Arresting Sensuality in Clay
By Tom Wachunas
“Let us honor clay, the impressionable and responsive art media;…the most direct and colorful sculptural voice and the most exciting.” -Waylande Gregory
EXHIBIT: Waylande Gegory: Art Deco Ceramics And The Atomic Impulse, at Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue North THROUGH JULY 20 www.cantonart.org
Considering the prolific, diverse output and unarguable importance of American ceramist Waylande Gregory (1905-1971), one surprising aspect of this exhibit of more than sixty of his works (in ceramics, glass and painting) is that it marks his first retrospective. This major project was organized by the University of Richmond Museums, Virginia, and curated by Thomas C. Folk, Ph.D., a ceramics scholar. I recommend picking up a copy of the current CMA magazine while you’re in the museum, and reading the excellent cover story. I also include here links to two comprehensive articles on Gregory’s life and work by Mr. Folk:
After the devastation of World War I, Art Deco signaled not an outright departure from Art Nouveau’s highly ornate, stylized naturalism, but rather a distilling or refinement of those characteristics. Along with that refinement, and against the backdrop of the burgeoning Jazz Age, Art Deco as pure design was in many ways an exuberant manifestation of Modernism’s eclecticism in an age of ever- expanding industrial and technological advances. As a style, it was as much a playful cultural attitude about speed, power and experimentation as it was an elegant formal aesthetic.
And there are attitudes aplenty in this exhibit, widening our appreciation of Art Deco’s place in the context of Modernism. Waylande Gregory’s oeuvre is a titillating amalgam of stylistic elements, and certainly not restricted to Deco’s more common architectural associations with zig-zag symmetries and sleek geometries.
That said, beyond the impressive collection of superbly crafted, shimmering plates and vessels, there are many ceramic sculptures here – human and animal - invested with a marvelous fluidity of line and lyrical spirit, harkening at times to Romantic expressivity and even a Neoclassical sensibility. Two exquisite figural examples are Nautch Dancer and Salome. Both of these glazed earthenware gems, made when Gregory was the primary sculptor at Cowan Pottery in Rocky River, Ohio (1928-1932), exude palpable sensuality.
Sensuality of a rawer, more plump and visceral sort is at work in four terra cotta sculptures that were part of a group of eight “Electrons” (four male, four female) that originally surrounded Gregory’s ambitious Fountain of the Atom, made for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. These are relatively heroic in size, and clearly point to Gregory’s daring and ingenuity. As written in the CMA magazine essay, Gregory “…was the first modern ceramist to create large-scale ceramic sculptures. Similar to the technique developed by the ancient Etruscans, he fired is monumental sculptures only once…”
CMA Curator Lynnda Arrasmith and Assistant Curator Kathy Fleeher have accomplished a remarkable task in mounting the sprawling variety of works in this show. They seem to radiate from the central placement of this atomic grouping – a spatial nucleus, so to speak - consisting of Male Electron with Green Hair, Male Electron with Fins, Female Electron with Bolt of Lightning and Female Electron with Bubbles.
What I find most fascinating about these colorful public renderings is Gregory’s decision to fashion them as primeval sprites and nymphs caught up in an acrobatic (if not vaguely erotic, in an innocent kind of way) dance – what he called “elemental little savages of boundless electrical energy…” It’s a delightfully unexpected scenario of ancient spirits celebrating the dawn of an exciting (and scary) new era for humanity. Indecorous Deco? Not really. Artistically arresting? Absolutely.
So let me close this on a somewhat relevant tangent. If such unabashedly naked figures as Gregory’s “Electrons” were so visible in a newly-commissioned public artwork of today – say, right here in Canton - I imagine they might prompt all manner of turned heads, raised eyebrows, tongue clucking and blushing. Interestingly enough, I’m reminded that I haven’t heard a peep of late about ArtsinStark’s commissioning of 11 public sculptures celebrating the birthplace of professional football. I wonder: How many candidates are out there with Waylande Gregory’s boldness of vision, his sense of playfulness, history and formal elegance?
Would it push the boundaries of “good taste” too much to see a life-size terra cotta (or marble or bronze for that matter) figure - sans uniform, pads or helmet - faithfully rendered in the High Classical style of sinewy Greek male statuary, holding aloft a football while shaking his posterior in an end-zone (as it were) victory dance? Elemental savage indeed.
PHOTOS (from top): Salome, ca. 1929, glazed earthenware, private collection; Girl with Olive, 1932, glazed stoneware, estate of Yolande Gregory; group of four “Electrons”, from Fountain of the Atom; Mermaid Vase, circa 1944, glazed earthenware with luster decoration, collection of Giovanni Robertis