Ceramic Excellence
Fellowhips at the Archie Bray Foundation 2011–2012

A Review by Tanya Hartman

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Why I Write About Art

What could be more interesting, or in the end, more ecstatic, than in those rare moments when you see another person look at something you've made, and realize that they got it exactly, that your heart jumped to their heart with nothing in between. — Robert Motherwell

When I was at art school, my sister was at divinity school. Often, I would ride the train down to New York to spend the night in her dormitory. We had painted the linoleum floor of her room in red and black checkerboards, and I would sleep upon it fitfully, troubled by binary thinking. What I found at art school was constant evaluative duality. But art seemed more complex to me, often embodying opposing forces or disparate intentions in one cohesive work. And this kind of art seemed honest to me, because in my own experience, life was a constant and ever changing stream of incongruent emotions, perceptions and sensual awareness. At art school, I had also been hoping for an arena of compassion, in which each of us could bare our humanity through the act of making, and better ourselves through the search. But that was not to be. Instead, I rode the train to Harlem, and hung out with future ministers and theologians, discussing matters with them that I had hoped to explore with my professors. 

As a child, I disliked bullies, and spoke up against their petty tyrannies at school. It offended me that they tried to attack those with rough edges, those who did not conform, or say predictable words. I liked the kids who were different, and wanted to protect them from suppression. And that is why I write about art, because in some ways, I see culture, and some institutions, as the bully, and artists in need of a proponent, someone who will celebrate their originalities, irregularities and inconvenient truths. I have always felt that art was a sacred act, a ministry to a broken world. 

Though I work as hard as I can in my own studio, and as a teacher, I see more of value in art than I could ever express in just those two environments. Sometimes, when I go to galleries, or am a visiting critic, I see art that is breathtaking, in that it is entirely original and alive, living quietly in studios and spaces around the nation, begging to be seen and absorbed. Writing about the art, and the artists who made it, is my honor, and passion, no less a commitment than expressing my own inner world in my own studio.

Each artist I have met, while being the critic-in-residence at the Archie Bray Foundation has elicited a resonant empathy in me, and though the bodies of work and biographies of each resident vary, each has addressed themes with universal and human pertinence: doubt, harmony, artifice, nature, light, communication and danger. And the binary thinking that I have found so frequently at establishments and universities, has been entirely absent, restoring my faith in what an institution can be: a place to shelter the free thinker; a safe haven to allow one heart to jump to another with nothing in between.


The Genuine Is Quiet: The Work Of Jeff Campana

There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. — Howard Thurman
Home is the sacred refuge of our life. — John Dryden

When Jeff Campana demonstrated his process to me, he recollected that a student of his once said that, “Jeff doesn’t throw pots so much as summon them.” Watching him at the wheel beckoning form, I know this statement to be true. Campana has developed an original process that supports delicacy of line and subtlety of interior and exterior surface. All forms are created, in unique porcelain clay that the artist himself developed. It is specifically formulated to minimize shrinkage, because Campana cuts his vessels into gestural shards, delicately fusing them back together with slip. To watch his steady hands wielding a simple utility knife and allowing the blade to dance through the drying clay is to experience wonderment, because the form falls open into petals, which the artist gently gathers and fuses back into functional and poetic vessels. The purpose of this cutting is aesthetic and unites surface with structure as the subtle glazes pool, creating luminous and flowing lines that also function as seams that literally hold the vessels together. 

By the age of fifteen, Campana knew that he was a ceramic artist. However, in a healthy and ambitious manner he was always reinventing himself, pushing the boundaries of what a receptacle could be, how it could display color three dimensionally, how it felt in the hand. He acquired the practice of, “habitual reinvention” developing body after body of work, so that he could refine process and develop surface. For this artist, glaze is liquid emotion, and he wants to master its nuances: the way that light passes through pigments and the way colors in unusual combinations tint each other. He creates hundreds of test tiles, choosing from them specific hues that are as unique and subtle as the changing colors of nature. His cups, vases, pitchers, saucers, bowls and teapots are his canvases, upon which he daubs his passionate and considered glazes.  He lavishes their forms with attention and love, segmenting them into cellular structures held together by seams of colored light. The overall effect is that of the ephemeral: each vessel is so delicate and ethereal that one could imagine it vaporizing into mist.

