University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
Past Special Exhibition at the Penn Museum

Ceramic Interactions: Steve Keister was open from March 23, 2010 through June 28, 2010

Commissioned through The Clay Studio, Philadelphia, and co-curated by Jody Clowes, Jo Lauria, John Perreault and Judith Tannenbaum, Ceramic Interactions is sited at three Philadelphia institutions (the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Eastern State Penitentiary and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology). Ceramic Interactions involved the commissioning of new works (or, in the case of the Penn Museum, inclusion of an artist’s recent works), in response to a piece, collection, or space housed within each venue. The artists' work offers each institution—and its public—an expanded or new context for seeing, interpreting or experiencing their collections or the way they perceive their space.

At the Penn Museum, Ceramic Interactions took place in the Mexico and Central America Gallery, where three recent ceramic works by artist Steve Keister were installed.

Ceramic Interactions is one of over 90 exhibitions that are part of INDEPENDENCE: The 44th Annual NCECA (National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts) conference taking place in Philadelphia from March 31 – April 3, 2010 hosted by The Clay Studio.

Steve Keister

Steve Keister was born in 1949 in Lancaster, PA. He received a BFA from Tyler School of Art in 1971, and an MFA from Tyler School of Art in 1973, the year he moved to New York City, where he still resides. His work has been exhibited extensively in the United States and abroad, including the 1981 Whitney Biennial and the Larry Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles. He has received numerous awards including a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 2000. His work is included in many public collections including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. He currently teaches ceramics at Princeton University and The School of Visual Arts in New York. The artist and his work appear in the recent documentary "Herb and Dorothy.” He travels to Mexico every year to visit the ruins of ancient Mesoamerican cities.

Visit his website at

The question is unavoidable...

The question is unavoidable: why this, now? Why do I make sculpture that looks backward in time to an ancient civilization that was cut down in its prime, whose culture remains alien and suppressed 500 years later?

This current phase of my work does not emanate from a career strategy; it feels more like something that happened to me. I first visited Mexico in 1979, and have returned with increasing frequency since then, resulting in an enduring fascination with the manifestations of pre-Colombian civilization. I have a predilection for geometric order embodied in tactile form.

In the mid-nineties an intuitive leap of pattern-recognition revealed a formal resonance between the bas-reliefs on the ancient monuments and the positive-negative reversals contained inside the Styrofoam cartons that contain consumer goods such as televisions, computers or stereo equipment. I learned casting techniques in order to develop this perceived correspondence. One of my favorite casting materials turned out to be ceramic slip, which lead me into the field of ceramics. I started casting other types of containers including cardboard “egg-cartons” and rubber “cat litter” buckets. Color, material contrasts, and patterns were all marshaled to emphasize an esthetic connection to pre-Colombian art.

In his seminal book, The Shape of Time, George Kubler writes of “form classes” or sequences of forms whose duration in time can be interrupted and resumed as circumstances allow. As an urban scavenger-gatherer I am attempting to resume the formal sequences that were interrupted by the conquest of Mexico.

The three works selected for this project have been in progress for about six years. It seems natural that they should be exhibited among their ancient predecessors, mainly to see how they look together. My outlook is allocentric (the center is elsewhere) rather than egocentric. My sculptures are not copies of particular works, but are conglomerations (sometimes exaggerations) of traits discerned in works such as those in the Penn Museum’s collection. “Ix Chel” echoes the verticality of the Classical Mayan stele displayed prominently nearby. The head of my “Chac Mool” is a ceramic pot that faces a vitrine containing numerous helmeted ceramic figurines. Finally, “Supernatural Jaguar” bears witness to the important symbolic and spiritual roles played by animals in the Mesoamerican world.

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