SANTA FE—In a recent exhibition, North Carolina-based artist Daniel Johnston presented two installations of large ceramic forms surrounded by architectural woodwork Installation (906 – 955) White to Black at Peter’s Projects. We bring to you a guest essay from artist and writer Bryce Brisco.
Mastery is a Dead End: Daniel Johnston in Santa Fe
By: Bryce Brisco
What do you do if you find yourself at the age of forty, having built by hand two homes, two pottery kilns each the size of a school bus, having made well over
100, 000 functional pots and nearly a thousand large scale jars? For Daniel Johnston, the answer is- you go back to your beginnings.
In a recent exhibition at Peters Projects, Santa Fe, Daniel Johnston presents two installations of large ceramic forms surrounded by architectural woodwork. While similar in concept, they are opposites in nearly every other way. These pieces strive to access the same fundamental questions of form and process integral to the potters work via drastically different points of entry.
The larger of the two installations requires the viewer to follow a serpentine maze of rough cut wood slabs, which contains large lidded jars, black and white against corresponding backgrounds; black pots on burned black wood slowly fading to white pots on whitewashed wood. The installation is a room within a room, that draws the viewer into its center and then energetically spins them back out. One cannot help but invoke Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, or his explanation of entropy. Imagine a sandbox filled on one half with black sand, the other half with white sand. By walking clockwise the sand eventually blends into a homogenous grey, walking counterclockwise, however, will not revert the sandbox to its original composition. Johnston’s tightly stipled pots do just this in a mathematically arranged gradient. The solid black pots slowly gather white dots, eventually ending at the center of the double spiral in a 50:50 mix of black and white dots, and then slowly fade to solid white at the end of the tunnel. In Johnston’s ceramic cosmology, energy, it seems, can be regained.
The second installation invites the viewer to step into a small rectangular corridor where cylindrical ceramic pillars tower above shoulder height on a sleek bent wood frame that exudes light from in between its cracks. Unlike the piece one has just exited, this piece is confrontational, and presents itself all at once. The pillars call to mind the Gabion posts so common to the Southwest, their pedestal exudes it’s own fluorescent energy. A thudding soundtrack quietly plays from somewhere deep inside the piece, like an arrhythmic heartbeat.
All of Johnston’s Large Pots are pushed to the extreme of feminine description, full of life, voluptuous, pregnant. The cylinders in “Pillars” are quite the opposite, each a brutal column that would be judged “phallic” if presented alone. Their tight grouping disallows this reading and forces the viewer to see them simply as a series of similar objects, if anything, sexless in their severity. Functional Pots are too often- too easily- read as “feminine” being open, inviting, cradling etc. All of these pots are closed, either functionally (lidded) or actually (no hole), only letting the viewer apprehend them from outside.
These two installations work in tandem, as point and counterpoint to each other.
The jars are hugely round, the bellies and shoulders impossibly cantilevered out into space; the austere columns are exercises in restrained minimalism of form. The slick surfaces of the jars are the refined opposite of the rough and un-smoothed columns. The jars are pixelated with literally millions of tiny dots of slip, applied painstakingly by hand one at a time. The same white slip is glooped onto the columns in exuberant handfuls, swiped and splashed without hesitation or precision. The jars are cleanly fired with little evidence of flash or flame, the columns (despite regional colloquialisms) simply look burned.
In previous installations the spectacularly wood fired pots, with beautiful ash drips, could be seen as controlled luck. Here the pointillist graduation of white to black dots which might at first seem like a clever trick of optics, rather serves to reinforce the fact that you are not seeing anything other than what the artist wants you to see. This is carefully instrumented intention brought to the forefront. There can be no reading of a fortunate accident, so common to discussions of woodfired aesthetics. These jars are very much about skill, and a control that extends beyond the artists hand, to reach as far as how you are allowed to access the work. You are not allowed to step back and coolly look from a removed distance. The viewer is pushed up against the clay as close as the maker would have been at the wheel. At one point in the tunnel in near darkness, you must sense the forms with your whole body, without being able to clearly see them. In the tight nucleus of Johnston’s spiraling atom, standing between the two identical 50:50 black and white pots, one can see through the upright slats, getting glimpses of where you have been, and where you have yet to go. The experience is disorienting, but creates an eager curiosity to continue. Much like the installation in Greensboro, there is a filmic quality to moving through the piece. Each pot a frame of film, with light being shuttered in flashes between boards.
The lidded pots are displays of expert level technique executed in such seemingly endless repetition that one begins to forget that these are handmade objects. The columns however, are only straight-sided cylinders. The beginning students assignment, form without belly or shoulder, just the clay made to stand upright. Some readings might propose that these are stand-ins for the human figure. Johnston himself has said that he originally thought of these forms as “torsos without limbs”. I would argue that these columns are actually meant to be stand-ins for functional pots. The pillars are meant to be read as the very fundamentals of pot making, not pushed to refined mastery, but left alone at the very minute when skilled technique might begin to transform into interpretation and personal expression. It is interesting to note as well the morphological progression over time of historic jugs, from fullbodied to straight sided, as efficiency in packing and shipping across long distances became critical to the potters survival.
If one were able to see all of Johnston’s installations, beginning with “100 Jars” and continuing in a single long, winding line of pots through (-955), as the numbered titles would seem to suggest, these pillars would be the first real break with the classic jar form. This sudden break in the continuum of an exploration of form represents a conscientious shedding of tradition. Johnston has come to define himself as somewhat of a Literalist (if his titles are to serve as any indication), and in Santa Fe, his well known pots lead him out the Darkness and into the Light. As the artist himself has said, he is trying to go “ back to the early origins of this tradition so I could interpret the root aesthetics myself rather than accept the dilution that had happened over time.”
What differentiates the installation of pillars from all the installations of Jars is the emotional atmosphere of solemnity. By removing the spectator’s capacity for awe at the potter’s mastery of his craft, a space is created for a sense of sobering stillness. Reflection can be turned to topics beyond the traditional concerns of the ceramics sphere. Daniel Johnston confidently stakes a claim for traditional pottery forms as a vehicle for content and meaning in the continuum of Contemporary Art. And yet, after moving through the wooden spiral installation, and passing around the pillars, one arrives in a smaller quieter gallery, in this space are two enormous jars, standing like sentinels, guarding the integrity of Cr
Walk through Johnston’s installation with this video:
Check out Cfile’s previous musings on Daniel Johnston and related articles:
Daniel Johnston in his North Carolina Studio, Creating Giants
Mark Hewitt on Daniel Johnston’s “783 – 804”
Do you love or loathe this tandem exhibition from the worlds of contemporary ceramic and contemporary ceramic art. Let us know in the comments.