One of the most annoying sayings is “it’s either black or white.” It suggests that each is an absolute. But the next question could be “which black and which white?” Black for me has endless variation. In their purest sense they may be exact opposites (black reflects no color and white reflects all color; one is absence of light and the other excess of light).
Above image: Sara Flynn, Esker Vessel, 2014, 27 cm high. Photograph courtesy of Erskine, Hall & Coe.
Even though works in this exhibition by Sara Flynn are black, white and yellow, I am going to deal only with black: gorgeous, dark, mysterious, compelling, velvety, rich, deep, profound, threatening, powerful, emphatic, mass-friendly, clean, sharp, eternally elegant and mysterious.
The above are just a few of the reasons I have had a livelong affair with the beauty of black pots, from the pit-fired beer vessels of the Zulu when I was growing up in South Africa to the black-on-black mastery of Maria and Julian Martinez now that I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
When Maria first made these pots she hid them under her bed. They were innovative, nothing like the pottery of her pueblo San Ildefonso. When the anthropologist Edgar Lee Hewitt finally coaxed them out, Maria only agreed because, “Black goes with everything,” and they became an international sensation.
Black drew me to Flynn’s pots: I am a sucker for darkness, but it is their sense of performance that has kept me intrigued. Music and dance are metaphors that pottery often evokes. The best of handmade pots are kinetic, they move as the eye explores line and silhouette and Flynn’s are no exception, indeed they are great exemplars.
Her line is languorous and moves slowly and sensually. The first time I spent serious time looking at them I could not help but think of the Black Swan. During my student years at the Royal College of Art, I could often be found outside the Royal Opera House, a pound note in hand to buy a 90p ticket in the gods, the highest balcony. I saw many of the Ballet’s stars, including Nureyev and Fonteyn, dance Swan Lake.
From the outset the most riveting part of the ballet was the black swan. I always felt that she was not causing the tragedy but warning of its inevitability. Her command of space, her fierceness and sharply etched movement was mesmerizing. There is something of the power and precision of that choreography in Flynn’s black pots.
At the same time, when I recently revisited this dance comparison it did not hold as true as it once did. Flynn is not a classicist. She is a modernist and her gestures in form are more organic and liberated. Ballet, so frontal and outward, did not explain what her pots did. It did not offer the same conflict between interior and exterior that is at the core of her art.
Yet dance would not leave my mind. I remembered a 1930 photograph by Herta Moselsio of Martha Graham in Lamentation No. 15, performing within a volume of dark stretch fabric that encapsulated her entire body, moving this membrane with her body, sexually intense, making shape after shape coming from what seems to be a woman in a pot.
Thus, if you think of Martha Graham as the black swan and blend the two, the metaphors ring true. There is a foundation of classicism that underpins the compositional strengths in Flynn’s pots together with the expressionistic ardor of modern dance.
This is not a fanciful comparison. Peter Voulkos once said that when you touch clay it moves and you have to learn to dance with it. His student Michael Frimkess said it differently: to make a vessel shape you first have to discover its choreography. The link is there.
On the surface Erskine, Hall and Coe believe they are hosting an exhibition of mainly black pots but it is really a dance performance expressed through the potter’s hands. No music is needed. The rhythmic sway and lilt of Flynn’s vessels provide the syncopation.
The black pots do not share the light the way the white ones do. They are greedy performers and hungrily absorb most of the lumens from the spotlights and give back their gestural energy in return. The little reflection that does occur is from the glaze texture. It modulates the density of the black allowing a silvery highlight to appear here and there. The weighty black glaze roots them to the earth, owning the space they occupy, projecting gravitas and mystery as they stretch, extend, bow and preen.
And what do the white pots do? That is another essay for another time.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile
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