Sunday, January 29, 2017

When Clay Speaks

When Clay Speaks

By Tom Wachunas

    “…You finally reach a point where you’re no longer concerned with keeping this blob of clay centered on the wheel and up in the air. Your emotions take over and what happens just happens. Usually you don’t know it’s happened until after it’s done.”  - Peter Voulkos

   “You are not an artist simply because you paint or sculpt or make pots that cannot be used. An artist is a poet in his or her own medium. And when an artist produces a good piece, that work has mystery, an unsaid quality; it is alive.”  - Toshiko Takaezu
   EXHIBIT: Frozen in Fire – Ceramic works from the Canton Museum of Art Permanent Collection / THROUGH MARCH 12, 2017, at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Ave. N., Canton, Ohio  / 330-453-7666

    For this exhibit, here’s how Lynnda Arrasmith, Chief Curator at the Canton Museum of Art (CMA), addresses her exquisite selection of ceramic works from the CMA permanent collection: “The flames are released. The heat rises and settles over the pieces in the kiln, freezing them in their current forms. For better or worse, they are now frozen in fire. Not all pieces will survive this process and the artist must choose the piece which, in their eyes, has met perfection. The Frozen in Fire exhibition explores the insight of artists being satisfied with their work. Is the pot just a container to hold things or does it hold ideas?  Each vessel is meant to be looked at, appreciated and contemplated.”

   Somewhat resonant in those words (as well as in the words by the late clay artist, Toshiko Takaezo, quoted at the top of this post, referencing “…pots that cannot be used” and the mystery of their “unsaid quality”) is that pesky old question which  some – perhaps still many -  might consider about the ceramics medium. Is working in clay a craft, or a fine art? Of course history shows that the two aren’t mutually exclusive at all. So while clay is certainly a medium long-associated with traditional ideas about utilitarian forms, this breathtaking exhibit presents a lavish array of objects that transcend the notion of clay vessels as banal containers. It’s the difference between the innocuous and the inspiring. 

   This is a remarkably eclectic collection of objects that spans the full gamut of ceramic methodologies and iconography. Call it a sumptuous mélange of tasty baked goods. Some are stuffed with vivid imagination and whimsy, like Jack Earl’s Cloud Man, Dan Lovelace’s teapot tank called 1st Battalion, Juliellen Byrne’s delirious Rat Jacket, or Janice Mars Wunderlich’s comical Puppy Queen. Others are absolutely startling transformations of clay into hyper-realistic facsimiles of other materials, such as Richard Newman’s Baseball Glove, Marilyn Levine’s Black Shoe Bag, and Victor Spinski’s Tool Box I.  

   Included among the more intriguing abstract configurations are Tom Radca’s Stoneware Wall Tile, suggesting an aerial topography of geological terrains, or fossilized expanses of soil; Paul Soldner’s Wall Piece with Two Figures, with its unfurled layers of stamped and carved surfaces; and Betty Woodman’s wall installation, Egyptian Papyrus, a multi-part deconstruction of ancient urn forms.

   Considering the disarming simplicity and earthy charm of Toshiko Takaezu’s three vessels here brings me back to her words, “An artist is a poet in his or her own medium,” as well as the curator’s question, “Is the pot just a container to hold things or does it hold ideas?”  Containers, or containment? 

    The image evoked of completed ceramic objects being “frozen in fire” is a particularly fascinating and dichotomous one. Yes, baked clay can be said to be frozen, as in still, or physically static. But certainly neither mute nor dead. Is it any wonder that a passionate ceramist should find something poetic waiting to be drawn out from something as common as clay, that gritty, viscous stuff of natural forces and processes that have been at work for millennia? When a potter or sculptor surrenders to such an alluring substance, he or she is communing with something primal if not intrinsically mysterious in order to utter something about being alive.

   And in the end, isn’t the essential function of all our finest artistic pursuits to speak the un-sayable?

   PHOTOS, from top: Egyptian Papyrus, by Betty Woodman / Stoneware Wall Tile, by Tom Radca / Cloud Man, by Jack Earl / vessels by Toshiko Takaezu / Vessel I by Anna Silver / Basket Form II, by Dick Schneider         

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