On the Cusp of Becoming
By Tom Wachunas
“E Concrematio. Confirmatio--out of the fire comes firmness, through stress we pass to strength.” - Charles F. Binns
EXHIBIT: Dark Forms – New Ceramics by Tom Bartel / at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio / THROUGH OCTOBER 29, 2017 / 330.453.7666 www.cantonart.org
What I’ve always found so alluring about the medium of clay is how readily it can give form to and harmonize with the idea of transcendence. Think on this - artists reconstituting the pulverized, gooey remains of animals, bugs, and rocks into forms that evoke life. Making dead stuff speak. The past becomes present. I am, in the words of poet Marvin Bell, “Drawn by stones, by earth, by things that have been in the fire.”
In this exhibit of new works by Tom Bartel, who is currently Professor of Ceramics at Ohio University, the first element you will notice from a distance is the very low light. Soft and fragile, a palpable glow of votive solemnity has settled in the gallery. As your eyes adjust to the spectral, somewhat funereal setting, the six clay sculptures in this thinly dispersed installation are an eerie presence. It’s as if what were once mere shadows have become tangible inflations of bulbous black materiality.
Is someone, or something being mourned here? Seeming to preside over the procession of forms on the floor is an upright figure against the wall – a sentinel of sorts, bringing to mind an ancient sarcophagus. Mummy, or…mommy? Or could this figure, swaddled in mystery, be a person not yet fully realized or matured…someone on the verge of emerging? Further still, could it symbolize the ontogeny of an aesthetic - the arrival and development of a new idea?
In deciphering Bartel’s forms, a helpful clue can be found in the Autumn 2017 @Canton Museum of Art magazine, or on the CMA web site. Therein we read, “Tom Bartel’s life has changed, and so has his work. He is at a re-defining moment after recently becoming a parent, which greatly opened his eyes to the passage of time… he has set out to re-invent his work and push himself out of his comfort zone…”
Knowing this, suddenly the forms become not so mute or somber. An egg, a foot, a nipple, a hand, a heart. In their exaggerated chubbiness, these larger-than-life fragments exude a distinctly neonatal character. There’s an implied expectancy of things to come, of things to grow. Despite their lack of exuberant color, and devoid as they are of carved surface textures or applied patterns, even in this dim setting they speak nonetheless, illuminated by their sheer potentiality.
Clay. From the primal muck of lifeless matter, the promise of fecundity.