In recent years, the artist has begun to sell his works online, and in his typically thoughtful way, he has brought insight to the experience, finding community and humanity through buyer’s emails and “thank you” notes. Sometimes, one neighborhood in a small one-mile radius will start to buy his works at the same time, indicating to him that there has been a recent dinner party in which his vessels were used and enjoyed. This matters tremendously to Campana, who does not feel that his work is finished, until it, “finds a home.” 

In the end, what we all cherish are our domestic rituals; morning coffee, evening armchair, a favorite bowl containing soup. Campana labors to enhance life on a daily level, and through the meditative beauty of his pottery, he succeeds.


Unrestricted Content: The Work of Andy Casto

Rationality is what we do to organize the world, to make it possible to predict. Art is the rehearsal for the inapplicability and
of that process. — Brian Eno

Myth is the public dream and dream is the private myth. — Joseph Campbell

A harpsichord and hip-hop music have each played a role in the formation of Andrew Casto’s aesthetic. Born into a family of free thinkers, Casto grew up surrounded by intellectual fluidity. Opinions were not rigid, and were open to change, and to interpretation over time. A spectrum of materials could come together to make a whole, as in the harpsichord Casto observed his father making by hand for his mother throughout his childhood, and sampling from other traditions and sounds, as in the hip-hop music that pervaded his adolescence, could enhance discrete and evocative works of musical composition. 

Thus, Andrew Casto is happiest when he works without boundaries, moving between materials and integrating conflicting ideas such as order and chaos, harmony and discord, momentum and stasis, into mysterious and gorgeous artifacts. I use the word “artifact” consciously, because Casto’s objects are final agglomerations of heartfelt and labor intensive process. Casto “samples” the world around him, much in the manner of a musician, incorporating discarded gas pumps and teapot handles, shards and debris into dense constructions that are then embellished with slip and with glaze. The resulting work is then observed and analyzed by the artist, who may add wood, metal or gold to finish the piece. 

For Casto, clay is not an inert material but a kinetic force that is mostly between incarnations; cracking, hardening, disintegrating into mud, breaking into shards, converting into expressive form. Each iteration of clay is of equal value in his work. To fight clay’s tendencies would be to fight the life force. All of nature transforms, and bodies return to soil as ash. Casto embraces this truth, realizing that he is fascinated by the moment just before implosion. Formally, that instant yields originality and pathos; psychologically, it is the second preceding revelation. Thus, through sculpture, the artist captures a spectrum of human experience. The density of the glazes reveals strata of color. Bruised blues peek from beneath creamy, fatty whites, and fleshy pinks flash randomly. The result is color that evokes the body swathed upon forms that describe what is often hidden: organs, teeth, tumors, hideouts, coral reefs, caves, and canyons. Hidden within these mysterious shapes are prosaic bones; substructures made from garbage, refuse and broken down junk. The artist seems to be telling us that what we discard as having no value, what we think of as muddled or untidy, is in fact what life is like. The pains and losses we all must endure, our inherent entropy, tends to strengthen our characters and our capacity for insight. Thus, Casto caps his works in molten gold. These are sacred artifacts that honor the perfection of chaos. These are maps that help us find our way home.


Impossible Dioramas: The Work of Alanna DeRocchi

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. — Henry Beston

Alanna DeRocchi sculpts a deracinated world. Nothing is in its natural context. Sofas and armchairs sag, their worn cushions evoking the form of an absent body. Exotic animals step delicately across wooden platforms and tapirs wade in illusory puddles suspended by metal legs.  Though DeRocchi was raised in a small town in rural Illinois, she has studied in schools across the nation and has visited obscure locations in order to hone her research and refine her craft. Her magnificent and arresting sculptures exist no place and everyplace. This is an artist who creates visual events that have collective impact and manifold meanings that can unfold across cultures.

Like many new ceramic artists, Alanna DeRocchi began her career throwing pots, but soon she began to build figures in clay based on recollections from her childhood.  These figures quickly morphed into a bestiary. Making animal rather than human forms felt liberating to the artist because it freed her from narrative impetus and allowed her to look at the universal, rather than the personal. The artist began to research esoteric animals in an effort to create an open arena in which to animate and imbue each one with a spark of originality and soul. She builds her creatures using coils of clay, allowing each to emerge purely through creative process. These beasts are hollow inside, and the artist allows them to be permeable to air and environment, rubbing pigment into their “skins” by hand, rather than suffocating them in impenetrable glazes. 

