Johnston’s exhibition, a sly mixture of hubris and modesty, physical urgency and architectural order, leaves viewers with the feeling they have witnessed pottery magic. He does this by creating space that requires one to enter his head and see the pots as he does in his imagination. It is a thrill and startlingly intimate.
GREENSBORO, NC – An old joke about performance art goes as follows; “what do you get when you combine a mafia don with a performance artist? Answer: “an offer one cannot understand”. So let me ask the question in a different way, “what does one get when one blends a top traditional North Carolina potter based in the conservative pottery community of Seagrove with an installation artist?”
Confusion, contradictions, or maybe even schizophrenia? No. As a matter of one gets one of the most powerful exhibitions of straight pottery in years, certainly from the traditional American wood fire world. Daniel Johnston is, to put it mildly, a restless artist, never at ease, hardly pausing when he crosses a boundary in his rush to find the next. He is a Herculean producer and, in a sense, he has already mined the performance art genre with projects such as his 100 Jars.
For years now he has been wrestling with finding a meeting point for his craft, his ambition and his sense of where it can find a home in art. What he has spawned is paradigm changing. At the Greenhill Center for NC Art (Greensboro N.C, May 1 – June 10, 2015) he placed his wood fired pots in a wooden slat corridor leading to and from a small temple. The lighting shining brightly from outside in, was dramatic, theatrical and optically transformative. It radically changed my experience of looking at traditional pots and I am sure did the same for many of his viewers.
First, let me set the scene for this review. My partner Mark Del Vecchio and I flew out to N.C. to view the show. We drove to a shopping mall some distance from Greensboro where we transferred to a white stretch limousine with neon highlights. We exited in front a bemused Andrew Glasgow, one of the leading commentators on crafts in the state, who by chance was there to see the show as well.
When one entered the installation its grip was instant. The 48 pots were set high so one was looking at them at eye level. They were intrusive, very much in one’s personal space, and if this was discomforting there was no relief. It was not possible to step back, given the narrow corridor, and get some distance. One simply had to cope with the platoon of large handsome vessels at very close quarters, which empowered them more than a conventional display. Within a few steps it was clear: the environment and the pots were now in control.
The light coming through the spaces between the wooden slats sliced each pot into alternating vertical stripes of light and shadow. The optical effect was striking; not just the striping itself, but the contradiction that the sections in shadow seemed to reveal more detail and texture than those in the light. It was like seeing two pots, dissected then glued back together by light.
Added to this was an anthropomorphic quality, a gathering of pot bellied men or women in rustic garb wearing hats/lids. When one first enters the installation the pots make a convex curve. For whatever reason I felt that their backs were turned to me, and while I was intensely engaged, the pots were indifferent to my presence.
Stage one ended up in a small chapel or altar in which the best pot from the 48 vessels was given a place on honor, a “best-of-show” nod to connoisseurship in pottery, acceptance that not all pots are created equal, and the understanding that the tussle for aesthetic importance was part of the process. Here I would have liked to see a bit more theater in the way the pot was presented. It was indeed great but the way it arrived, compared to the impact of the rest of installation, was underwhelming and there was little inducement to linger and enjoy its charms.
After this one begins the return journey. This time the lineup is convex, the space more open and very inviting. Again the anthropomorphism is compelling, a group greeting with the final pots in the line seeming to be leaning forward to watch your progress. The first lap was you looking at the pots, the second was them looking at you, measuring your response, testing your empathy.
And what the “best” pot reminded us of was that making this piece did not require a dumbing down of the pot as we often see in art-world-endorsed ceramics, for instance in Edmund de Waal’s installations.
Johnston is one of our most gifted and extraordinary vessel makers with a high standard and precision that barely wavers from one pot to the other, not surrendering his prowess in this exhibition for effect.
This is what will give the art world the greatest difficulty. His pots are so real, traditional in form and surface, and superbly made by hand. The arts are no longer anti-clay but they do have problems with an intensity of craft. As Betty Woodman said to me years ago, “I would have been accepted more readily if I didn’t make my ceramics so well.”
This exhibition was the first of this series. The second installation has already been reviewed here by Mark Hewitt and a third is being negotiated for a venue outside NC. As you read this, planning has also begun for a giant outdoor land art installation that will take a few years to realize.
It is going to be a fascinating journey and an oxygen pump for traditional ceramics, shifting how it defines itself and how it is perceived in the mainstream arts. It is the perfect storm of skill and adventure.
Garth Clark is chief editor of cfile.daily.
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