Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Eloquence in Clay and Carbon

Eloquence in Clay and Carbon
By Tom Wachunas

“Clay. It’s rain, dead leaves, dust, all my dead ancestors. Stones that have been ground into sand. Mud. The whole cycle of life and death.” – Martine Vermeulen –

“Art is accusation, expression, passion. Art is a fight to the finish between black charcoal and white paper.” – Gunter Grass –

In the grand scheme of humanity’s passion for making stuff out of other stuff, we can credit the harnessing of fire in the development of some of our most ancient mediums. It’s not unreasonable to think of the first stoneware vessels as inventive responses to the accidental discovery of solidified clay at the bottom of a fire pit. A similar eureka moment might have happened in the noticing of powdery black marks left on the skin after touching cooled wood embers. Thank God for opposable thumbs. Prometheus had the vision and chutzpah to see fire’s possibilities and wrest it from Zeus’s stingy hands. The rest, as they say, is art history.

While making any kind of art is to be joined to the existential continuum of human creativity, I’ve always thought there’s something particularly primordial – even cosmic - about working with clay or charcoal. As an artist’s hand caresses the visceral simplicity and easy movability of these earth-born substances, even the subtlest of finger movements or pressures can cause a mark to appear here, an impression or gentle swelling there. A magical call-and-response between the artist’s will (whether meandering or directed) and the material’s surrender.

There is an arresting spirituality about many of the works by Ron Watson and Bob Yost currently on view in “Making Marks” at The Little Art Gallery in North Canton. Yost is a ceramist who makes interesting-enough clay vessels. But it’s his wall pieces – decorative tile plaques of a sort - that intrigue me here. More specifically, his pieces that employ cobalt-blue glaze on white or near-white grounds are stunning in their meditative, abstract simplicity, and bring to mind ancient Chinese blue-and-white porcelain. That kinship is furthered by Yost’s wispy blue glaze configurations that float in gentle splashes atop his grids of little square tiles - like calligraphy rendered in the tradition of Oriental brush-and-ink scroll drawings. Spontaneous, lyrical, quiet. The Zen of the clay.

There is a distinctly timeless quietude, too, in the charcoal drawings by Ron Watson. They’re dark, but not in any negative, brooding, or off-putting way. His landscapes are masterfully controlled, contemplative fields of marks both lushly accumulated and softly rubbed, or perhaps partially erased, to allow for the presence of light. And even at their most weighty and saturated, the blacks are just delicate enough to reveal fascinating, intricate textures. I’m reminded of the hypnotic, calming effect of staring at a campfire and how, with burnt sticks of wood, Watson has magically rendered elegant visual tone poems. Compelling invitations to be mesmerized.

Photo, courtesy The Little Art Gallery: “Twilight” vine charcoal by Ron Watson. On view THROUGH AUGUST 20, at The Little Art Gallery, located in the North Canton Library, 185 North Main Street, North Canton. (330) 499-4712, ext. 312

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