Originally, DeRocchi displayed her sculptures in relational installations, but the artist soon realized that viewers were not walking through her exhibitions so much as gazing at them. This gaze, which separates and isolates the object, reminded DeRocchi of the dioramas at a natural history museum, where visitors gape at a facsimile of landscape. Soon, she was researching the history and intention of the diorama, and incorporating fragments from deconstructed dioramas into her work. Hence, in Cape Buffalo on Terrain (2010), the viewer confronts a buffalo, its face sorrowful, noble and resolute, scaling a “terrain” made of wooden slats. In this piece, DeRocchi is quoting from photographs she has seen of half-built dioramas. In a complete diorama, the wooden platform would be covered by artificial flora. Instead, the artist presents the solid beauty of the beast against the fragility and absurdity of its artificial environment. 

In her most recent work from 2012, DeRocchi pushes scale to its absolute limit, creating life-sized animals that are stolid but dispossessed. The artist is investigating animals from Montana, and brings to each one a sense of particularity and alienation. She counters the animal’s formal strength and pathos with intimate, hand drawn and painted surfaces, as delicate and ephemeral as a child’s drawing on thin paper. Each sculpture is haunting. The animals are both present and absent, partial and whole, severed from habitat or forced into unnatural poses or proximity to artifice.

These are deeply moving works of art, poetic and layered. What I bring to them is a sense of universal diaspora; that we are all, in some way, scattered, coping with non-supportive and confusing landscapes, hollow within but solid, made from the earth but separate to it. Alanna DeRocchi invites us to gaze, but looking is not without its dangers. Friedrich Nietzsche writes, “And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” This is truthful, powerful work, filled with shock and wonder.


Material Mirror: The Work of Kenyon Hansen

An artist is a dreamer consenting to dream of the actual world. — George Santayana 

Kenyon Hansen has developed a poetic language composed of clay, glaze, symmetry and chance to express his musings on home, the landscape in which we dwell, the pace at which we live and the yearning we all experience for stillness and meaning. His ravishing pots are inherently binary, bringing opposites together in startling juxtapositions that reveal essential truths: that landscape reflects culture and that culture both constrains and liberates. The grids on his vessels evoke highways and streets, cellular walls and twigs. The glazes that he uses pool and shatter, like the interiors of rich minerals, their creamy, luminous surfaces suggestive of all that is boundless: sky, sea, storm, sun. Essential to the work are clever and meaningful shifts in scale. The divisions on the pots themselves read as large and small simultaneously, reminiscent of vast urban topographies or the tight order of botanical structures. In this way, Hansen asserts that the meaning of the pot itself is both vast and intimate, connecting human beings to a staggering scope of history and culture while also resting quietly in the hand, bringing simple contentment.

Every work of Hansen’s is unique and considered. Though each piece is composed of the same materials, individually they have an essence and quirk that is unique, much the way that no two branches, or petals are ever quite alike. In a recent teapot from 2012, an exaggerated side handle is beautifully balanced by a short, utilitarian spout and elongated lid. The effect is a harmonious trinity, which is amplified by the segmentation on the body of the pot. It too, is divided vertically into thirds. This formal structure supports a glaze that is seductive and lush, a buttery yellow that breaks and accumulates over the structure, showing pocked glimpsed of the earthy umber beneath. I think of fields of undulating yellow weeds in a gridded and abandoned urban lot, or a tree in light bloom during an unusually cool spring. The artist does not prescribe meaning so much as bring it forth through adept manipulation of materials.

Though Hansen’s current work is soda fired, he has had a long relationship to the wood kiln that has affected his aesthetic profoundly. The reaction of flame to surface has allowed the artist a deep understanding of touch. During wood firing, Hansen saw that all information that he put on the clay, his most intimate caress, was there when the vessel emerged from the blaze. He fired raw clay, and ash tended to collect on the shoulders of his pots. He made exaggerated shifts to catch and honor what nature was doing innately.  The artist loved the arbitrary character of wood firing because it kept him in a relationship with landscape, and reminded him of his childhood, when he would venture into the woods without a clear expectation of what treasures he might find. 

