "from the famous 'Nautilus' dessert service." What makes it famous? Elsewhere, under the apparent heading of "Staffordshire -- English" is listed "Tureen / Maker-Clews / Louisville, Kentucky." Explain, please.

If you go, therefore, with the idea of learning much about what you see, you will be disappointed. But if you go with the idea of seeing a diverting assemblage of lots of different things, some charming, some amusing, many beautiful, you have a treat in store.

This is a visual delicatessen that doesn't satiate or fatigue for the servings are small and the flavors varied.

Do you like Japanese Imari? You will find several pieces including a large tureen with underplate. Do you like miniature tea sets? You will find two, one Meissen and one Sevres. Do you like English ceramics? Ah, you will find much, from Leeds to Liverpool, from delftware to lustre. Do you like an American presence? You will find George Washington, and also Baltimore's Washington Monument.

If a more focused show would have been more instructive, this one substitutes about as broad an appeal as one can well imagine. It's a browser's delight.

The show runs through Aug. 15 at the National Museum of Ceramic Art, 250 W. Pratt St. Call (410) 837-2529.

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