Waylande Gregory: Art Deco Ceramics and the Atomic Impulse/
By Thomas C. Folk
University of Richmond Museums, Virginia , 2013
Hardcover monograph, 187 pages. 154 illustrations. 11 ½ x 10 ½ inches
Waylande Gregory was an original talent. He could have leaned into any field and at first could not settle for one medium; however, ceramics and glass were where he left his mark and how we judge his talent today. Although he worked in the general style of Art Deco sculpture a’ la Paul Manship (with a dash or two from the Weiner Werkstatte figure makers) Gregory wasn’t just a follower and remained varied in style and aesthetic throughout his career. He was an innovator in his field; in ceramics he experimented with glazes and coined his own “honeycomb” process for sculpting large-scale outdoor ceramics which, for his time, was an unheard of practice.
Waylande Gregory: Art Deco Ceramics and the Atomic Impulse is the culmination of years of research by art critic and commentator Thomas C. Folk. Folk’s understanding of Gregory is evident throughout the book as well as his understanding of the history of American Ceramics. Unsurprisingly, Folk’s writings on Gregory comprise about two thirds of all scholarship on the ceramicist over the last five years. Though the text is by no means of a creative bent it is an accurate and reliable work that aims to locate Gregory as a towering figure in American and international ceramics both in his time (Gregory’s) and in ceramic practices today.
Gregory never fell victim to that problem endemic to many prolific artists — staid homogony. Many things captured Gregory’s imagination from deep social issues and scientific advances to classical themes found in antiquity and ancient culture. His early commissioned work Aztec Room designed and molded, mostly, out of plaster for the Hotel President in Kansas City, Missouri (1925) was an elaborate banquet room, replete with images of human sacrifice, executed in a fairly traditional style that Gregory lifted from Aztec culture. Its shock factor (being a banquet room inspired by the brutal human sacrificial practices of the Aztecs) was minimized by its impressive scale and vibrant colors.
Aztec Room is a powerful political achievement for Gregory who often depicted scenes of police brutality and racial unrest well before the Civil Rights Movement made those themes both more viable and more necessary. In Aztec Room Gregory provided a space where politicians and important business men of the time would feast, exchange information and news and decide the fate of entire echelons of workers and (by extension) their families. The irony of the sacrificial images is sharp, especially now, in our own era, when this type of political commentary is more overt and commonplace.
The Aztec Room both points in the direction that Gregory was heading while being atypical as a whole. Its is a large scale work, the first of three that he made in the period. He had not yet moved fully into ceramics, two were mostly made from plaster reliefs while the third was of various mediums including bronze and stone.
After this Gregory began working for the famous Cowan Pottery Company. Here he produced several sculptures, most of them in limited numbered editions (usually 50 pieces to an edition). They were largely commercial in their appeal and meant for drawing rooms and mantle places, but a few of them stick out as excellent. His piece entitled Beaten Dog, made for Cowan in 1931, is a haunting image. Of this piece Gregory himself said in regards to his inspiration:
It seemed to represent to me all the loneliness and despair…the poor, the miserable and homeless of this world, the epitome of rejection and the tragic in life… And it occurred to me that I could do more, I would sculpture it in its humility and praise it as a living thing — a creature of feeling and suffering, and capable of gratitude, joy and love…
And it does evoke these things in a manor typical to Goya’s etchings; through the degradation of this image of Gregory’s dog do we understand not only the horribleness of suffering, but the worse horrors of neglected love, the loss of potential and the denial of compassion. Loving this piece as I do, I also can’t help but feel that it must have been unpopular in a line of sensuous female forms animals associated with elegance such as Herons and Flamingos.
The Cowan chapter of the book, despite its focus on this more commercial period in Gregory’s life, may contain some of the best photographs.
After Gregory came the Cranbrook Art Academy, a school in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Work from this period is his least exciting and, as his tenure there was short, we can imagine that he may have felt uninspired. However, some of the figures created in this period point to his first full-scale outdoor ceramic sculpture.
Pieces like Eve, 1933, and Europa and the Bull, 1937, are early evocations of his first masterpiece Light Dispelling Darkness. The latter, a fountain, was fully installed in New Jersey’s Roosevelt Park in Menlo Park. It is, at least in part, a tribute to Thomas Edison, a manifesto in concrete and terracotta.
Gregory utilizes the theme of the four horsemen of the apocalypse as part of the work. These fabled horsemen are fleeing the central pillar of the fountain where mankind has achieved its greatest aims, Universal Peace is depicted on one side of the pillar, Agriculture and Industry occupy another. These achievements are utopian and idealized, but with the horsemen, who are made up of everyday folks and their vices, Gregory tells us that to achieve our global dreams we must first overcome ourselves as individuals.
The most ambitious of Gregory’s outdoor ceramic sculptures was his Fountain of the Atom which he assembled for the 1939 World’s Fair. The piece favored a traditional take on the world as composed of four classical elements: earth, air, water and fire. In addition Gregory added four electrons represented as four cherubic children with a decidedly chaotic bent to their demeanor. This, I believe, is Gregory’s caution to us in the face of the Twentieth Century scientific breakthrough, the electrons are both exciting and unstable.
Waylane Gregory: Art Deco and the Atomic Impulse will be a hard volume to surpass in regards to scholarship on Gregory. It contains all one needs to know about his life and methods, as well as covering his works in other fields such as painting and drawing. After engaging with Folk’s book a need for two more volumes emerges; one dedicated to Gregory’s large scale sculptures and rooms and one on his ceramic sculptures for Cowan Pottery.
Waylande Gregory remains exciting figure in American Ceramics and, currently, there is no better way to know him and his works than Waylande Gregory: Art Deco and the Atomic Impulse.
Christopher Johnson is CFile’s Book Reviewer.
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