In the current work, there is still the sense of discovery that the wood kiln brought to Hansen’s work. Each time he sits at the wheel he is surprised, observing the alchemy of his touch, the velocity of the wheel and the mood of the clay and then responding formally to bring forth original objects of beauty. This loveliness is a form of shelter, an act of sanctuary to create domestic peace and security, while still observing and commenting upon the world at large. Maya Angelou writes, “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”  Hansen’s pots provide lyrical refuge. They are comforting objects that vibrate with suggestion and care.


Rejoicing In the Hands: The Work of Sean O’Connell

Each brushstroke is a decision. — Robert Motherwell

Sean O’Connell brings a painter’s aesthetic to the making of his pots. Each vessel presents glazes that are gestural and spontaneous, simultaneously lush and spare. In his works, the artist creates a tenuous treaty between decoration and austerity, bringing the simplicity of Modernism together with the exuberance of decoration and color. The forms themselves balance the marks and brushwork that he displays upon them. By exaggerating the body of a mug, and minimizing the size of the handle, he subtly expresses that he has chosen the vessel as the canvas upon which to paint. Yet, his forms harmonize to his surface: a drinking cup’s lip undulates with the brushwork upon it, its handle simple and utilitarian, inviting us to sip. The glaze on a vase pulls and pools, much like a painting by Morris Louis, the verticality of the marks accentuating the upward thrust of the form. O’Connell writes that, “beauty and purpose should be a part of everyday use.” He is an artist who has integrated his love of contemporary painting with his aspiration to improve domestic environments with his functional works. His vessels are true hybrids, practical paintings for the home, purposeful and harmonious objects that enhance the environment.

O’Connell is an aesthetic introvert. He has looked deeply within himself, to discover exactly what moves him and drives him to create. Originally, he was a sculptor, but he felt no affinity for concept-driven works, aligning himself instead with the unconstrained, natural beauty of Brice Marden, Joan Mitchell and Robert Motherwell’s paintings. Consistently, O’Connell has been drawn towards the fluid openness of brushwork and the alchemy of glaze. In Motherwell, he found a new way to think about form, as something solid yet diaphanous with edges that swell and heave, reiterating composition. Each of O’Connell’s vessels is an integrated entity with clever configurations that can invert negative and positive shape. The space, for instance, between a teapot’s lid and exaggerated handle becomes what is solid and immutable in the piece, while the glaze is ethereal and misty, dripping and hazy, appearing to change like the sky. In another teapot, matte black handle and spout sandwich a delicate, milky white body, making it appear to be floating. The entire pot becomes a landscape, with solid and empty spaces integrated to create environment. In another teapot from 2012, blue-grey, cream and sienna glazes swirl around the upper two thirds of the vessel like a sky in transition. The base is solid and brown, a horizon line off-setting an active firmament. 

During 2012, O’Connell has worked in both porcelain and earthenware, and seeing his works in aggregate reminds me of the experience of seeing an exhibition of paintings, or reading a book of short stories. Each work is discrete and utterly original, yet linked formally by glaze, brushwork, color and touch to other pieces in the series. O’Connell can take a motif as simple as light and heavy marks upon form, and make something expressive, original and highly intelligent, all the while quoting from the history of ceramic art and the tenets of Modernist painting. This is an artist who will contribute generously to visual culture, working between genres while staying true to his passion for “that which is tended and thoughtful.”


Gifts From An Alternate World: The Work Of Lindsay Pichaske

For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.” — Henry Beston

We are mysterious to ourselves. This is a truth that Lindsay Pichaske has always known, even as a child, when she was mesmerized by the gorillas of Uganda. In them, she saw something of our human predicament. Their eyes in particular elicited a strong emotional response in her. They seemed to be staring out, through a mask of skin, evocative of realms that flesh cannot fully express. Science and literature offered the young artist similar windows into enigmatic fathoms, but visual art best allowed her an arena in which to construct alternate versions of the corporeal, charged with sparks of both eternity and transience. 

