In an essay accompanying the exhibit "Contemporary Norwegian Ceramics," Jan Lauritz Opstad writes, "Norwegian ceramics combines American freedom and lack of respect for tradition with the more sophisticated taste of the Europeans."
Now that might mean one of two things: It might mean the Norwegians have married American freedom with European sophistication and come up with a synthesis superior to either. Or it might mean the Norwegians fall between two stools.
And it's the latter impression that this show leaves with the viewer. Since the exhibit contains only 30 pieces by 13 artists, perhaps it's too small a sample on which to judge a whole nation's ceramics. On the other hand, it was organized with the cooperation of the Museum of Applied Art in Oslo and the Oslo International Ceramics Symposium, and sent here (after a European tour) by the Norwegian government, so one assumes that they cared enough to send their very best.
Not that their very best isn't awfully good; in fact, in its own way it's quite impressive. Norway, the accompanying catalog tells us, has come a long way in the last couple of decades in getting away from a utilitarian tradition and stepping into the sculptural
present of ceramics. And the show consists entirely of sculptural work; even when the forms are nominally utilitarian, such as Arne Ase's elegant white "Plate" and "Vase," the size and the decoration make it clear that these are meant as works of art, not as objects to be put to use.
And as works of art these ceramics are obviously fine, whether it's Kari Christensen's mysterious "Ritual House" pieces, or Fritz Harstrup's tailored-looking black and terra cotta geometric forms; whether it's Ole Lislerud's "Portal" and "Pylon" works that appear to combine the influences of ancient cultures and minimalism, or Elin Solstad's jaunty creatures made of combinations of organic shapes and painted in cheerful colors.
But whatever their attributes, these works don't add up to a show that exhibits either a great deal of originality or a distinct national character. They look like -- not exactly like, but close enough to -- what we've seen already, and if this were a show of, for instance, ceramics from the American Midwest one would say, "Well, they have admirable craftspeople out there, but they don't have much imagination."
Despite the natural desire not to be discourteous to visitors from other lands, there's nevertheless an obligation to say the same about these artists. This is going to sound disgustingly chauvinistic, but what they need is a little less European sophistication and a little more American freedom.
Where: National Museum of Ceramic Art, 250 W. Pratt St.
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Admission: $1, children 12 and younger free.
Call: (410) 837-2529.