Artist Gustavo Pérez was recently showcased at an exhibtion at the Silbereis Gallery in Paris (Nov. 6 – 29, 2014). The show covered works Pérez made between 2001 and 2013. What follows is a critical essay by Garth Clark following one of Pérez’s earlier shows in 2004.
Above image: Stoneware vase Gustavo Pérez, courtesy of Galerie Silbereis, Paris.
Gustavo Pérez’s exhibition at Galeri Silberies (Paris) continues a long journey of wounding and healing pots. His cuts most closely resemble the clean slice of a scalpel, a surgeon’s skill in the precise and measured way in which he cuts into the skin of the pot. The clay then divides and exposes its interior much as our flesh reveals itself when we suffer a deep laceration, breaking the perfect seal of the body’s epidermis. One cannot look at these incisions without the vessel exerting its spell of anthropomorphic transference, making one’s own skin itch with sensations of vulnerability and risk.
This means that his pots invade, symbolically, the human body. This has been a stated in most cultures through time and universally employed to describe the various segments of a pot according to their resemblance to our bodies; foot, belly, shoulder, neck, mouth, lips. Some potters use this deliberately and literally like Rudy Autio and, in his vessel-making days, Akio Takamori. Others use it abstractly, like Hans Coper, to introduce a subtle dialogue about sexuality and eroticism.
Some do their best to rid their work of man’s insistent presence. Fred Marer once told me that he visited Peter Voulkos in his studio in Los Angeles in 1957 and found the master of Abstract Expressionist ceramics sitting in front of his wheel, angry and frustrated. Voulkos explained to him that he had spent the entire day trying to throw vessels that were non-objective and yet with each new form the presence of the figure grew stronger, mocking his attempt to neutralize the pots anthropomorphic inclinations.
My guess is that of the three approaches, Pérez’s is that of Coper. Pérez is far too serious a scholar of ceramic art to think that the figure can be exorcized from the vessel but he is also far too nuanced an artist to play that card literally. His forms are not unusually figurative in form but it is the cuts that evoke this context even more powerfully than if he directly mimicked the human torso.
What do these incisions bring to the viewer’s eye and mind? Incising skin has many contexts in society and depending on one’s experience, it will engage different responses. In many tribal societies in the past and even today in remote corners of the world, attaching permanent signs to a body has importance in determining tribe, status and values. It can be found as well in our cities amongst hard-core of piercing and tattoo aficionados who are creating relief textures on their skin.
The purpose in the past, like most things that became purely decorative, was functional or practical. It was used establish tribal identity so that one did not accidentally kill one’s own in the heat of battle (and to identify the bodies in the aftermath.) It can also be used negatively as a sign of warning, rejection or punishment, marking an individual as immoral, a criminal or for other reasons designating them persona non grata. In some tribal cultures it is used like insignia to indicate achievement such as the arrival of adulthood or to establish rank. At other times it is done out of a spirit of Darwinism to show that the bearer of these cuts is a fearless warrior, the livid scars where the cuts have healed, tell us that this man is courageous, unafraid of pain, all signals to frighten and weaken adversaries even before the first blow is struck. Then after all these uses had been replaced by less intrusive signage, it has been retained as beautification, applied like permanent jewelry merely to add ornament to the body.
Is this what Pérez is talking about? Is this what his knife is exposing? One senses that to some extent it must be part of the emotional language of his vessels, if not by intent, then by default. Either way, the viewer is left with this information and has to process and mix it with the other messages and moods that his pure stoneware pots project. What is clear though is that this is not about violence. The gestural energy on his surfaces is cool, not hot. The surfaces are smooth and soothing to the touch. The material has a comforting surface, sensual and rich, old and wise like rock. The cuts do not penetrate the body of the pot. They are careful, measured, orderly and have a beauty. They are not jagged, raw or angry which would indicate a more pathological intent.
But as rich as the tribal metaphor may be, this content seems to me to be subtext. It may have been a starting point or like Voulkos’s figural pots, something Pérez never sought out but arrived at unbidden. But if one stays with this idea alone then one is missing the sharpest cut of all. Pérez is clearly a formalist. His work shows a reductive and analytical nature, a counterpoint to the primitive and the sensual that we have just explored.
Pérez’s pots have an intellectual element—these are to use Peter Schgeldahl’s term, “smart pots”—that instructs us that he does not want us to remain mired in sentimental ethnocentricity. The surface activity may grow busier or calmer, but the shape of the pots, the foundation of his art, exhibit a continuous quest for economy, of how to make more from less. And Pérez is remarkably consistent in following this path.
To better understand his work I would suggest that, if one is not already familiar with the latter paintings of Lucio Fontana, that one pick up a book or go to a museum and spend a few hours with the cut canvasses by this Italian modernist who was not just a great sculptor but also one of Europe’s finest and most original ceramists. Fontana like Pérez is a three dimensional man. His paintings are remarkable in that he treats canvas as sculpture. By slicing through monochrome fields of red, blue, pink, green and white he is activating space in a way that painters cannot, not through illusion but by physical acts that rend the planes of the canvas.
Pérez does something similar but instead of fully penetrating the pots surface, a common act through the history of pots (functionally to make colanders and aesthetically to connect the inner space and the outer) he stops just short of piercing the membrane of clay that encloses the interior volume. Fontana made no bones about the fact that puncturing the surface was a kind of sexual act. If one accepts that sexuality is also part of the emotional content of Pérez’s pots, then compared to Fontana’s thrusting, orgasmic release, Pérez’s work is almost an act of coitus interruptus, carefully pulling back before the wall of the pot has been fully transgressed. It is the colder passion of restraint that Hans Coper also practiced so well.
I can imagine that some will read this essay, scratch their heads and wonder if I have been sitting in the dark staring at Pérez’s pots for too long. Can these friendly containers embody tribalism, body decoration, modernist formalism, sex, transgression and beauty all at the same time? If this was written about a painting, no one would dare question that it could be that complex. We are schooled to expect the most of painters and the least of potters when it comes to content. But an artist’s depth of expression is neither determined nor restricted by any medium. It is the artist who decides how eloquently a material will speak through his or her hands, heart and mind. So my suggestion is that when you stroll through this exhibition, do not do so with the overly simplistic notion that a pot is merely a pot. Pots have always been containers but not just of food and liquid. They have been revered for eons for being receptacles for our worship, dreams, hopes, fantasies and history. They have even been entrusted bones of the deceased and the spirits of the dead. It is only in our own time that we have sought to limit their metaphoric range.
So my parting advice is don’t just see Pérez’s pots, feel them sensually. Experience the sliced clay through one’s own skin but by touching, delicately for the serrated edges are sharp and could draw blood. Trust your body to respond at first perhaps even more than your mind. Then return to a more conscious contemplation, enjoy the way in which Pérez uses line to animate the surface, his careful placement to create pattern, the subtle shifts in negative and positive space, the rolling wavelike rhythms. If you give it the same time and respect you would give any other art object you will find that Pérez’s knife does not just cut into the clay but into the human soul. In so doing he ventilates our spirit and allows it to breathe.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile
New York, August 2004.
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