As a ceramics instructor at the University of Alaska in the early-1990s, Brian Boldon turned to photography as source material. He was drawn to the idea of using photographic images on clay and glass and, by the time he moved to East Lansing in 1996 to teach at Michigan State University, he was creating increasingly complex, hybrid installations that synthesized in various combinations all three media. Since moving to Minneapolis in 2008, Boldon has continued to explore strategies to integrate the ancient medium of clay into our technology-drenched 21st century. Also, like innumerable contemporary artists, he is interested in how images are constructed and distributed in a culture inundated with images.
Underlying these investigations was a more existential subtext. Boldon wondered about creativity’s relationship to technology. Does technology make an artist more or less creative? Does technology enhance or stifle creative impulses? Or is it simply a different approach to the same artistic problems? The relationship between the two is complex and abstract at best, but as Boldon conveys, during a February 2013 studio conversation, technology, in fact, plays a positive role in creativity. “I believe technology is the highest level of creative thought,” he concludes. “It amplifies our biological hardware and technology can reveal our utmost creativity.”
Taking his investigations to the next conceptual level, Boldon wondered if he could create a “fused language of object and image” where ceramics would be the physical support. “I’m exploring ceramic’s potential to carry imagery, successfully, placing it somewhere between sculpture and painting,” he explained. “I’m repurposing the discipline of ceramics with digital imagery and through spatial relationships. My work re-imagines ceramic’s [traditional] experience with digital technology.”
Indeed, Boldon’s new mixed-media installation, The Interval Between Two Days, stands like a sentinel at the nascent crossroads of ceramics and digital technology. Created from stoneware, digital ceramic prints, steel, aluminum and rubber, Interval consists of two discrete, but related, sculptural elements that have been glazed with digital images. In a visual call and response, the two coalesce to create a single harmonic environment in a gallery painted a deep midnight blue. Here, Boldon realized his conceptual desire to merge 2D digital imagery with 3D ceramic form — a “fused language of object and image.” Ironically, he chose images drawn not from technology, but rather from the classic, art historical genre of landscape — in this case digital images of cattails and wild rice.
At its core, Interval is an intensely process-driven work with an industrial edge that counters its poetic subject matter. The cattails sculpture comprises five individual column-like structures evenly spaced. Each column consists of 17 vertical elements constructed from tall, steel pipes that are welded to a rectangular base and threaded with multiple-glazed stoneware extrusions. The identically shaped rectangular extrusions, suggesting a child’s building blocks, are covered with a porcelain slip, bisque fired, and then fired again with a clear glaze. Subsequently, Boldon affixed the 850 extrusions with sections of the cattail landscape image using an updated version of the 18th century English transfer-print process. The extrusions were then fired front and back, making four firings for each. The result of this insanely detailed process is a sculpture in the round that prompts the viewer to move through and around its elements, visually and physically mingling with the spiky cattails.
Like a fragmented 3D mural, the cattail imagery merges into the solid, glazed palette of the deep blue sky, above, and the dark ground, below. Its 360-degree viewing experience, offered by the perforated columns, creates a shimmering, almost prismatic effect. Similarly, the wild rice image is fractured, except its orientation is horizontal, with its ceramic sculptural support suggesting a low, serpentine fence. Circumnavigating the piece, the viewer gazes through its rows comprising 144 horizontal, louvered elements, visually merging with the sinewy wild rice.
Boldon arrived at this complex project because he wanted to transform the 3D experience of reality — being outdoors — into a 2D format, the digital image, and then transform that image back into the 3D format of his mixed-media ceramic installations. Armed with multiple flashlights and a camera mounted on a tripod, he headed outdoors at dusk at his northern Wisconsin cabin. There he “perceived the 3D world in form and color before it slipped into a 2D environment of silhouettes and shapes and, then, ultimately into blackness.” Using extended exposure times of up to two minutes, Boldon took hundreds of images as he waved flashlights through the night air for illumination. “I wanted to explore how digital technology could recapture the depth-of-field of the physical world—and use it in my work as a 3D experience,” he explains.
Over the millennia, monarchies, societies and civilizations have created decorative murals made of ceramic tile and mosaic. Variously depicting geometric patterns or representational images and created for both secular and religious purposes, such murals are revealing records of the time and of the people who created them. In his quest, Boldon has moved one step further, taking the traditional mural format from two dimensions into three. As he describes it, The Interval Between Two Days is “really about mixing images and materials in space. That’s all.” More significantly, Boldon has used technology to expand ceramics’ purview in the 21st century art world, creating a compelling installation that exploits clay’s attributes with provocative results. Ultimately, The Interval Between Two Days is a participatory and theatrical environment, one where the cattails and wild rice are palpable protagonists in our line of vision.
Mason Riddle is an arts writer for publications including “Artforum” and “Pioneer Press.”
Above image: Brian Boldon, The Interval Between Two Days, 2013, stoneware, digital ceramic prints, steel and rubber. Boldon was featured among four McKnight Fellowship artists in 2012, appearing at the Northern Clay Center’s Emily Galusha Gallery in Minneapolis. Photograph courtesy of the artist.