Three ceramic vessels of moderate proportions stand exalted on three tall pedestals in Monterey’s Anton Gallery. The vessels are not sleek. Their surfaces are slip-glazed in a rough grey-white that has crept away from a few areas to reveal the clay underneath. Two have been flattened into facets that are exact—but not too sharp nor too crisp. One faceted vessel flares slightly, a little uneven, with a simple lid and an easy-to-grasp handle. The facets wrap around the other at an angle, as the pot widens roundly from the base, then narrows to a brief, unembellished collar. The third is a flattened cylinder that expands gradually until, about one-third of the way from the top, it pulls inward again to about a quarter of its fullest size, and opens to a cup-shaped lip. Two small lugs sit on the shoulders of the jar. It would be easy to pour from.
There is nothing about these homely vessels that shouts their importance. They appear crude in that they haven’t been “finished.” Their angles are not shaved to a linear precision. Yet they have a powerful sculptural presence in all their deliberateness and imperfection. Sturdy, they carry an air of the ancient, yet are unmistakably modern. And they appear useful—in the way that a handle-less cup is useful for the meditation of drinking tea.
Indeed, the artist Rob Barnard studied in Japan with one of the most influential figures in modern ceramics, Kazuo Yagi. Regardless of his international fame, Yagi considered himself simply a chawnya—a maker of tableware.
Barnard was pretty rough-hewn himself when he went to Japan. From Kentucky, he was a Vietnam vet who went to school on the GI Bill but didn’t find what he needed to learn at the University of Kentucky. He had never before been in an art museum when, in 1972, he went to the Freer Gallery at the Smithsonian. Because of his almost reverent interest, the curator allowed him to handle an ancient Japanese pickle jar. He wrote in one of his many essays on ceramics: “I saw how much one could put into it…I remember turning it upside down, seeing where the potter had cut through the base in trimming it, and had to patch the pot from the inside. I thought: ‘Mistakes can be part of the creative process.’ Seeing those objects…seeing that these things do not flatter you, that they are honest, and as raw and real and different as real human beings—that was a part of what was amazing to me…I decided then to go to Japan to study.”
Barnard spent four years in Japan, where he earned praise from Yagi along with numerous solo exhibitions throughout the country. He often writes about a conversation with Yagi in which the teacher held up his index finger and pointed straight up, representing the “predictably beautiful.” Then turned his finger parallel to the floor, representing what we think of as ugly. Then he moved his finger to 45 degrees, between these two points: “It is here,” he said, “where real art takes place, vibrating between the beautiful and the ugly.”
In 1978 Barnard returned to the US, eventually to rural Virginia, where he evolved his distinctive style of pit-fired ceramics. His pots, plates and vases are fired in an anagama kiln. In that process, often used by native peoples, a structure is built and filled with wood and ceramic pieces, then left to burn, sometimes for many days and nights. This produces a distinctive effect due to the wood ash, and heat so intense that clay can sometimes melt into a glassy clump. Not Barnard’s stauch creations. Perhaps they are so moving because they have come through such fires.
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Barnard’s ceramics are shown in Breaking Form, an exhibition curated by Gail Enns, who brought her gallery and a stable of internationally-exhibited artists from Washington, DC, to the partially renovated Hawthorne Mansion in 2005. Along with Barnard are three paintings by Reid McIntyre and sculpture by Mary Annella Frank.
McIntyre’s paintings might well also have emerged from some ferocious natural process. A massive five-by-six-foot “Skins of Anxiety” faces the viewer upon entering the gallery. The surface—more applied than painted—is crusted thick with a complex substance of pigment and hair and tar that up close feels primordial. From a distance, the deliberateness of light and dark and the very profusion of color caught up in the quagmire of the surface begins to form itself around a meaning. Having read it as an abstraction I became curious: Am I looking at a landscape? The late afternoon light shifted and the painting took on more nuances of color: deep umbers and yellows, dripping sienna. The curator confirms my deepest fear—“He is a realist,” she said just as I saw the wolf’s head hanging at the end of a line of skins draped over a rope. His other paintings are as disturbing as they are fascinating.
The sculpture and drawings of Mary Annella Frank are clean, crisp and droll: A series of steel constructions, most are based on the unmistakable Monopoly-simple form of a house. “Room with a View” is the high end of the spectrum, the steel structure on five-foot stilts is fringed with a beautifully-run bead, a plasma-cut arch gives a rainbow effect from one side and a jagged lightening-bolt is affixed to the other. Incomplete cuts are left to pierce the sides. As with Barnard’s work, the imperfections have not been smoothed away, bringing the artist and the viewer close.
Breaking Form is so much more than an assembly of artists who work in the same genre or the same period or the same subject. It is a gathering of powerful objects that represent an unusually deep and complex aesthetic. Vibrating between the beautiful and the ugly.
BREAKING FORM is exhibited at Anton Gallery @ the Hawthorne Mansion, 701 Hawthorne St., Monterey. Gallery hours are 1-4pm Saturday and by appointment. 373-4429.