Pichaske has drawn extensively, both from living models and from cadavers, and brings to her work the requisite aggression and courage to create her invented mammals. So dedicated is this artist to her practice, that she exercises regularly, in order to burn off energy and bring a sentient, focused stillness to her sculpture. Gazing upon works, such as The Matriach, (2012) I am struck by the sheer force of its presence. It resonates with an insistence and power that I have seen in few works of art, and reminds me of a seminal moment in my own understanding of creativity when, gazing upon a Lucien Freud painting in a silent gallery, I became convinced that I could hear it breathing. In that moment, I recognized that art possesses a life no less adamant than our own. Patty Smith writes in her memoir, Just Kids, about her life with Robert Mapplethorpe, that art is, “the corporeal body of the artist. It will not fall away”. 

Pichaske has an innate feeling for her materials and brings them together in juxtapositions that emphasize the unexpected, thus supporting her content seamlessly.  The sticks that cover the body of The Matriarch were collected in Montana, and Pichaske describes the experience of adhering them to the sculpture as ecstatic, in that she was able to observe, absorb and appreciate the personality and quirks of each twig. Thus, something fragile and ephemeral covers something solid and eternal, allowing the artist to express through purely visual means that we are profound and flimsy, vulnerable and strong. Another piece, Aristotle's Foil (2010) presents the viewer with a hybrid, gorilla/human head, tipped on its side and covered in vivid rose petals. Here, the artist seems to be saying that what is exposed is beautiful and no less susceptible than what appears to be impervious and solid. In her hair drawings, the artist labors to “create an absence” in order to balance the strong presence that her figurative sculpture conveys.

This is an artist who is unafraid of duality, and who states that she is interested in the fact that we are living, and dying simultaneously. And I am grateful to her, because her work expresses that each day of momentum pitches us towards oblivion, and that though we do not understand our human contradictions, we can create beauty, observe tragedy, and revel in the unknown.


Between The Individual And The Environment: The Work of Jonathan Read

It is in the space between the inner and outer world, which is also the space between people—the transitional space—that intimate relationships and creativity occur. — D.W. Winnicott

I paint and sculpt to get a grip on reality... to protect myself.  — Alberto Giacometti 

In October 2010, Dave Hickey addressed the audience at Critical Santa Fe, a clay conference devoted to contemporary criticism of ceramic art. He stated that what makes art remarkable is its prolonged capacity for relevance. I am reminded of Hickey’s insight when I look at Jonathan Read’s work. Read is a generous sculptor. His figurative works combine gestural brushwork with sartorial specificity. He gives just enough peripheral information to provoke memory, but never enough to proscribe content. He is an artist who allows each viewer to bring meanings to the work that can shift and change over time. 

Born into a family mechanically inclined, Jonathan Read did not initially aspire to become an artist. He was gifted in mathematics and engineering, but a ceramics class in college changed his life’s course. He knew, that he belonged in the studio and he possessed an inherent capacity to center clay on the wheel. The scale of his works increased, and during graduate school he began to make monoliths, covering them with loose calligraphic marks that slowly morphed into faces, fingernails and skin folds. The figurative forms soon followed.  They were the artist’s response to the loss of a family member.  He wanted to make figures that embodied both fragility and relationship. Thus, he embarked upon a series of ceramic installations, in which the gestural freedom of his drawing on the figures was reiterated by audience participation drawing upon the gallery walls. The responses that he obtained emphasized the importance of interchange. The walls surrounding Read’s sculptures held fragments of unconscious responses to the figures, and the figures gazed back, ciphers of latent emotion. The effect was uncanny. The sculptures that elicited emotion and response in the viewer were themselves motionless and without precise affect. Only when these works are gazed at and interpreted, are they fully complete. In this way, Read visually articulates a human truth, best summarized in the words of British psychoanalyst D.W Winnicott, “the place where cultural experience is located is in the potential space between the individual and the environment (from Playing: Its Theoretical Status in the Clinical Situation, 1971.) 

Jonathan Read’s artwork follows in the traditions of both George Segal and Duane Hanson, sculptors whose work was inherently, if privately, relational. Yet, unlike these precursors, Read is able to seamlessly link the act of drawing to the act of sculpting. His marks and lines whirl and whip over and across the figure, sitting on their surfaces, descriptive yet discrete. They advance Read’s message that what we appear to be on the outside is fundamentally separate to our inherent, and private self. Though we can be close to others, as close as many of his figures in their ambivalent embraces, we are forever discrete, one from the other. This is art without ego that gives fully to the viewer without discharging the artist’s own inner life, a modest gift to that speaks of intimacy and solitude.